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The Fall Line Trail

Clark Mercer column: Central Virginia's community connector: The Fall Line Trail

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have enjoyed being able to get outdoors to take a walk with friends, jog or ride our bikes.

It is easy to take for granted if your neighborhood has convenient and safe access to recreation, and is connected to businesses and restaurants. But for many of our residents, basic access to safe spaces to enjoy the outdoors is hard to come by.

In the Richmond region, we have seen not only the health benefits, but also the economic benefits of providing this kind of connectivity.

The Virginia Capital Trail is the best example of this. On any given day, the trail from Richmond to Williamsburg is crowded with a diverse group of people, averaging more than 1,000 per day. The Capital Trail has been a tremendous success.

We have an opportunity in central Virginia to create a trail that is just as impactful — the Fall Line Trail, connecting communities from Petersburg to Ashland.

This 43-mile trail traverses three rivers, 10 parks, two existing regional trails and ample transit connections. And it runs through urban areas, suburban and rural parts of our region, and courses through seven localities: the town of Ashland, Hanover County, Henrico County, the city of Richmond, Chesterfield County and the cities of Colonial Heights and Petersburg.

We often talk about regional cooperation, but it’s not every day that you see an example like this. Every locality along the trail has agreed to participate. The Fall Line Trail is part of the master plan for all of these communities — and the localities, state and federal governments, and the newly created Central Virginia Transportation Authority all are stepping up to fund it.

What makes this trail so unique is that it will not be just a biking/walking path — it will be a connector: a wide, well-constructed trail that will allow residents and visitors to connect to nearby restaurants, businesses, schools and colleges in a way that many are unable to do right now.

The trail will connect with or near 30 schools or colleges — including the historically Black universities of Virginia State and Virginia Union, John Tyler and J. Sargeant Reynolds community colleges, and Virginia Commonwealth University, recently named the most bike-friendly campus in Virginia.

It touches historic neighborhoods like Jackson Ward, providing opportunities to think creatively about how we incorporate the rich history of the community into the trail, attracting even more people to use it.

The trail is an opportunity to preserve and increase important green space, helping the climate and the people in our neighborhoods. In South Side Richmond, there has been much written — and rightfully so — about the lack of tree canopy and safe access to recreation for residents.

The Fall Line Trail provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help address these issues by introducing both green space and biking/walking connections along Commerce Road and Richmond Highway.

And the trail will be a boost for businesses and neighborhoods near its route. We hear from residents desiring more active ways like trails to get around, and from businesses large and small that they look forward to having their employees use the trail to get to and from work and view it as a recruiting tool.

Jurisdictions actively are planning and constructing arteries to connect existing paths, parks and infrastructure to the Fall Line.

Clearly, providing opportunities for our residents to get outdoors is in and of itself a worthy cause. But we know trails like this create economic opportunity, and save on health costs. For every $1 invested in building trails, there is a direct correlation of $3 to saved medical costs.

The Virginia Capital Trail created $8.9 million in economic activity and $5.3 million in value-added effects during the 2018-19 fiscal year. For every $1 spent on a transportation project like the Fall Line, twice as many jobs are created as paving projects alone.

Over the past decade, pedestrian fatalities have increased 45% in the U.S. Sadly, we have had some unfortunate examples of this in the area where the trail will be built. Moving folks out of vehicles, off of roads and onto dedicated trails helps improve safety and brings climate benefits as well.

As we look to tackle critically important regional issues like affordable and workforce housing, transit, homelessness and food insecurity, showing that our respective localities can work together and produce results is important. Just imagine: groups from Hanover and Petersburg using the trail and visiting each other’s communities, folks from Colonial Heights and Chesterfield commuting to Henrico and vice versa, families from Ashland biking into Richmond for a Squirrels game. This trail literally can bring our region together in a way we haven’t seen before.

Luckily, our elected officials and residents understand this. The Fall Line project will be transformative. We also are fortunate that Virginia’s economy has done well over the past year, and coupled with federal relief, we can think boldly about investing in our communities.

Recently, Sports Backers, which is playing an important role in facilitating these community conversations, led a group of residents and community leaders on a hike of the projected trail path.

I hiked the trail over the course of two days, joined by Anne Holton, former Virginia secretary of education and past interim president of George Mason University, and her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney; Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico; Faye Prichard, a member of the Hanover County Board of Supervisors; Ashland Vice Mayor John Hodges; and a host of local staff.

A big takeaway from this hike is that our residents have the best ideas and insight for how this trail should be built; listening to them is paramount to the project’s success.

There are many lessons learned from the COVID- 19-pandemic. And one of them is that safe open spaces and connectivity play a huge role in supporting thriving communities. I look forward to seeing you on the future Fall Line Trail.

Clark Mercer is chief of staff to Gov. Ralph Northam. Contact him at: clark.mercer@governor.virginia.gov

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