On weekday mornings, Christoph Lepper spends 40 minutes bicycling from his home in Mount Washington to his job on the Johns Hopkins University campus. His commute is one part peaceful experience, one part tense looking over his shoulder for speeding cars.
Lepper's been anxiously awaiting Baltimore's long-delayed plan to extend the Jones Falls Trail northward by another three miles to Mount Washington. Then he could spend more time commuting on the wooded pathway rather than the busy, potentially dangerous streets that lead to it.
"Get it done," says Lepper, a 36-year-old research scientist. "The delay is really hurting me."
Construction of the $7.5 million extension — once promised to have begun in September 2014 — won't start until sometime in 2016, city parks officials now say. They blame the holdup on obtaining easements and other necessary approvals for the complicated design and engineering plan. Complex negotiations with four major property owners must be completed.
"Often with these programs, you don't understand all of the idiosyncrasies until you get into it," said Paul Taylor, chief of capital projects for the Recreation and Parks Department. "You're talking about multiple potential variations, multiple landowners and a lot of design considerations. If you've done it right, it looks a lot easier than it is."
The trail — currently a seven-mile network of cleared and paved pathway, with some stretches along roads — begins at the Inner Harbor, runs north through Druid Hill Park to Clipper Mill in Woodberry and continues north along the Jones Falls stream valley. It ends at the Cylburn Arboretum, off Greenspring Avenue near Northern Parkway. Built over the past decade at a cost of at least $8.5 million so far, the trail is used for recreation and exercise by hikers and runners in addition to bicycling commuters like Lepper.
The next section will extend the trail from Cylburn to Kelly Avenue near the Mount Washington light rail stop. The project involves building a steel and cable-wire bike and pedestrian bridge over Northern Parkway just east of Greenspring Avenue. It also requires building two small wooden truss bridges over wetlands. It is the final extension currently planned, though some advocates hope the trail might someday extend farther.
City officials say work should be finished by the fall of 2017. When the extension is done, the trail will run 10 miles and connect 20 neighborhoods with the Inner Harbor, Druid Hill Park, and other attractions.
Amy Horst, the head cross country and track coach at Loyola University Maryland, said athletes on her team often train on the trail — and she's eager for it to be extended. The team prefers the trail to city streets, where a 60-minute run can easily turn into 75 minutes with stops and starts at busy intersections.
"It allows us to train uninterrupted from cars and other vehicles," Horst said. "It's a great safe place to run. We like that it has rolling hills. The athletes like that it's right next to the freeway, but it's so calm and peaceful."
Jeff La Noue, a trail supporter who built a website and Facebook page to promote it, is disappointed that the city has not done more to communicate the extension delay. He notes that the earlier plan to begin construction last September was widely publicized. He says officials should tell users, "We are going to bring you a great trail. It's delayed. Here's why."
La Noue uses the trail to commute to work by bike from Clipper Mill to the University of Baltimore, where he works as a sustainability planner to reduce the university's carbon footprint. He said the university publicizes the trail on campus and offers guided tours as part of its efforts to encourage more biking.
He's frustrated that, as it is now, the trail doesn't have a terminus, "just sort of disappears into nothing" at Cylburn Arboretum. The city should invest in more signs for the trail, including some to promote sites along the stretch, he said.
Standing near Cylburn on a recent day, La Noue pointed to an arrow directing travelers south along the path. "It doesn't tell you where it goes," La Noue said. "This ultimately goes to the zoo and the Inner Harbor."
Markings on the pavement — green oblong stamps with a "JF" logo — were made by a volunteer to guide users along the trail.
Taylor, the parks department official, said officials expect to review signage when the extension is done. That will allow the city to develop a consistent sign package with a uniform graphic design, he said. "That's something we will be looking to do after wrapping up the final phase," Taylor said.
The extension requires four significant easements and is subject to state review. Eighty percent of the funding for the extension comes from federal money. The state is contributing the remaining 20 percent, or about $1.5 million. The trail — along with portions of the Gwynns Falls Trail in Baltimore and the Northern Central Railroad Trail in Baltimore County — is considered part of the East Coast Greenway, a network of urban trails running from Maine to Florida.
The pedestrian bridge to be constructed over Northern Parkway will be 400 feet long, longer than a football field, said Jim Fendryk, the parks department's construction project supervisor. It will be built with steel arches, support beams and cable wires.
The truss bridges will each be about 45 feet long.
"These trails are quite involved," Taylor said.
The extension was originally budgeted at $6.6 million, but the cost of the easements, the complexity of the pedestrian bridge and other items added costs, Taylor said. The extension will continue along a portion of Rogers Avenue from Northern Parkway and north to Kelly Avenue.
Taylor said the city expects to advertise for a contractor later this fall. Construction could begin in the spring, although it could take longer to obtain all the necessary state approvals, he said.
Joe Halloran, a 66-year-old retiree, called the plans to extend the trail exciting, and he hopes for even more trail development in the future. He would like to a see continuous trail eventually link the city to the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
Halloran, who used to commute by bike to work, said he's using the Jones Falls Trail to get back in shape. He was out on a recent day for a 15-mile ride from his home in Charles Village, including the switchbacks that help cyclists climb the trail's steep hill north of Cold Spring Lane.
"It's a really nice winding, peaceful trail," Halloran said. "My sister comes from California, and she says, 'Oh my gosh, it's so green here.' This is a gorgeous stretch along the Jones Falls."