A new study will evaluate connecting the Jones Falls Trail in Baltimore City with the Northern Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County, creating a protected route for hikers and bikers from the Inner Harbor about 50 miles up into Pennsylvania.
At a meeting Monday, the Baltimore County Council voted unanimously to help fund the study, which represents a meaningful step forward for the idea. The connection has long been discussed by cycling advocates, but still has a long way to go. After the study, a final design would need to be completed and funding obtained for its construction.
The study will assess possible routes to bridge the gap between the start of the NCR, also known as the Torrey C. Brown Rail Trail, off Ashland Road in Hunt Valley, to the northern end of the Jones Falls Trail, in Mount Washington Village. By car, the two trails are separated by about 12 miles.
And while the NCR Trail ends at the Mason-Dixon Line, the Heritage Rail Trail picks up from there, allowing travelers to go up to York, Pennsylvania.
The study will be conducted by engineering contractor Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson Inc., and there will be opportunities for public input, according to a County Council agenda. It will cost $150,000, with 80% covered by state funding, and the remaining 20% from the county. The contract will last through the end of 2023.
The state’s portion of the money comes from the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Kim Lamphier Bikeways Network Program, named after a late bicycling advocate from Catonsville, said Jim Joyner, an agency spokesman. The transportation department also applied for a grant to fund design costs for the project, according to a County Council agenda.
During a Sept. 27 meeting of the County Council, several council members expressed support for the study.
“I think it’s a great idea connecting those trails,” said Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat. “Clearly, it would be a benefit to our citizens as well as the citizens of Baltimore City who use those trails.”
Councilman Wade Kach, a Republican whose district includes the NCR Trail, said he’s excited about the project, and asked that he and his constituents be informed about any public hearings on the study.
“I know that they’ll want to participate,” he said.
Sachin Hebbar, a bicycling advocate living in Lutherville who serves on the county’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, said the announcement of a study was thrilling.
He often thinks about the towpath along the C&O Canal, which runs 184.5 miles along to Potomac River from Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to Cumberland, he said. The C&O towpath connects there to the Great Allegheny Passage, which continues 150 miles to Pittsburgh.
“Why can’t we have that for Baltimore City and Baltimore County?” Hebbar asked. “I would love to ride all the way to the Inner Harbor, have a nice lunch or dinner, enjoy the scenery — and then bike back.”
Voicing one possibility, Hebbar said connecting the NCR Trail to the Warren Road Light Rail Station would allow rail commuters to easily access the biking and walking trail as well as relieve some congestion at the NCR Trail parking lots, which are often bustling with cars.
Crossing York Road presents a challenge, but could be addressed with a traffic signal or other means, said Jed Weeks, interim executive director of Bikemore, a bicycling advocacy group in the city.
From the Warren Road stop, the route could run along the light rail down to Lake Roland, Weeks suggested. Connecting the lake and the Mount Washington portion of the trail would complete the job.
“This is one of those ‘low hanging fruit’ trails,” Weeks said.
Weeks’ group is also talking with other agencies in hopes of improving the section of the Jones Falls Trail near Penn Station, which is currently being renovated anyway, and to widen the section along the Fallsway, he said.
“The Fallsway is like four lanes and parking right now,” Weeks said. “All that space is underutilized.”
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The group also is advocating to create a bikeable connection between the Middle Branch Trail and the BWI Loop Trail, which connects to the Baltimore & Annapolis Trail down to the state capital. Taken together, each linkage could help grow the biking trail network from the state capital to the state line, he said.
There’s also a movement to connect Baltimore’s existing trails, including the Jones Falls Trail, the Gwynns Falls Trail and the Herring Run Trail. A 2020 report commissioned by the Greater Washington Partnership found that making about 10 miles worth of connections to build the Greenway could cost about $28 million, but generate $48 million in gross economic output.
The NCR-to-Jones Falls connection also could bolster aspirational national trail networks that could run through Baltimore, such as the September 11th National Memorial Trail, which aims to connect the three sites impacted on 9/11, and the East Coast Greenway Trail, which organizers want to run from Maine to Florida, said Daniel Paschall, Mid-Atlantic manager for the East Coast Greenway Alliance.
“We want to connect as much as possible to then increase the momentum,” Paschall said.