Friday, March 25, 2011

"That" hill on the Missouri River Trail

If you've ever ridden up Ponca Hill Road on the way to Ft. Calhoun, you know "that" hill. You know, the one that leaves you gasping for air, that makes your thighs burn--the one that makes you wonder, in short, why the @#%* NRD can't move the trail off the road to that nice, flat field that's highly visible off to your right.

If this desperate thought has ever gone through your oxygen-starved brain searching for distractions to keep you from thinking about how you're going to die climbing that hill, you're not the only one. NRD has received a number of concerns along these lines, and I thought it would be worthwhile posting NRD's response to one of them, as it lays out the issues quite thoroughly. NRD doesn't seem to make these decisions lightly or without considerable research into the situation and potential options. It may not make your uphill climb any easier, but at least now you can distract yourself with all the reasons why the trail goes this way. And just think about that downhill!

(Reprinted with permission from NRD)

First – I am the project manager for this trail project and also a biker. I’ve ridden this area a number of times over the years – from as far north as Tekamah, Nebraska (when I lived there over 10 years ago) south to the Old Market and I share your concerns regarding the grade – it IS steep. More about that later.

As you are no doubt aware – this trail segment – from Ponca Road north to the Washington county line – is the District’s final, 1.5 mile segment that will connect an approximately 17 mile hard surface trail from the Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County – south to the Omaha Riverfront, the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge and the Old Market. Once you are on the Riverfront – you can cross the pedestrian bridge and ride the Council Bluffs trail system south all the way to Missouri. Whew!

The decisions leading up to the current alignment location were many and varied encompassing nearly 6 years in planning, studies, reports, permits and funding delays. Yes, six years! The ultimate question was: Do we want to build the trail? Once our Board said “yes” (and the decision to build this trail segment was not an easy one) the routing was determined by many factors. First and foremost was the safety of the user whether they were a cyclist, runner, walker, roller-blader, etc. But, many, many other factors were also considered, studied and reviewed.

We did look extensively at other alternatives. We looked at going east to the river’s levy system and locating the trail on top of the levy and heading north on a very slight grade until we eventually curved back west - to the existing Washington County Trail; We studied the possibility of staying at the base of the hill on the east and then again cutting to the west – again intersecting the existing Washington County Trail; We reviewed several options to locate the trail west along Ponca Road for a bit and then cutting north along the valley area and then with a series of switchbacks - head back east, up the hill to the North River Road and then to the Washington County Trail; and finally, the only other reasonable option that would actually get the trail built, albeit steep and with its own issues, was to head up North River Road along the existing right-of way.

The discounted alignments were due to combinations of: existing wetlands, eagles, hunting, seclusion from populace with no clear line of sight (a usage/safety issue), nesting, inordinate amount of tree removal, private landowners concerns, erosion and stability of the rather fragile soils, extreme costs, and likely other issues that I’ve forgotten over the years.

We (the NRD) worked with a variety of other agencies over the past half-decade to obtain the necessary permits, authorization, clearances, etc. to include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding migratory and nesting birds and endangered species issues - potential for endangered species and clearances, and/or stipulations for their presence if found during construction, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers for questions dealing with jurisdictional wetlands and studies to determine their locations and permitting; the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for mitigating any disturbance of the documented Cabanne Trading post site; the Douglas County Department of Roads; the Nebraska Department of Roads and the Federal Highways Administration. We also have to deal with both OPPD and Qwest with the relocation of their lines.

I’ll admit that this “simple” trail project has had more reviews and agency oversight than any I have ever been involved with in my nearly 30 years at the District.

Following this intensive review/study process, our only real alignment option, if we were to build the trail at all, was to proceed up North River Road. This being said, we really had only two choices remaining…the east or west side of the road. Our Board, after considering these options determined that, even though the cost would be considerably higher for construction, the east side of the North River Road would be at least as safe and the least objectionable from the existing landowner’s perspective.

Yes, trees will have to be removed and there will be disturbance to the area during construction. Overhead clearances for bridge boring machines and sheet pile installation (erosion control, hill stabilization) as well as a needed three foot clearance from edge of trail necessitate the poles to be relocated – a safety issue both for the bridge contractor (six bridges will be needed) as well as the trail user when completed.

I am also a biologist – deeply concerned with encroachments to our native tree and prairie species populations. As somewhat of a concession – and part of the overall trail project, we will ameliorate some of the tree removal damage by planting dozens of replacement trees. There will also be a linear rain garden constructed on the downgrade side along the north half (close to White Deer Lane) with native prairie plants. And, to help with the steep grade – both with the safety concerns you discussed in your e-mail as well as “simple” access - certainly a concern with the ADA requirements - signage will be installed on both ends of the grade. Additionally and more importantly, three ‘turnouts’ will be the installed along the steep grade. These accommodations were designed into the trail project, were extensively reviewed and comply with all of the federal and state ADA requirements. (We are in fact receiving federal/state funding for a portion of the trail cost.)

