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Blazing A Bike Trail Through Hartford

December 17, 2006
Commentary By TOM CONDON

As a bicyclist who has lived west of downtown Hartford - in the city and in West Hartford - for nearly three decades, I've always wanted a bike trail into downtown. The streets are too crowded and dangerous to encourage large-scale bike commuting, though some intrepid souls do it.

There was no audience for this idea way back when, but times have changed. Bike paths and multi-use trails are now seen as great recreational amenities and potential commuting alternatives. If I had any question about this, the response to a column about trails a few weeks ago sealed it. Dozens of you from all over the state contacted me to say you were building trails, moved near a trail or wanted trails to connect to shopping or workplaces.

The East Coast Greenway, an off-road trail that is under construction from Maine to Florida, is marching through Connecticut, a segment at a time. So much of it is complete or in the works that there are only two major challenges left: a New Haven to New York link, which could be achieved with a trail along the Merritt Parkway, and a connection from Hartford to the Farmington Canal trail west of the city.

The latter would require a pathway through the city. Over the past couple of years a few people, Jack Hale of the Knox Parks Foundation, Place contributor Nick Caruso and others, have talked about possible routes. The formation of the Central Connecticut Bicycle Alliance last year gave more impetus to the idea.

Ten days ago, the estimable Sandy Fry, transportation planner for the Capital Region Council of Governments, gathered a group together to walk/bike a possible route from the Founders Bridge, where it would meet the trail from East Hartford, to the western boundary of the city.

The general idea was to use Bushnell Park, the long flow of parking lots under I-84 and the Park River's North Branch corridor north of Farmington Avenue to head out past the University of Hartford to Bloomfield or West Hartford.

It will take money and engineering skill, the cooperation of property owners and a few tricky transitions, but it can be done. We did it.

Our entourage included Fry and Rebecca Augur from the Capitol Region Council Of Governments, Dr. Bob Painter, Gerry Maine and Kevin Burnham from the city, Rob Dexter and Charles Beristain (on a bike) from the bicycle alliance and Eric Weiss of the East Coast Greenway Alliance.

We ran into a bit of a problem right off the bat; how to get off Constitution Plaza. Bikes are actually prohibited on the plaza, but a marked bikeway would be a good thing, because it would bring more people there. But there will either have to be a ramp on the north side of the Hartford Club or near the stairs heading for Front Street to get riders down to the road. It shouldn't be a big deal.

It's easy enough to take Atheneum Place down to Main Street, and to cross at the light. A path on the south side of Gold Street, if such were possible, would get a rider to Bushnell Park. From there it is an easy and pleasant ride through the park to, and around, the State Armory to Broad Street.

Across Broad Street, we encounter the first part of what might be three-quarters of a mile of surface parking lots. These cover a buried portion of the Park River, which partly explains their connectivity. If a trail could be fashioned more or less over the river conduit, it would be possible, with a street crossing or two, to get all the way to Forest Street near Hartford Public High School.

Fry wondered whether riders would feel safe riding behind the buildings along Capitol Avenue. Painter, the city councilman who initiated the bike lanes on the avenue, said perhaps on weekends the riders could use the street. This is still in its early stage.

At Hartford Public, it would be necessary to hook around the property to get to Farmington Avenue. This can be done, and would be a boon both for the school and the people who live in the adjacent Clemens Place apartments.

North of Farmington Avenue, behind the buildings on Woodland Street, the North Branch of the Park River is above ground. It is a remarkable little river system, with small ridges, valleys, bluffs and even a tiny island. It's hard to get to the river from Farmington Avenue; a bike path would have to jog up to Woodland Street and then down behind one of the buildings. But once there, it would be possible to build a trail along the east side of the river.

It turns out that the city would like to have an access road along the river, so it might be possible to have both. As the river moves north, the woodland is surprisingly rustic. You wouldn't know you were a hundred yards from streets, factories and a hospital. We (OK, I) almost got lost at one point, but Fry had thoughtfully brought maps and Burnham, as befitting a transportation official, always seemed to know where we were going.

From Albany Avenue, where we ended this nearly three-hour exploration, officials are looking at following the Griffin rail line through Bloomfield to its terminus, picking up a CL&P right-of-way through Tarrifville and linking to the Farmington Canal trail in Simsbury.

There may be another way to create a trail through the city, perhaps by shoehorning a trail along the Amtrak right-of-way, though that will be tight with the busway going there. So this might be the best option.

And though there are difficult issues, it's certainly worth considering. Fry plans to form a committee to study it. The governor and state transportation officials should bless the effort. Bike trails into Hartford from all directions would be a very good thing.

Tom Condon is the editor of Place. He can be reached at tcondon@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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