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Cyclists, joggers, dog walkers can’t wait for finished Tonawanda Rails-to-Trails project

The Tonawanda Rails-to-Trails project isn’t complete or officially open yet, but that hasn’t stopped bicyclists, joggers and dog walkers from flocking to the new path during recent unseasonably warm weather.

“To see this come to life is a vision realized for not just myself but for a whole lot of other people in our community,” said Philip L. Haberstro, a Kenmore resident and executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo. “It’s something for all of us to be excited about and proud of.”

Managers of the $2.5 million project also said they’re hearing good things.

“According to our field staff, they’ve gotten a lot of positive comments from people adjacent to the path and people from wherever who are out using it,” said Brian Rose, senior project manager for Erie County. “I think it’s going to be very well received, just by the number of people who are using it while it’s being built.”

The first layer of asphalt for the 4-mile trail, which cuts a diagonal line across the heart of the town’s residential core and runs along an old railroad bed, has been paved. Much of the concrete work is done and trees and landscaping are in the ground.

Work by Northeast Diversification wrapped up for the year on Friday and will resume in the spring when the top layer of asphalt is paved and HAWK signals, or high-intensity activated crosswalk beacons, are installed where the trail crosses busy Sheridan Drive and Kenmore Avenue.

The site until Friday was still very much a muddy construction zone, active with bulldozers and dump trucks. There are “Trail Closed” signs posted at entrances.

“We don’t shoo people off, we just want people to be aware it is closed,” Rose said. “It’s still a construction site.”

Still, the progress has not gone unnoticed by residents eager to make use of what will be the town’s newest recreation spot.

The concept for the trail languished for decades. Haberstro even included the trail on his platform when he ran for Town Board – in 1991. Only now, it’s nearly done, but not quite yet.

“Folks need to respect the safety issues there,” said Haberstro, who “scouted” the trail last month on his bike, from Center Avenue up to his alma mater, Cardinal O’Hara High School. “It’s not quite ready, but hang in there.”

Other residents are coming forward with ideas to enhance the trail.

“Congratulations to the Town of Tonawanda for making the new rails-to-trails bike path a reality,” Fayette Avenue resident Lorraine Tesmer wrote in a letter to Town Engineer Jim Jones. “Bikers are using it already!”

Tesmer suggested seeding wildflowers and other native plants along the path to “restore a healthy ecosystem.”

“I thought that was a great idea,” Jones said. “We have a little wetland area between Kenmore and Englewood that we may look for some grants to do wetland enhancements.”

Jones also exudes ideas for further enhancing the trail once it opens, including an “Adopt-a-trail” program in which groups would agree to maintain portions and a program for planting flowers or trees in memory of the deceased.

“It’s a good foundation, it’s a good backbone,” he said. “It will evolve into something larger – more connectivity, more enhancements as time goes on.”

Already, the trail connects to the separate North Buffalo Rails-to-Trails project, which is also nearing completion. Crews are putting the finishing touches on that trail, which runs from the LaSalle station Metro Rail stop on Main Street to Kenmore Avenue.

“Having that carry through to Tonawanda, that’s a great thing,” Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Steven J. Stepniak said. “It’s something I know people are definitely going to be interested in as we develop these walkable communities. We want to make sure that we’re bike-friendly out there. We’re excited about it.”

Also, a loop trail that will link the town’s path to Lincoln Park is in the design stages now and scheduled for construction next year, Jones said.

Finally, another project will take the rail-trail from its northern terminus at State Street in the City of Tonawanda north to the Canalway Trail. Construction on that portion could begin as early as 2017, Rose said.

When all is said and done, bicyclists will be able to ride mostly off-road from the Erie Canal south to the Metro Rail station and take the subway downtown with their bikes to Canalside.

The frenzy of activity building multimodal transportation in the Northtowns comes as the Town of Tonawanda embarks on a complete streets initiative, which includes a bicycle master plan.

A graduate class in urban planning in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University at Buffalo reviewed the town’s road network and identified several priorities where bicycle facilities could be improved.

The class presented its findings to the town Planning Board on Dec. 2.

Students under Professor Bumjoon Kang proposed 7-foot designated bike lanes along Sheridan Drive from East Park Drive to Belmont Avenue. From Belmont to Niagara Falls Boulevard, a 5-foot protected bike path would go off-road and run parallel to the sidewalk. Their plan would also enhance safety for bicyclists on Sheridan at key intersections with East Park, Belmont and Niagara Falls Boulevard.

“I think it’s very cool,” Jones said. “I like the way they interfaced the Sheridan Drive protected bike lanes into the side path. I thought that was a good treatment.”

The class also proposed 5-foot bike lanes on Delaware Avenue, designated by green-colored pavement, and 4-foot paths on Kenmore Avenue from Military Road to the rail-trail, which crosses Kenmore Avenue behind the former Budwey’s supermarket.

Parker Boulevard, Brighton Road and Sawyer Avenue were also identified as priority candidates for dedicated bike lanes.

In a survey of 113 residents, the class found that 80 percent of respondents would not bike on Sheridan currently, but 90 percent said they would if protected bike lanes were added.

Also, nearly three-quarters of respondents identified a lack of designated bike lanes as the biggest obstacle to bicycling in the town.

Jones said the study will help inform future decisions about changes to the major roadways.

“We’ll take it and roll it into our complete streets initiative,” Jones said. “We’re meeting regularly now with our complete streets committee. We’re hoping to adopt a policy.”

Meanwhile, warm weather has allowed rail-trail construction to stay on schedule. “It has helped,” Rose said. “It’s allowed them to work this late.”

While the trail is closed this winter, town officials are looking at the possibility of keeping it open during future winters for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. They may also add lighting for nighttime use, like on the North Buffalo side, which features decorative light standards.

“We’ve always taken the stance that it’s going to be a dawn-to-dusk facility just like the rest of our parks,” Jones said. “That’s something we can work on in the future. We don’t have to have firm rules right now.”

For now, the bicyclists, joggers and dog walkers itching to use the completed trail will have to remain patient just a little while longer.

“I’m happy with the work that’s been done so far,” said Rose. “I’m looking forward to a successful completion next year and being able to open it to the public, officially.”

When that day comes, Haberstro has one piece of advice:

“Get out and use it, because looking at it doesn’t help you,” he said. “It’s riding it, biking it, blading it – whatever your pleasure may be. Because of the high level of access and the high level of safety that it offers the community I think it’s going to be a very successful addition to our town.”