Nearly 14 years ago, construction began on the first leg of walking trails along Columbias wooded, largely hidden riverfront.
Since then, the Three Rivers Greenway has opened the river to businesses that rent inner tubes, created cachet for State Street coffee shops and attracted mansions with sunrise views.
The River Alliance, which has pushed ahead with the two-county project since breaking ground in January 1998, has found most of its success on the Cayce and West Columbia side of the Congaree River. Altogether, it claims 8 miles of trails.
Now, a proposed penny sales tax promises to finish 5½ miles of walkways along Richland Countys riverfront, also pushing into neighborhoods along tributaries to add a total of 31 miles of nature trails.
Among those trails would be the 3-mile Saluda Riverwalk, which supporters say would provide the most beautiful access yet to the riverfront for walkers, runners and cyclists. The trail would pass Riverbanks Zoo, allowing pedestrians to cross an elevated footbridge over a rocky set of islands that drivers only glimpse now as they cross the I-126 bridge into downtown.
The project also would provide two sets of bathrooms, a picnic area, lights, emergency call boxes and up to 45 parking spaces, helping to cool tensions over the zoos decision to bar river users from its parking lot.
Of all the things that can be built, its the most shovel-ready and would have the most impact on the community, said John McArthur, a Columbia lawyer and chairman of the River Alliance board. The citizens would be thrilled.
Richland Countys proposed sales tax would bring in $1.07 billion over 22 years to make transportation improvements, including greenways.
But some say that while nature trails would be nice, the county should instead ask voters for a tax to pay for the most urgent need bus service and set aside improvements to roads and sidewalks while so many families continue to struggle in the unstable economy.
Its the size and the scope of this project I would question in these times, taxpayer advocate Don Weaver said.
Its too much and its too long.
Walkers, cyclists benefit, too
Under a plan approved by Richland County Council, pedestrian-level improvements would get 8 percent of the money from a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the sales tax.
Sidewalks would get $26.5 million of the $81 million collected between now and 2035, with a near-equal amount each for bike lanes ($22 million) and greenways ($21 million).
At $3 million, a much smaller portion would target 36 intersections for safety measures such as pedestrian signals, crosswalk stripes and wheelchair ramps. Presumably not every intersection would need each improvement, said county transportation consultant Robert Moser, with Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Most of the money for pedestrian improvements, trails and bike lanes would be spent in the high-population area bounded by the I-77 corridor, including downtown and early suburban neighborhoods.
Obviously, we have to finish the greenway at the river, said Ryan Nevius, head of Sustainable Midlands, a group promoting conscientious growth and healthy lifestyles.
But a recreational greenway is just one feature a growing Southern community needs to offer residents looking for contemporary lifestyles, she said lifestyles that include children walking to school, people staying active into old age, shopping and going out for an evenings entertainment, all within walking distance of home.
We have to get public transportation and our bikeways and walkways ready for what all of the research says the population wants, Nevius said.
Architects of the sales tax proposal are using the referendum as an opportunity to expand not just the well-used greenway system but sidewalks, crosswalks and bikeways, too.
In traffic engineering circles, the term complete streets means a public investment in transportation that benefits everyone people who drive, take the bus, ride bicycles, use wheelchairs and walk. Richland County Council has adopted the complete streets approach as policy, though in practice the county spends virtually all its state road money to maintain its 758 miles of roadway. The county has done two sidewalk projects, both in recent years.
Fatalities cause concern
The S.C. Department of Public Safety has expressed alarm at the continuing upward trend in fatalities among pedestrians and cyclists statewide.
Locally, thats meant the deaths of nine pedestrians in the first nine months of the year in Columbia and Richland County. Four people on mopeds have been killed in accidents this year. No bicyclists have died.
The sales tax money would add sidewalks along 49 miles of road, including these top projects:
• 5.7 miles along Two Notch Road, from Alpine Road to Spears Creek Church Road;
• 1.35 miles along Lake Murray Boulevard, between Harbison Boulevard and I-26;
• 5 miles on Broad River Road, between Harbison Boulevard and Bush River Road;
• 3.31 miles along Assembly Street and Shop Road, between Whaley Street and Beltline Boulevard;
• .7 mile along Pinehurst Road, between Harrison Road and Forest Drive.
Moser said sidewalks generally would be built on both sides of a street or road.
Phil Creel, a lawyer who lives in Cottontown, considers pedestrian improvements necessary for safety.
He said Columbia needs to do a better job of accommodating pedestrians along such heavily traveled thoroughfares as Broad River Road, Garners Ferry Road and Elmwood Avenue.
