Construction on the final phases of a $5 million multi-use bike and pedestrian pathway connecting east and west Columbia could begin as early as this summer and be completed by spring 2015.
The timeline for the pathway project, which will connect Blandair Park and Howard County General Hospital, was revealed at a Thursday pre-submission community meeting held by principal downtown Columbia land owner Howard Hughes Corp., which is required by the county to build the pathway as part of the Downtown Columbia Plan.
Construction on the first phase of the pathway, which begins at Broken Land Parkway and continues across Little Patuxent Parkway to South Entrance Road, is under way and could be completed as early as this May, according to Bob Jenkins, a vice president with Howard Hughes.
Jenkins said phase two, which connects Broken Land Parkway to the hospital, is in the county's approval process, and that the site development plans for the final two phases could be submitted to the county's Department of Planning and Zoning in April.
Phase three picks up the pathway where phase one leaves off, at South Entrance Road, and connects it to the pathways around Lake Kittamaqundi before hooking up with the entrance to the pedestrian bridge over Route 29. Phase four continues the pathway on the other side of the bridge until it links up with Blandair Park, a developing county-owned public recreational compound located in Oakland Mills.
The intent of the pathway is to create "stress-free" alternative ways of transportation in Columbia, according to Melany Alliston-Brick, a civil engineer with Toole Design Group, the project engineer.
"Bike transportation in the U.S. right now is about one percent of total trips," she said. "We lag significantly behind other countries. So we are trying to encourage other modes of transportation in general."
The paths for phase three and four will be 10 feet wide, with a 3-to 5 foot buffer on either side, Alliston-Brick said. The surface will be a mixture of pervious and impervious pavement, some of which will have unique design qualities to demarcate "waysides," which are small plazas meant for gathering.
The pathway also will have directional signage detailing landmarks, benches and lighting fixtures. There will be one 12-foot high lamp post per 75 feet of pathway, Alliston-Brick said.
Jenkins said the pathway will be maintained by the Downtown Columbia Partnership, a nonprofit set up by the downtown plan.
The pathway plan was generally well received by the approximately 50 people in attendance on Thursday. Some residents asked how Howard Hughes' plans factored in possible upgrades or changes to the pedestrian bridge over Route 29, which some say is unsafe and in need of upgrades
"I've always found that the bridge is kind of a dodgy spot," said Sally Ryder, a Columbia resident and cyclist. "I think, if you have a lot of people using this pathway, and I expect you will, I think the bridge is going to become a bottleneck. I also think its kind of an eye-sore."
A local group called Bridge Columbia has been advocating for improvements to the bridge for years, and recently implored the county to study possible upgrades and future uses.
Jenkins said the Howard Hughes plan was not formulated with information from that study, and that the pathways near the bridge are planned around the existing structure.
"I know the county is doing a new study for the bridge, but they have not contacted us," he said.
He said Howard Hughes is prepared to finance $500,000 in improvements to the bridge, another requirement of the downtown plan, but that no definitive plan can be made until the study is complete.
"I don't think anybody would disagree with you that it's an eye-sore today," Jenkins said in response to Ryder. "That's the reason we've set aside $500,000 to work on refurbishing the bridge. We are just waiting on the county to make up their minds."
The pathway has been part of a subject of contention recently between Howard County government and Howard Hughes. Earlier this month, County Executive Ken Ulman applied pressure on Howard Hughes by introducing an amendment to the mutually agreed upon downtown plan, approved in 2010, which would expedite the developer's delivery on promised public improvements including the pathway and, most notably, an estimated $24.6 million in renovations to Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Ulman said he was "frustrated" with Howard Hughes' perceived lack of progress on the pathway project, which began with a public meeting on the first two phases in fall 2012.
Jenkins addressed the concerns about the project's progress on Thursday.
"We understand there may be some impatience with the pace of creating this resource for pedestrians and cyclists," Jenkins said. "I assure you, were are working hard with the county, and others, to make this happen."
Jenkins acknowledged that the project might be taking longer than expected because of the process of obtaining easements from property owners who will abut the amenity. The easements are required in order for the developer to begin construction.
"It is something that takes quite a while to get done," Jenkins said.
Jenkins added that, in some ways, the pathway project is more intensive than a traditional building project, and used the recent renovation of the former Rouse Co. building on the lakefront, also owned by the developer, as an example.
"The plans for the pathway, just [phase three and four], are 75 sheets. That's more sheets of plans necessary to [renovate] the Rouse building," he said. "So when you start reviewing plans, this is no easier."