Should the rustic Ben Burr Trail in East Central Spokane be widened and paved as part of a larger, federally-funded project intended to improve cycling and walking access?
The City of Spokane will be accepting public comment on the proposed Ben Burr Trail project until Friday, January 24. Learn more and submit your comments via the city’s blog here.
By Bradley Bleck, cycling advocate and former Spokane Bicycle Advisory Board member
Build a Better Ben Burr!
As a recreational and commuting cyclist in Spokane, I look forward to the Ben Burr Trail improvements. At the same time, I understand the concerns of those opposed to the paving and widening of the trail. Many cyclists, myself among them, embrace Spokane’s “Near Nature, Near Perfect” mantra. Ready access to nature is much of what makes Spokane a special place to live, work and play. In its present state, the natural respite the Ben Burr Trail (BBT) offers is thanks to it being largely unknown and untrammeled, and the improvements will change that.
However, as an undeveloped gravel path, the BBT serves only the East Central neighborhood. The planned improvements will open up the trail to more users of varying abilities from more parts of the city under a wider variety of circumstances. While the improvements will not fulfill the desires of all in the neighborhood, they will expand access to the outdoors to people who otherwise would be unable or unwilling to use the trail. Project improvements will also expand local cycling infrastructure in a way that can foster further growth in infrastructure and ridership.
Some arguments in favor of keeping the trail undeveloped have a distinct “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) tone. One response to a comment I made on the City of Spokane’s blog seeking input on the project sums it up: “Do you really envision a freshly paved Ben Burr to be positively teeming with the now liberated wheelchair-bound and groups [of] ecologically altruistic skateboarders once the asphalt cools? . . . The plan to pave the entirety of the Ben Burr was financed by the feds on the premise that [it] would provide a viable transportation alternative for those who would otherwise commute by car. To me, that indicates cycle-commuters who would blow through the East Central Neighborhood in a few minutes on their way to their white collar gigs downtown. Why sacrifice the unique character of the Ben Burr for their benefit?”
It would be unfair to view all East Central residents as being as selfish as this comment implies, but how will more of Spokane benefit from implementing the improvements? First, an improved BBT will be accessible to all manner of walkers, hikers, joggers, cyclists, baby strollers, wheelchair users, and pretty much any other mode of self-propelled transportation, fully compliant with the Americans with Disability Act. With more users comes greater safety according to a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy report showing urban trails to be safer than surrounding areas with regard to assault, rape and murder.
Second, a paved BBT would offer the sort of cycling that is more likely to increase bike commuting by providing less-experienced cyclists off-street connectivity to downtown and the University District from an otherwise isolated area. If Spokane is going to increase cycling for both utilitarian and recreational purposes, it must make cycling inviting to women, an “indicator species” in the cycling environment. The established infrastructure appeals primarily to those who already ride on nearly any street at nearly any time. Improvements to Spokane’s cycling infrastructure need to emphasize getting women cyclists on the road. The BBT improvements could invite more women into bike commuting and recreational biking with children, and that bodes well for all of Spokane.
Finally, while I can empathize with the fear of environmental degradation due to tree removal, rock blasting and safety fences, such concerns are misplaced over the long haul. Users of the Fish Lake Trail have an open and inviting natural space, as do users of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. Both are the sort of space the Ben Burr Trail can become. These trails would not exist were it not for prior blasting and cutting. Plenty of nature will remain and regenerate along the BBT in a setting that will be readily accessible to all manner of users (and more of them than previously).
The BBT is a legacy of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Spokane and Inland Empire Interurban. It once again has the opportunity to play an important and enhanced role in Spokane transportation. Should a vocal collection of East Central Neighborhood residents get their way, the BBT will remain an East Central asset, cut off from much of the city by foot and bike for all but the most hearty. It would be a shame if the BBT project were derailed due to NIMBYism. It needn’t be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. All of Spokane is best served if the BBT project moves forward as planned.
