Hamilton ready to start long-term work on West Side bike path

City government and CSX Transportation have agreed on a purchase price for the former rail line that once served the Champion Paper mill, which the city plans to use to create a 2.96-mile bicycling and walking trail through the city’s West Side.

That price is $791,000, which the city will pay for using mostly grants from three state programs, said city Clerk Nick Garuckas, who has been guiding the project. The city is required to pay 25 percent of the cost using its own money.

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It has taken a while to reach the purchase, he said, because of the complexity of the irregular borders of the properties along the former rail line, and the conditions the city had to meet to satisfy the three grants’ differing requirements.

“Hopefully we’ll have some positive news about potential construction in 2019,” Garuckas said.

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Because of the project’s estimated costs — perhaps $5 million to $7 million — it will have to happen phases, likely across several years. Phase I likely will be a half-mile stretch between Eaton and Cleveland avenues, a segment that is complicated because it contains a railroad bridge that may need to be modified or rebuilt.

“We’ll definitely be getting additional feedback from citizens about things they’d like to see,” Garuckas said. “We’re really hoping this is something the community can really get behind. Trail projects like these have been great tools for other communities.”

With the possible $7 million cost, “The city does not have any intention of just funding that solely,” Garuckas said. “We’re going to be looking for partners in our community for varying levels of sponsorship, outside grant programs and any way that we can leverage different organizations into this project to help fund it and finance it so it’s something that will happen in the foreseeable future, that we can enjoy.”

Wade Johnston, director of Tri-State Trails, is familiar with the project, and enthusiastic about it.

“It sounds like a great project that really could be transformative for Hamilton,” he said. “We have been really excited to follow their support of the Great Miami River Trail and the Miami-to-Miami Connection project, both of which are trail projects that will link into Hamilton.”’

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“With the Beltline, that stands out to me as a unique opportunity to connect residential areas to the downtown, and if we look at other examples around Greater Cincinnati and the country, we know those projects can be really powerful for improving property values,” Johnston said.

“With the Little Miami Trail, for example, in Loveland, there was a study that was done in 2011 by the University of Cincinnati that found property owners within 1,000 feet of the trail were willing to pay about a $9,000 premium to be located there,” he said. “In our view, the Great Miami River Trail is the next best thing, because it’s got that huge regional corridor aspect to it,” and gaps in the trail within Butler County will be filled in the next couple of years.

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“I think it’ll be nice,” said Kathy Sutton, a Ross Avenue resident who lives near the Beltline. She doesn’t own a bike, but thinks she’ll enjoy walking along the trail. The pathway will link a number of West Side communities, including Highland Park, Prospect Hill/Grandview, and Armondale.

Grant Money

The city so far has received $718,616 in grants from the state, with hopes of winning more from Ohio and elsewhere in the future. Those grants are:

  • $503,400 from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Clean Ohio Trail Fund;
  • $155,790 from the Ohio Public Works Commission’s Green Space Conservation Program; and
  • 59,426 from ODNR’s NatureWorks program.

When Hamilton officials sought public input on the project a couple years ago, residents clearly expressed that they wanted the city to aggressively seek financial help to create it, Garuckas said. The city as part of the grants must pay 25 percent of project costs.

One advantage of building the project in phases, he said, is, “You can potentially go back to different agencies if you’ve been awarded before and say, ‘Well, that was Phase I, this is now Phase II.’ So you want to make your phases an attainable scope, for you to be able to leverage outside dollars as effectively as possible.”

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The city as part of the grant conditions has to pay a 25 percent share of the funding. In total, the project’s cost so far is $926,450, including related costs. Those include appraisal of the rail line and rail yard ($9,500), a plan to cap the soil contaminated by railroad-tie preservatives ($39,950), property-boundary surveys and related studies ($81,000), as well as title insurance and closing costs (about $5,000).

The proposed Beltline walking/bicycling trail will use railroad property formerly used to serve the Champion Paper mill, and more recently owned by CSX Transportation. Here, it crosses Ross Avenue.  (Mike Rutledge)

WHAT’S TAKEN SO LONG?

Some people have been wondering what has taken so long for them to see movement on the project. The reason: Hamilton has been working behind the scenes on the purchase, which has been much more complicated than most.

For example, the city had to hire surveyors to measure the often-irregular properties that make up the land that once was owned by a small private railroad company to serve the paper mill.

With the rail line being more than a century old, “the railroad deeds are very old, they’re very loose,” Garuckas said. Each of the three grants also had separate standards the city had to meet to qualify for the funding. Plus, CSX has some stringent requirements of those it sells properties to. For example, because railroad ties are treated with corrosive preservatives, the company requires buyers of its properties to perform soil testing and develop plans to cap the soil — something an asphalt pathway would accomplish.

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“Once we control the property, we feel like the destiny of that project will be more or less in the hands of the city of Hamilton and its citizens about what they want their trail to look like,” Garuckas said. “And we hope it’s something that the community can really rally behind, and make it their own.”

The city has been working on a bike master plan, and is exploring different ways of how the Beltway may tie in to other trails.

“Maybe we want to extend the path down the Main/High Street bridge or things like that, but right now we’ve got plenty to work on with the 2.9 miles,” Garuckas said.

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The city will announce future opportunities to give input. But people wanting to be added to a contact list for future meetings can contact Garuckas at nick.garuckas@hamilton-oh.gov, or 513-785-7182.

Other Advantages

Such a trail can help people’s physical fitness, notes Johnston of Tri-State Trails.

“We know Ohio ranks toward the bottom of the 50 states when it comes to health outcomes related to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, and that’s not how we want our region to be represented,” he said. “So trails are a great way to encourage an active lifestyle, because they’re free, and accessible.”

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“When we connect trails to places people go to frequently, then it’s easy to incorporate the trail into your life, whether it’s exercising before or after work, biking to work, or walking to work,” Johnston said. “With the Beltline being a relatively short trail that connects to downtown Hamilton, it could be very powerful in providing an opportunity for people to bike to work, without having to bike on the road.”

Such trails also can help Hamilton attract and keep talented professionals by stepping up its quality of life, he said.

Cities like Indianapolis and Columbus, which both were on the shortlist for Amazon’s second headquarters, seem to have won that company’s interest partly because of their commitment to such trails, Johnston added: “I think the Beltline will be a really great way to encourage and continue to build the momentum for Hamilton.”

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