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I’ll open this letter with a shout: Save our trails!
Why the shouting, you might ask? At a suspiciously low-key function on the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 2nd, the City of St. John’s took a giant step towards the destruction of the cherished walking trails that daily, year-round, see thousands of residents and visitors enjoying healthy exercise in beautiful and safe surroundings. The occasion was to announce a funding agreement between the three levels of government to “upgrade” the Kelly’s Brook Trail, one of the main trails in the Grand Concourse system, in order to make it a “shared-use path” to encourage bicycling.
Sounds innocuous doesn’t it? A “shared-use path.” This project originated in the Bike St. John’s Master Plan and it is just the first in a series of “catalyst projects” that will see the Kelly’s Brook, Rennies River and the Virginia River Trails widened, straightened, clear-cut and paved over. The design standard in the plan is for a 10-foot wide strip of asphalt, two-foot gravel shoulders on each side and a further “apron” cutting out and removing all trees, shrubs and other vegetation except grass for six feet on each side. According to the Bike Master Plan this is for the safety of the bicyclists who apparently can’t be trusted not to run into trees and injure themselves. Oddly, that same Master Plan considers that the walkers, runners, children and dogs expected to share the “path” are perfectly safe from the bicyclists! And don’t think this is just a problem for the Kelly’s Brook and Rennies River Trails. As the Bike Master Plan shows, every linear foot of the walking trails in the city is under threat.
According to the Master Plan, there should be some “public engagement” during implementation, and a city official claims there will be such an opportunity. But that is too late by far.
Safety is one issue, but another and perhaps bigger issue is the esthetic and environmental destruction entailed in this and the planned future projects. For some peculiar reason, both the Bike Master Plan and this project include the lower section of the Rennies River Trail from Portugal Cove Road to Kings Bridge Road as part of the Kelly’s Brook Trail. A quick glance at the on-trail signage and at the Grand Concourse “Walker’s Handbook” will reveal the error. The preliminary plan for this “shared-use path” can be found on the city’s website and shows the level of destruction to come on this section of the Rennies River Trail: partial infilling of the river bank to accommodate five-foot high retaining walls and the removal of all vegetation. The end result is a streetscape with all the visual appeal and environmental integrity of Kenmount Road.
The next project recommended by the Bike Plan is the “upgrading” of the rest of the Rennies River Trail, which again will include infilling of portions of the floodplain of the river, “clearing and grubbing” of the right of way and a massive excavation of the hill at the bottom of Larch Park to allow for a series of graded, bicycle friendly turns.
The biggest issue is that all of this is being done, funding in place remember and “construction to start in 2021,” and the city has not yet done any public consultations on it. The Bike Master Plan itself states: “Trails are widely used in St. John’s; the city’s 2016 residential survey reports 76 per cent of households use trails.”
Yet, no consultation at all has taken place with the vast majority of city residents. Yes, there was “public engagement” during creation of the Bike Plan, but who, other than keen bicyclists, were even aware of it, much less aware of the esthetic and environmental impacts on the trails?
According to the Master Plan, there should be some “public engagement” during implementation, and a city official claims there will be such an opportunity. But that is too late by far. What is needed is a full, open and transparent public consultation on whether this project should happen at all, not whether it should move a foot or two here or there. To be clear, I have no problems with bike paths, in their place, but that place is not on the Grand Concourse walking trails.
To sum up, residents of St. John’s, make sure your concerns and opinions are heard on this matter now, before it’s too late.