By Sam Mace, East Central Neighborhood resident
Leave the Ben Burr Be
In a neighborhood struggling economically, parks and trails can make all the difference in providing quality of life and opportunities for recreation. In East Central, Underhill Park and the historic Ben Burr trail provide much-needed natural respite.
The dirt and graveled trail running between Underhill and Liberty parks is often filled with runners, dog walkers and parents with strollers. This neighborhood “nature trail” is a place to get away from pavement and enjoy the ponderosa pines, overhanging maples, mock orange and wildlife. Ben Burr offers views of the city in some stretches and in others large trees and basalt rocks narrow the trail, creating the feeling of having escaped the city altogether. At the small spring one might spot the occasional porcupine. In winter natural heat vents send up steam from basalt scree.
More than 20 years ago neighborhood leaders hired a landscape designer to develop a plan to improve the Ben Burr. It called for benches, some landscaping and other improvements while preserving the natural characteristics of the trail. Partially completed, the neighborhood hoped to work with the city to finish improvements.
Residents were taken aback recently when a city engineer came to East Central to share the City’s plans for “improving” the Ben Burr. With no consultation or involvement of the neighborhood or trail users, the City announced its plan: widening and paving the narrow trail to 14-16 feet (10-12 feet wide with 2 foot buffers); removal of large ponderosas, maples and other trees; rock blasting, grading the trail and building walls and railings along the basalt cliffs. What is currently a quiet natural trail would be transformed into a paved transportation corridor primarily for bikes.
Why such engineering overkill? Without consulting the neighborhood the city staff applied for federal transportation funds that come with many requirements.
Had the city involved East Central early on rather than after the fact, we’d likely have a plan everyone could support. The neighborhood wholeheartedly supports most of the project. We welcome better bike access from Liberty Park to downtown. As a biker, I’m excited at the prospect of a safe route to downtown. But, like my neighbors, I need a place to walk in the neighborhood that isn’t concrete jungle.
Pave and unpaved trails offer very different recreation. I love the paved Centennial trail for biking. But when I’m feeling hemmed in by the city, I step off onto one of the many beautiful dirt trails along the Spokane River or head up to the Ben Burr.
East Central would welcome working with the city and other user groups on a compromise. Perhaps the Pittsburg connection down to Liberty Park could be paved and the east segment left alone, enhancing bike access from the Perry neighborhood which preserving a piece of the nature trail. Certainly we can preserve a three-quarter mile section of the Ben Burr trail and find other bike routes.
East Central is not a NIMBY neighborhood. One might argue we’ve taken the biggest hits for “progress” over the years. The freeway destroyed the heart of East Central decades ago; now the freeway expansion means 10-12 lanes of freeway through our part of town. Underhill Park will be torn up for a couple of years with the construction of the largest CSO tank. Is it so much to ask to keep three-quarter mile of trail unpaved?
The Ben Burr belongs to all of us here in Spokane and everyone deserves some say in its management. But a neighborhood having pride in and love for a trail is a positive thing, especially in a low-income area like East Central. It’s been disappointing to see that sense of pride dismissed, rather than encouraged.
The East Central Neighborhood Council voted last month to oppose paving Ben Burr. Residents have asked the city to consider options for completing the project from Liberty Park to downtown. At the very least the project should start from downtown, not begin with the controversial Ben Burr portion as currently planned. It’s asking too much of our neighborhood to suffer the CSO tank construction in Underhill and Ben Burr construction simultaneously.
The Ben Burr Trail is a case study in how not to move a project forward. The Parks Board has acknowledged the poor process and the valid concerns of residents by passing an amendment requiring the city to work closely with the neighborhood if the project goes forward. Hopefully in the future city staff will engage neighborhoods on the ground floor, not after the fact.
East Central desperately needs to hold on to the little scraps of nature we have. Don’t turn our trail into a concrete canyon. Leave the Ben Burr be.