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Jul 28

Thoughts About the Nation's Best Urban Trail

Posted on July 28, 2015 at 1:42 PM by Michael Stokes

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Thoughts about the Nation’s Best Urban Trail

The Schuylkill River Trail is a world class trail.  Being recently named the best urban trail in the United States by USA Today is yet another confirmation of that.    Seeing all of the people out enjoying the trail from Phoenixville to the Art Museum on a hot Sunday in July makes it clear why the Schuylkill River Trail is so popular. 

It is hard to imagine that it all began as a bicentennial project in 1976 proposed by the Sierra Club.  At that time the concept was simple- provide a trail connection between the Liberty Bell and Valley Forge National Historical Park to be called the Valley Forge Trail.   Montgomery County built the first section of trail in 1978 connecting Shawmont with Spring Mill.  By 1995, Montgomery County had completed the development of the renamed Schuylkill River Trail from Philadelphia to Valley Forge passing through Lower Providence, West Norriton, Plymouth, and Whitemarsh Townships, the Municipality of Norristown, and Conshohocken Borough. The majority of that portion of the trail is along the former Pennsylvania Railroad Schuylkill River Branch alignment used under an easement donated to the County by PECO. 

In 2002, Montgomery County expanded the Schuylkill River Trail from Betzwood through the Valley Forge National Historical Park to Oaks in Upper Providence Township, where it connects to the Perkiomen Trail.  In 2008, a 2-mile section of the trail was completed between Oaks and Port Providence.   Today the County officially opens the final 1.5-mile section of the trail to connect to Phoenixville along the restored tow path at the Schuylkill Canal.   Montgomery County has also completed the trail in Potttstown from Hanover Street to the Berks County line and will be soon developing the remaining sections of the trail through other parts of Pottstown Borough and Lower Pottsgrove Township.  Philadelphia and the Schuylkill River Development Corporation have constructed popular sections of the trail past Boat House Row, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Schuylkill Banks down to South Street heading to the Delaware River.  Chester County and Phoenixville Borough have recently developed sections from Phoenixville to Parkerford.  The Schuylkill River Heritage Area has been developing the Schuylkill River Trail, known also as the Thun Trail through Berks and Schuylkill County. 

The trail is extremely popular and used by people of all ages.  Walkers, joggers, roller bladders, and bikers all enjoy the trail and are eager for expansions to it.   Counters installed by the Delaware Valley Planning Commission last June have recorded 208,114 trail users at Pawlings Road and 663,201 trail users at Kelly Drive over the past year.  Taking these individual counts into consideration and other periodic counts, it would be safe to say that as many as 600,000 to 800,000 people use the Schuylkill River Trail in Montgomery County each year.   Very likely that number will grow as other people find out about this great trail.

Connections to the Schuylkill River Trail are important.  Work being performed on the Manayunk Bridge and the new Betzwood Bridge will soon provide exciting connections across the river.  Montgomery County has established a 1.5-mile connector route to the Norristown Farm Park and a 2-mile trail loop through the Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Lower Providence Township.  Other trail connections and loops along it are being planned by the County and adjoining municipalities.  Additionally, the County is developing other regional trails such as the Chester Valley Trail that will intersect with the Schuylkill River Trail.  Every time the County extends and upgrades the already wonderful Schuylkill River Trail, an important investment in our region is being made that will be cherished for decades, if not centuries to come.

The Schuylkill River Trail is the main spine of the Schuylkill Heritage Corridor, and it is now a primary feature of the Schuylkill River Valley National Heritage Area. The trail’s accessibility to urban and suburban communities makes it an invaluable transportation and recreation resource.  It has helped reacquaint people with the Schuylkill River and has served as a significant economic development catalyst acquainting trail users with the communities along it.  

Trail users themselves spend money as part of their trail experience.   In the Schuylkill River Trail 2009 User Survey and Economic Impact Analysis performed by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, the average trail user indicated that they spend about $9.00 in soft goods and about $400 per year in the purchase of hard goods such as bicycle equipment.  The real economic impact of the trail is its influence on adjoining property values.  The 2011 study performed by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission showed that homes within a quarter-mile of the Radnor Trail can attribute an estimated $69,139 dollars of additional value due to the trail.  Certainly some of the apartments in Betzwood, Spring Mill, and Conshohocken and new office buildings within the Lower Schuylkill Valley might not have been developed if it were not for the Schuylkill River Trail.

Any way you ride it or walk on it or run on it, the Schuylkill River Trail is world class.  Find out for yourself.  Start anywhere on it and head off in any direction, you won’t be disappointed.

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