Cyclists and walkers keep Thurston County trail system busy —

Cyclists and walkers keep Thurston County trail system busy

By Andy Hobbs
The Olympian

 

Thurston County’s trail system has marked another milestone with a new visitor plaza at the first bicycle roundabout in the state.

The Hub Junction Project was celebrated Thursday at the intersection of the Olympia Woodland Trail and Chehalis-Western Trail.

The project caps the latest triumph in a multi-jurisdictional effort to connect the county’s trails for bicylists and pedestrians. Located near the Lacey-Olympia border, the roundabout contains wayfinding signage and trail history along with seating for visitors.

The Chehalis-Western and Woodland trails were finally linked at that site in December 2014 with a bridge over Pacific Avenue near the “Kite Girl” statue in Lacey. That completed the three-phase “Bridging the Gap” project, which began in 2001.

The ultimate vision is to link all existing trails with the future Deschutes Valley Trail in Tumwater and the future Gate to Belmore Trail along the Black River.

At Thursday’s celebration at the roundabout, local dignitaries praised the trail system’s growth and its impact on quality of life.

“We are so fortunate to live in a community that values the trail system so much,” Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero said.

Some out-of-towners have taken notice. Wenatchee resident Bob Bugert brings his bicycle on business trips, including while visiting Olympia last week. He logged a few miles Thursday on the Chehalis-Western Trail after a business meeting and happened to ride through the Woodland Trail junction during the brief celebration.

Bugert is a board member with the Washington Wildlife Coalition, which advocates statewide for projects like the trail system. Aside from providing recreational opportunities, the trails can boost Thurston County’s economy and make it more attractive to businesses, he said.

“This is economic development at its finest,” said Bugert, who also appreciated the wayfinding signage. “The trail is beautiful and very well maintained.”

Olympia resident Duncan Green, who runs the Bicycle Commuter Contest for Intercity Transit, agreed the junction at Chehalis-Western and Woodland trails is the busiest point in the trail system. He said the trail provides a safer route for bicyclists than riding along a busy thoroughfare such as Pacific Avenue.

“You can actually use this trail to get places,” Green said.

Olympia resident Joe Ford bikes the trails about four days a week with his wife, Mary Wilkinson. The retired couple has encountered bicyclists from out of town and from other countries. Ford recalled meeting a man from Saudi Arabia who was riding to San Diego and had planned to bike on the shoulder of Interstate 5. Ford persuaded the man to use the county trails instead.

“It’s clean, it’s safe, it’s accessible,” said Ford, lauding the trails’ potential for commuters as well as recreational riders. “This is the future.”

KEEPING COUNT

Thousands of bicyclists and pedestrians use the existing trail system.

Thurston County estimates that the largest trail, the Chehalis-Western Trail, attracted about 351,984 people in 2015, according to county data collected at four trailheads. This former railroad corridor stretches nearly 22 miles from Woodard Bay south to the Yelm-Tenino Trail.

The Yelm-Tenino Trail measures 14.5 miles and mostly runs parallel to State Route 507. The county lacks data for the Yelm-Tenino Trail because there are no official trailheads to accurately record the number of users, said Dalton Johnson, lead building grounds specialist.

Thurston County and Olympia have been recording more accurate data with help from counting devices that were installed on the Chehalis-Western and Woodland trails. The counters are part of a pilot project by the state Department of Transportation.

The Olympia Woodland Trail runs 2.5 miles from Eastside Street to the Chehalis-Western Trail. A counter was installed last summer near Fones Road, just west of the roundabout, and uses infrared technology to distinguish between bicyclists and pedestrians.

From Aug. 1 to Feb. 29, the Woodland Trail averaged 269 daily users. The average was highest in August with 474 trail users a day, and was lowest in December with an average of 119 daily users.

In total, the city counted 16,562 pedestrians and 40,661 bicycle trips in those first seven months, said Randy Wesselman, transportation and engineering planning manager. The new counter from WSDOT will give the city more than just a better idea of how pedestrians use the trail, he said.

“We’ll use it as an indicator to see how people use alternate modes of travel,” he said. “Those are all trips not made in a car.”

The counter on the Chehalis-Western Trail only tracks bicyclists, but nearly 10,000 riders have been counted south of the Woodland Trail junction between Jan. 1 and March 6, according to the county.

WSDOT’s counters also give cities across the state more insight into people’s recreation and commuting habits.

Since March 2015, Bellevue has been monitoring usage at two trails with slightly different personalities. The I-90 Trail attracts between 1,000 and 2,000 riders per day, depending on weather, and is considered more of a commuter route.

Peak usage for I-90 Trail pedestrians during the summer can range between 5,000 and 7,000 per month, according to Kevin McDonald, a Bellevue senior transportation planner.

However, the 520 Trail is more popular for recreation with a peak summertime ridership hovering at more than 900 a day, McDonald said.

He noted that the data will become more useful once the city can compare year-to-year findings. For example, the 520 Trail traffic is expected to change with the new bike lane on the 520 bridge. This coincides with a push to build more bike lanes in this fast-growing Seattle suburb with more than 136,000 people.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Olympia area commuters seem to embrace the trail system, said Jack Horton of the nonprofit Woodland Trail Greenway Association, which advocates for the development of non-motorized connections.

“We’re already seeing a whole lot of people commuting on it,” said Horton, referring to the Woodland Trail. “Go there during rush hour sometime.”

At the same time, Horton said that illegal encampments and crime may discourage some people from using the trail. He suggested that finding an alternative location for trail campers — and adding more patrols — would be a win-win.

“My biggest concern is actually the perceived safety on the trail,” he said. “If a crime happens on the trail, then suddenly the trail is considered dangerous.”

Horton’s association is a crucial steward of the trail system and has a valuable relationship with the county, said Paul Brewster of the Thurston Regional Planning Council.

The nonprofit association leads work parties to plant trees or remove invasive weeds, for example, and generally pushes for safer and more attractive trails.

“They play a major role in the maintenance and upkeep of the trails. They volunteer a tremendous number of hours,” Brewster said. “They are the community outfit that walks the talk.”


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