They all have difficult pedestrian crossings, Creel said, and as a result, you see people jaywalking, cutting in the middle of blocks and lots of near-misses with cars.
The sales tax would add bike lanes along 120 miles of streets. Among the most expensive:
• .3-miles on Blossom Street, between Huger and Assembly streets;
3.5 miles along Two Notch Road, from Beltline Boulevard to Parklane Road;
• 4.6 miles of Clemson Road, between Summit Parkway and Percival Road;
• 2.4 miles of Alpine Road, between Two Notch Road and Percival Road;
• 1.7 miles of Pickens Street, between Washington Street and Rosewood Drive.
Again, the countys consultant said bike lanes typically would be added on both sides of a street.
John Quinn, president of the Carolina Cyclers, said recreational cyclists try to avoid roads where theres heavy vehicle traffic. He rides in Fairfield County or on Fort Jackson.
Were way, far behind in terms of amenities compared with other parts of the country and the world, Quinn said. I know people whove been hit. I know people whove been killed on bikes.
Councilman Jim Manning said that when a constituent complained that bike lanes and sidewalks were frivolous extras that shouldnt have been included in the sales-tax package, he responded, I guess Dr. Sunshine wasnt your dentist.
The death of Harry Sunshine, 55 and a popular pediatric dentist, in an early-morning hit-and-run on Two Notch Road was a high-profile case calling attention to the need to address cycling safety in the Columbia area. Sunshine was killed almost 12 years ago.
On a pretty weekend day, Mike Dawson, founding director of the River Alliance, has counted as many as 450 people an hour coming into the riverfront park in Cayce-West Columbia, he said.
Even 150 visitors an hour is a lot, so the greenway is a very, very active, engaged public space, he said.
So far, greenways in Columbia and Richland County have been funded with property taxes collected in the Vista through a now-defunct tax-increment financing district.
County Council added the $7.9 million for the Saluda Riverwalk to the sales tax proposal after river advocates circulated an online petition producing about 600 signatures, said Mullen Taylor, chairwoman of the board of Congaree Riverkeeper.
Were always an advocate for greenways, because theyre a good way for people to appreciate the rivers, Taylor said. The more public access you give for people to see and enjoy our rivers, the more they come to appreciate them and want them protected.
Taylor said theres been a growing sense of urgency among advocates to manage access because, while it gets lots of use, theres a lack of controlled public access. That results in litter and a steady degradation of the banks and, consequently, water quality as people tread their own paths down to the water.
Its become a victim of its own popularity, Taylor said.
If you get on the Lower Saluda, you kind of feel like youre in the mountains. Its known nationally as one of the best urban whitewater locations, and it also sports a coldwater trout fishery, which is unique for this area.
The Lower Saluda is designated a scenic river by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The sales-tax proposal also contemplates expanding the greenway system beyond the Three Rivers Greenway to the interior of Richland County, with public trails running into neighborhoods and alongside creeks.
But beyond a list of 15 items totaling $21 million, specific greenway projects have not been designed.
Dawson envisions a loop running east from the riverfront greenway across Bull Street to Harden Street, where it could head to Five Points and the University of South Carolina campus, circling back to the river along Rocky Branch.
If the penny sales tax passes, there would be time to figure out which agencies would pay for the management and maintenance of the greenway system, he said.
Even before the county called for a sales tax referendum, the Gills Creek Watershed Association was working on a feasibility study for a greenway, funded with a $15,000 grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission. Two sections of the creek are listed in the sales tax plan.
Emily Jones, chairwoman of the board, said the group has drawn inspiration from work done in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County. There, over the past 30 years, local governments have built 37 miles of greenways connecting neighborhoods with retail areas, libraries and schools most of them trails along creeks, Mecklenburg County park planner Gwen Cook said.
Here, the Gills Creek Watershed Association is focusing on a greenway that could extend from Lake Katharine to Shop Road or even farther, to Bluff Road, said Jones, a landscape architect.
The piece she would like to tackle first would capitalize on the new shopping center off Devine Street anchored by Whole Foods, she said. Connecting people to that area would be a nice opportunity, serving residents of Lake Katharine one way and neighborhoods behind Dorn VA Medical Center on the other, she said.
Already, the group has approached property owners, including Midlands Technical College, to gauge their interest in partnering on a greenway.
Jones said that, like the Saluda Riverwalk, a completed study would mean advocates of Gills Creek would be poised for construction if voters approve the referendum in November.
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.