GUEST OPINION: State task force studying bike, trail networks

By MARK BENNETT, guest columnist

Wide open stretches of trails inspire Joel Harbaugh to tour places in Florida, Colorado and even Hawaii.

The 51-year-old Terre Haute bicyclist pedals nearly 5,000 miles a year. His excursions aren’t always so far from home. Ideal cycling territory can be found just across the Indiana state line. There’s the Hockhocking Adena Bikeway, a 20-mile path that through southern Ohio, connecting two college towns (Nelsonville and Athens), lined with restaurants, breweries and the Wayne National Forest. “There are people everywhere on this trail,” Harbaugh said, “and it is through some of the most beautiful woods, and I enjoy it.”

Then there’s Xenia, which bills itself as the “Bicycle Capital of the Midwest,” and hub of the Miami Valley Bike Trails — the largest interconnected network in the U.S. Its paved trails bisect 10 Ohio counties and cover 340 miles.

“Ohio does have a rather extensive trails system in place,” Harbaugh said. So do Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan.

Indiana, not so much.

Multiple ratings put the Hoosier state near the bottom, including 38th in the League of American Bicyclists’ 2017 Bicycle Friendly States list. The league’s report praises the “exciting” development of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, but adds, “Unfortunately, this does not yet seem to have translated into broader support for bicycling within the state Department of Transportation or legislature.”

It’s a lost opportunity. “That ability to traverse our state via trail systems is extremely appealing, and is drawing tourism to other states,” said Kara Kish, superintendent of the Vigo County Parks and Recreation and a member of a new state panel studying the situation.

“Given the deficiencies of the [Indiana] trail system, we are missing out on those tourism dollars.”

That deficiency might matter to Hoosiers who aren’t avid cyclists. The economy of neighboring Michigan, for example, draws $668 million a year from bicycling through tourism, retail, employment and improved health and worker productivity, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The Indiana Bicycle Trails Task Force — created by the Indiana General Assembly last spring — is trying to gauge the potential of developing connections between individual Hoosier communities’ bike trails, and whether residents support the idea. The task force’s chair, Kyle Hannon of Elkhart, wants to determine the return-on-investment of a linked, lengthy, maintained and well-equipped trail system.

“That’s what I’m really interested in — what kind of economic dollars this brings in terms additional development and talent attraction?” Hannon said last week.

The task force met Wednesday for the third time. Legislation authored by state Rep. Wes Culver, a Goshen Republican, calls for the task force to develop concepts and cost estimates for connecting Indiana’s existing bike trails, find at least six “innovative ways to fund” those concepts, prepare a timeline for completion of those projects, recommend legislation to improve bike safety, and report the conclusions to the Statehouse by July 2019.

Abandoned railroad beds already extend from town to town in many areas. Those old lines have been successfully transformed into trails by various Indiana communities. Tying them together could increase the potential for cycling tourists to add Indiana to their travel plans, attract prospective residents and entice current Hoosiers — near the bottom of national health rankings — to bike to a job or store.

The bike trails task force legislation indicates Indiana recognizes the pluses. “There’s an acknowledgement that bicycling is becoming a popular form of transportation and recreational experience,” Kish said.

A glance at a trails map, though, shows “obvious deficiencies in western Indiana,” Kish said. Heritage Trail, “as great as it is, has end points. If we were able to connect that trail system to other trail systems, that would draw tourism dollars to our community.”

She saw that happen in towns where she previously resided — Carmel and Mentor, Ohio. More than a decade ago, Kish lived beside the Monon Trail in Carmel. She often walked a half-mile to a favorite restaurant, the only attraction on that stretch at the time. “In the decade I’ve been away from Carmel, that restaurant now sits in the middle of the most amazing development project,” she said.

The Monon opened in 1999 and now extends from downtown Indianapolis to Carmel and Westfield in adjoining Hamilton County. More than 1.2 million people use that 18-mile path each year, according to the City of Indianapolis and Marion County.

In Mentor, Ohio, a city of 47,000 northeast of Cleveland on Lake Erie, improvements to roadways routinely include bike safety elements. “It was a local commitment by the community,” Kish said.

Indiana has several popular bike trails, from the Monon to the Cardinal Greenway in Muncie, the 37-mile Nickel Plate Trail from Kokomo to Fulton County, and the People Pathways through Putnam County. Obstacles in connecting one to another include land acquisition, a plan of action, resistance in rural areas from farming groups, and, of course, funding, said Pat Martin, the former Terre Haute city planner now working in a similar role in Bloomington.

Martin serves as vice chairman of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Trails Advisory Board and was a founding member of a coalition that created a statewide trails plan, initiated by former Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2005 and ‘06. That plan, updated five years ago, outlines connections between existing current bike trails. “That’s really the guiding document behind anything,” Martin said.

Any plan will require funding, whether private (ideal, but difficult), public (sure to raise opposition) or a combination. That’s why the legislation calls for the task force to find “innovative ways” to fund a statewide trails project.

Hannon expressed optimism that Indiana can develop a realistic network of bike trails, and dispel fears that such a project would take away farmers’ land or invite crime can be dispelled. Taking farmers’ properties “is not the goal” of the task force, he said. And, “there are enough trails around [Indiana] that have proven that it’s not a safety issue,” Hannon added.

Regardless of the obstacles, Indiana will eventually develop a connected trails system, Martin believes. “There’s pressure on Indiana if it wants to be competitive,” he said. “You’ve got to look at the competing neighbors.” Attitudes toward healthy lifestyles have changed, too.

“Change comes slowly, but change comes inevitably,” Martin added. “It’s going to happen.”

Mark Bennett is a writer for the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star.