BREC ‘chipping away’ at pathways, trails

BREC’s Capital Area Pathways Project has been in the works for more than six years, but after several unexpected setbacks, officials say they are placing a higher priority on connecting the parish’s parks through a system of trails and greenways.

“We keep chipping away at it and we’ll keep pushing,” BREC Assistant Superintendent Ted Jack said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission recently agreed to put $5.3 million toward the creation of off-street, multi-use paths — nearly double the funding previously dedicated to the effort. Jack and other leaders say they also have been working to secure outside funding, including grants from community partners.

During several recent public input sessions, East Baton Rouge Parish residents repeatedly identified the development of pathways outside of traditional parks among their top priorities, Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said.

Just looking at the online feedback received, it’s clear a vocal segment of residents supports the effort.

“You should not be required to get in a car to enjoy the best parks BR has to offer,” user Mike L. wrote to BREC recently.

While Robin D. wrote: “With Baton Rouge supporting 7 independent bicycle shops in addition to the big box stores selling bikes — clearly people LOVE TO RIDE!...and many of us LIVE TO RIDE! Being a low-impact exercise that people of all ages can do — Help Baton Rouge stay healthy by connecting parks with bike paths and adding more natural trails.”

BREC will hold a meeting May 1 to release the findings of its 34 public meetings, scientific surveys and online input gleaned through a site called MindMixer.

Noting the interest in trails, commissioners already decided to put the $5.3 million — a significant chunk of its dedicated property tax that voters overwhelmingly renewed earlier this month — toward connectivity projects.

“The $5 million, I think, will help us a lot,” Jack said. “It will be a push.”

Jack said the trails have taken longer than expected because of all of the steps needed to build on land that BREC doesn’t own.

In addition to dealing with individual property owners, various agencies also can require approval, from the state Department of Transportation and Development to federal agencies, when building close to Baton Rouge’s interstates.

“You go through a lot of hoops. One piece has to happen before the next piece,” Jack said.

The first segment — about 2.2 miles — stretches along Wards Creek from the Mall of Louisiana at Bluebonnet Boulevard to Siegen Lane. BREC is in the planning stages on two other trail projects, which Jack expects to be bid out later this year.

The $2 million Wards Creek trail is expected to eventually extend to connect St. George Catholic School, as well as tie in the medical facilities around Essen Lane, Perkins Rowe and other attractions.

A Downtown Greenway, backed by the Downtown Development District, also would loop into the trail system with a 2.7-mile off-street pedestrian and bike trail between City Park and Memorial Park.

Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District and a BREC commissioner, also urged BREC leaders to consider the city’s recently announced plans for Government Street, which include limiting the car lanes to two, plus a turning lane, and to provide more room for sidewalks and bike lanes. The improvements will run from Interstate 110 nearly to Independence Park.

“I’m hoping that BREC can do something to integrate it,” Rhorer said.