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Plan would add 51 miles of pathways in Columbia

Budgets and BudgetingHoward County General Hospital

The Columbia Association board is reviewing a plan that would add more than 50 miles of hiking and walking pathways to the current 93 in Columbia's system.

The proposal, made by a task force, also would widen pathways, add signs and mile markers, and even name the pathways.

Jane Dembner, CA Director of Community Building and Sustainability, said the 58-page plan aims to create a more active, healthier Columbia.

"The pathway system is such a distinguishing feature in our community," said Dembner, who worked with a 16-member community task force to put the report together. "From the beginning, Jim Rouse imagined Columbia as a system that allows people to walk and cycle throughout the community. We're taking that and expanding it for the 21st century."

Dembner said the process that resulted in the project, known as Connecting Columbia, began last October with the selection of the task force.

Now, one year and eight meetings later, the task force has presented a list of recommendations and prioritized projects that members believe will address the major issues currently facing Columbia's pathway system.

"We have in opportunity in downtown Columbia to build active transportation, to take it and to make it part of the culture," task force Chairman Christopher Tsien said to members of the Columbia Association board at a meeting last month. "Build into the capital budget the necessary funding to maintain and to upgrade the pathway system so it becomes an active transportation piece."

Members of the task force implored board members to accept the report's 17 recommendations, saying they will increase activity throughout Columbia.

"It lays out things that can be done tomorrow, a few years from now, and a decade from now. It's very comprehensive," said Dave Forester, a task force member and 35-year resident of Columbia. "There are things you can do in the next budget cycle, and I encourage you to take the next steps and keep this going."

For task force member Russ Swatek, the purpose of the Active Transportation Agenda is to encourage spontaneous activity among Columbia residents, especially children.

"You need things that are spur of the moment. " Swatek said. "Think about how you can make activity part of everybody's day."

Town Center representative and CA board member Suzanne Waller said she occasionally drives around Columbia to gauge what residents are up to, and that recently the results of those trips have frustrated her.

"Where are the people? Why are they not outside?" Waller said. "Has the way we've structured ourselves made us a car city, and are there other ways to do it?"

The board is scheduled to consider the report at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 11.

County involved

Although the agenda is a CA-sponsored proposal, only 11.7 of the proposed 51 additional miles would be built by CA.

About 38 of the remaining miles in additions would be handled by Howard County, 34 of those miles alongside roadways.

Dembner said CA has had discussions with the county regarding the plan and is working with county officials to ensure there are no overlaps between CA's active transportation agenda and the county's bicycle master plan, which began in June of 2012.

Dembner, who is CA's representative on the bicycle master plan's technical advisory committee, said the two plans compliment each other by addressing different areas and types of Columbia pathways.

"Most of their study is focused on the roadways and the pathways beside them," Dembner said. "CA is focused more on the pathways."

Of the 11.7 miles of CA paths, 2.7 miles are dedicated to a single project, the Downtown Columbia-Patuxent Branch Trail Extension.

According to the agenda, the extension will connect downtown lakefront to the Patuxent Branch Trial, resulting in an uninterrupted seven-mile trail from the lakefront to Savage.

The pathway also will link up with the recently approved multi-use pathway that connects Howard County General Hospital to Blandair Park and will provide residents an alternative to crossing the Route 29 and Broken Land Parkway interchange ramps.

Dembner estimates the project will cost approximately $1.4 million.

"The reason for that is its length, and the number of rivers and stream crossings that need to be done," Dembner said. "It's a fantastic opportunity to connect people to Town Center."

Increasing signage

While the goal to decrease gaps and increase connectivity remains paramount, survey results from the task force indicated that a lack of directional signage was the chief concern of residents.

Of the 300 people surveyed, Dembner said, 87 percent indicated a desire for more directional signage on Columbia's trails.

In order to address this concern, the report proposes implementing a unified system of signs and mile markers to prevent residents from getting lost.

In addition to the mile markers, the report also proposes naming the pathways to establish identities, and placing signs or "connection posts" at intersections to keep travelers aware of what path they are on.

The plan will also significantly widen the pathways, where space allows.

Currently, paths along primary and secondary routes range from four to 10 feet. Under the new plan, both primary and secondary routes would be widened to at least 10 feet.

"Our consultants advised us that the pathways don't meet the standards being used now for multi-use pathways," Dembner said. "You have bicyclists, strollers, walkers, and runners, increasing the size of the pathways will allow for more comfortable travel for all."

At the informational reading of the plan at the board's Sept. 27 meeting, Dembner urged members of the board to accept the agenda and consider its projects during the construction of future capital budgets.

"The time is really right to enhance the system," Dembner said. "There is no change in Jim Rouse's vision. In a sense, this is the same idea, we're just completing the system."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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