As I’ve indicated earlier, this was and continues to be a difficult and challenging project. I will let it go at that. But, if you have specific or additional concerns regarding the design, background, construction schedule or other thoughts, please contact me at your convenience. If you’d like, I can also meet with you on-site or at a location of your choosing.

Jim Becic, Environmental Coordinator
Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District
8901 S. 154th Street
Omaha, NE 68138


mathguy said...

Jim's a friend, an extremely nice guy, and one of the most environmentally conscientious people I know. You can bet that they looked at every possible alternative for the project before deciding on the grade (unlike the Keystone pipeline). Besides, that which does not kill you....

dale said...

Thanks for getting Mr. Becic's side of the story, Matt. The decision is complicated.

From the description of what is being done, and having ridden that hill a couple times, I think this compromise route should not be done.

1. It won't be used. I think the trail is for causual riders who need a flatter route. Those who can ride this hill will continue to do so on the road, frustrating cars who think bikers must use the expensive trail put in for their convienence.

2. Too expensive. Because it was put where the least resistance to the trail was found and nothing else can be built there. This route selection has a car mentality to it where extra energy to climb a hill is easily applied by stepping on the gas.

All the different concerns were weighed but not all concerns carry the same weight. Who are the intended trail users? Recreational. Comfort, attractiveness, and safety are more important than directness to destination. What environoment creates a pleasant experience? Seeing wildlife would create a wonderful experience. Quiet recreation wants to be away from the engine and tire noise of automobiles. So does most wildlife. Only for commuting purposes do bikers prefer the direct routes along cars and access to popular destinations.

Sometimes its better to not compromise and get nothing. Maybe revisiting the issue in 10 years when more people involved are cyclists, runners, walkers, and understand the users and goals, a better route would be approved.

bshaw said...

Where did you get this? This is word-for-word the e-mail Jim sent me yesterday in response to my numerous questions.

As of this afternoon, OPPD has decided NOT to move the utility poles from the east side of the road to the west side, a plan that would have led them to clear cut dozens of heritage bur ok trees, including some on our neighbor's land that are over 200 years old. It seems that the reason for wanting to move the poles was to enable the use of bridge pile drivers that are so tall that they couldn't get them in place if the utility lines were on the east side. The new plan involves burying the lines on the west side temporarily, then rehanging them on the existing east-side poles once the construction is done. I don't know whom to credit for helping achieve this incredible turn around by OPPD, but it is a startlingly rationale decision for a change.

bshaw said...

Earlier this week, I posted comments on the BikeMasters Facebook page, in a letter to the OWH editor, on the Omaha Bikes Facebook page and in a message to the NRD. Mr. Becic's reply to me on behalf of the NRD, which I very much appreciated, was word-for word what Matt Martin posted here. Many of my concerns were echoed by dale's post here. I live at the top of that hill and I ride up and down it, and north and south on the N River Drive route many times per week. I know that the existing trail in Washington County is rarely used, it was underwater most of last spring and summer, it remains covered with mud and debris from that flooding, and the pavement has been broken up in several places for about 3 years. Riding on the road up there is reasonably safe owing to the sparsity of motor vehicle traffic (even on weekends), and because of the relatively wide open skies that make it easy to see cyclists on the road. Most of the drivers are courteous as well, except for a few of the locals who yell at us to get off the road and use the trail (one old guy in a pick-up crossed the centerline in hopes of forcing me onto the trail yelling "you belong on the trail, not the road").

The proposed turn outs on the hill that Jim Becic mentions may make it possible for the casual rider to get up the 12% grades on this hill, but I think the steepness is still going to keep many of those for whom the trail is intended away. In the event they do make it to the top, I worry about how well they'll descend it knowing that one can easily reach speeds over 30 mph going downhill there, without pedaling.

Jim Becic's note also mentions the completion of a continuous paved trail all the way from Boyer Chute to downtown Omaha. As far as I know from the riding I do in that direction, there is still a section of that route south of Carter Lake that requires the cyclist or walker to use the glass and litter-strewn and rumble-strip scarred shoulder of Abbott Drive for about a mile before even the shoulder peters out and you're forced to ride in heavy traffic. This is hardly a route for the faint of heart, let alone the causal cyclist, and it is of potential use to far more people than my favorite hill in Ponca Hills.

I applaud the work that Mr. Becic and his colleagues have put into this incredibly difficult project. I am particularly heartened by the decision today by OPPD to spare the dozens of wonderful trees that had been doomed to destruction (see my other post). I remain unconvinced, however, that even with all this good work and wonderful intentions, this trail will be worth the investment, even if it will give my significant other and me and our dog a safe route down to NP Dodge Park (provided we're not nailed by a 30-mph skateboarder coming down on us).