East Coast Greenway Alliance moves in to help N.C. move on

When the East Coast Greenway Alliance announced in February it was moving its headquarters from Rhode Island to the Triangle, the move was a good sign for the state — and a sign that we need help.

The Alliance is the driving force behind the East Coast Greenway, an in-the-works greenway that will one day run continuously from Key West, Fla., to Canada, a distance of nearly 3,000 miles. It bills itself as the urban alternative to the Appalachian Trail, offering a pedestrian-width ribbon of pavement instead natural surface and traveling through as many municipalities as possible, rather than avoiding them. More than 25 percent of the trail now exists. Problem is, the vast majority of the completed path lies well to the north.

Dennis Markatos-Soriano, right, at last year's ECGA-sponsored cross-Triangle greenway ride. Chuck Flink of Greenway's Inc. takes a picture.

“We’ve been progressing nicely in New England and the Mid-Atlantic,” says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, the alliance’s executive director. “Sixty percent of the trail is done in New York, in New Jersey it’s about 50 percent and in a number of other states, too.”

Turning to the South, Markatos-Soriano’s voice assumes the tone of a concerned parent.

“In the South,” he begins, “we haven’t had the capacity on the ground that we’ll have in the future. We’ll help give municipalities along the route, and state DOTs, all the tools they need to help us complete this route.”

How far behind is North Carolina, which stands to host about 390 miles of the ECG?

“It’s just under 20 percent complete,” says Markatos-Soriano. Checking his figures, he corrects himself. “Actually, it’s closer to 14 percent.”

That number is a bit squishy considering it includes trail that isn’t part of the long-term vision for the ECG through North Carolina. In the Triangle, the East Coast Greenway currently runs down the American Tobacco Trail from Durham into western Wake County, where it will head east and follow mostly existing greenway through Cary (White Oak and Black Creek), Umstead State Park, Raleigh (Reedy Creek, House Creek, Walnut Creek and the Neuse River greenways, which should be one continuous stretch within a couple of years) to the Johnston County line. In the long term, however, the ECG hopes to piggyback on the proposed high-speed rail line between Richmond and the Triangle, an emerging concept called “rails with trails.” (A local example is the Libba Cotten Bikeway in Carrboro, which runs a mile with freight track.)

Through the rest of the state, the route — or routes, rather — is less clear.

In North Carolina, as will be the case in several other locations, the East Coast Greenway will have alternate routes.

“We plan to stick with our historical plan for a coastal route,” says Markatos-Soriano of an alternate route that would run through Elizabeth City, Edenton, Williamston, Greenville, New Bern, Jacksonville and Wilmington.

The main route, after entering the Triangle, would have options. One is to head down the Neuse River and meet up with the alternative trail in New Bern. Another that’s been discussed over the past few years would see an extension of the American Tobacco Trail south to Harris Lake County Park and on to Raven Rock State Park near Lillington. From there, the trail would follow the Cape Fear River to Wilmington, before meeting the alternative coastal greenway and venturing south into South Carolina.

Despite the East Coast Greenway’s spotty progress to date through the state, Markatos-Soriano is optimistic. In addition to the 14 percent of trail that’s down, he says another 7 percent is “in development.” That is, either in design or construction. He says not all of that 7 percent is currently funded.

He also believes that the East Coast Greenway Alliance bears responsibility for making the trail happen through the state — and assumes the blame for why it hasn’t happened so far.

“I don’t want to put the burden on anyone but the East Coast Greenway Alliance for where we are,” he says.

Dave Connelly of Durham, vice chairman of North Carolina Rail-Trails and long-time trail advocate, says North Carolina presents a particular challenge.

“It’s a tangled web,” he says of the state. “It’s hard to see a straight line from Virginia and Willimington, and there’s no efficient way to do that.”

Connelly adds that rails-to-trails conversions have been more successful in the north because railroads’ lack of confidence in the regional economy’s ability to rebound has made them more open to abandoning their corridors for trail development. In North Carolina, however, the prospects for recovery make railroads reluctant to part with lines, even those they may not have used for 20 years and that are over-grown with pine trees and brush.

He cites as an example abandoned Norfolk Southern line running north from Durham. Not long ago there was talk of using that corridor to extend the American Tobacco Trail, which currently ends in downtown Durham, into Person County. But even though the line hasn’t been used in years the railroad isn’t convinced its days are over. Nor have they been open to the notion of a track-and-trail partnership.

“The railroad company hasn’t doesn’t see it as a benefit,” says Connelly. “They see it as liability issue with pedestrians on their property, even though that goes against tort.”

The trails making up the East Coast Greenway are built by local municipalities, sometimes in conjunction with the N.C. Department of Transportation. The alliance identifies valued corridors and works with the appropriate parties to help the greenways along the ECG’s path.

“We’re not trying to mandate routes,” Markatos-Soriano stresses. “We work with state leaders, with municipalities … .” A number of the folks they work with make up the alliance’s North Carolina committee, which he describes as “very well developed” and which will be invaluable in pushing trail development in the state. Also boding well is the fact that Gene Conti, secretary of NCDOT, has served on the alliance’s board of directors. (Another good sign: Chuck Flink, president and founder of Durham-based Greenways Inc., currently sits on the board and is a past chairman.)

There are even more promising sign of the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s commitment to the area. Markatos-Soriano says they recently signed a five-year lease for office space in Durham (just off the ATT near NC 54). Connelly sites an even stronger tie. Markatos-Soriano is from Pittsboro and went to UNC Chapel Hill, and he and his wife have family in Durham, offering the one enticement lacking from any other relocation packages the alliance may have entertained.

Says Connelly: “They have free babysitting in the area.”

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More

For a map of proposed East Coast Greenway routes through North Carolina, and of existing trail, go here. For more in the ECG in North Carolina, go here.

East Coast Greenway Alliance Open House

When: May 7, 10 a.m.

Where: Originating from the American Tobacco Campus in Durham. More information will be posted here as it develops.

What: What more appropriate way to celebrate the ECGA’s new headquarters than with a 27.5-mile ride on nearby greenways, followed by food and speakers. Additional information TBA.

Photo: Riders enjoy a stretch of the East Coast Greenway on the American Tobacco Trail in Chatham County.

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