Bob Ellingson has a vision to fight the Twin Cities’ stigma of unfriendliness toward bicyclists and pedestrians.
“For years, Centralia and Chehalis just haven’t been very easy to navigate on foot or two wheels,” Ellingson, a Centralia resident, said. “To get pretty much anywhere from one town to another, you have to drive your car.”
Ellingson is doing his part as the board chairman of Lewis County Community Trails, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to improve existing trails and walkways in the local area, as well as build new walking and biking paths for Lewis County residents to enjoy the outdoors.
The group is making significant headway on construction of local trails with the near-completion of the Airport Levee Trail and grading taking place on the Willapa Hills Trail, a rails-to-trails project from Chehalis to Raymond. On Monday, during a tour of the Willapa Hills Trail in Adna, the western end of LCCT’s administrative portion of the trail, Ellingson received a first-hand look at some of the work to be done on the group’s most ambitious project to date.
The former rail line will see significant upgrades in the coming months as Washington State Parks, which administers the 56-mile trail to the coastal town of Raymond, will receive $700,000 in federal money to grade the trail and spread gravel for a walking or jogging surface. Both organizations are waiting on money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration to restore and resurface train trestles that will become bridges for pedestrians in the future.
“I’m fairly confident everything’s going to come through in the end and this will really be the crown jewel of our trail system,” Ellingson said. “We’re hoping that the entire trail will be done to Rainbow Falls Park next year, and I want to be the first one to walk down it.”
But Lewis County Community Trails isn’t stopping with that project — the group’s eventual goal is to connect trail systems in the Twin Cities with an ambitious venture that would enable outdoors enthusiasts to walk, run or bike from Fort Borst Park in Centralia to Stan Hedwall Park in Chehalis. According to the Lewis County Community Trails website, the Washington State Department of Transportation has plans to build a pedestrian/bike overpass complete with barrier protection from traffic. The bridge work is expected to be completed in 2014, according to the website.
Officials with both city governments in the Twin Cities say they’re excited about the thought of such a project, but conceded this week that local money for the completion of a Borst-Hedwall trail would be tough to come by in the near future.
“We’ve been stretched thin with layoffs and we’re still in a reduction mode, so we’re limited as to what projects and civic activities we can fund,” said Chehalis city manager Merlin MacReynold. “But we really have to give credit to the trails group because they as a nonprofit organization have access to money that we as a city can’t. If it weren’t for them, these projects would be dead in the water.”
MacReynold pointed to LCCT being able to secure grants from various civic organizations, the largest being a $300,000 grant from TransAlta for work on the Airport Levee Trail encircling the Chehalis-Centralia Airport. The 3.5-mile loop trail has been ready for use with a crushed gravel surface, but crews recently have been grading and paving portions of it for an easier ride for bicyclists.
“That trail is just a wonderful place to step away from the town setting and see the farmland,” MacReynold said. “It’s my favorite place to walk, and it’s such an important part of this community because of the volunteer work that went into it.”
Where funding sources have dried up, members of the community have pitched in and donated materials and money to Lewis County Community Trails for the upkeep of the trail network around Lewis County. Centralia Mayor Harlan Thompson says he has noticed a “tremendous amount” of work that goes in to beautifying the paths in the more serene areas of the Hub City.
“Those of us who see the work that goes on appreciate it all the more,” Thompson said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people don’t realize all the work that goes into it, because these trails and paths are a tremendous asset to our community.”
Thompson said he is banking on the trail and path projects to provide a needed respite from the busy atmosphere of roads and highways around town, and also to attract families with young children to the area. It’s his hope that the LCCT projects can be a focal point of the Twin Cities working together to accomplish a major project in what he called a “rough economic time for everyone.”
“When people move here to Lewis County, they’re looking for three things: good schools, safe neighborhoods and parks,” Thompson said. “These trails will be a major selling point for us because it’s going to be the best trail system in the area when it’s all done.”
Christopher Brewer: (360) 807-8235