Long-awaited trail soon to become reality

Story by Chase Downey, Contributor // Photos by Mike Tripp, contributor

The Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path navigates around Heritage Oaks Golf Course and towards Hillandale Park.

A long-awaited trail system connecting multiple schools and parks in Harrisonburg is finally under construction – the end result of a campaign that officially began in 2015. 

The trail, whose name is currently being voted on by community members, consists of two paths: the Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path and the Cale Trail. The first begins on Garbers Church Road between Harrisonburg High School and Bluestone Elementary School, then follows a path along the southern edge of Heritage Oaks Golf Course to Hillandale Park and then to the Wyndham Woods neighborhood. There, it connects to the Cale Trail, which connects Wyndham Woods and Westover Park.

Map from City of Harrisonburg’s website

The campaign for this project began in 2015, but has origins stretching back to when Harrisonburg High School was first built 20 years ago, according to Kyle Lawrence, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC). 

“There was no legal way to walk or bike [to the high school] without going all the way out to Erickson or 33… you couldn’t cut through the golf course, legally,” Lawrence said. “From the time the high school was built it was always a bit of an island from a bike/walk perspective, from safe, comfortable, and convenient options to get there.”

The construction of Bluestone Elementary School only increased community interest in a trail, Lawrence said, eventually leading to the Connect Our Schools campaign. 

So, what took so long?

To build the path, the city initially looked at routes across private property adjacent to Heritage Oaks so as not to impact the golf course. When the city was unable to negotiate with property owners in the area for easement access, it began talks with the Parks and Recreation department to utilize the golf course’s land for the path. 

“At that point… [The Parks and Recreation Department] liked the idea to open up the golf course to be seen and used by more than just golfers,” Tom Hartman, Director of Public Works said. “That’s what we’re able to do with the trail location that we’re building right now.”

The choice to not initially use the golf course’s land was “the biggest misstep” the city made according to Lawrence, who said, “It’s hard to believe that was a hang-up.”

While funding was secured for the project through a VDOT revenue-sharing program in 2016, Lawrence said that SVBC had to keep pushing for the city to follow through.

“It’s been a long process of encouraging the city to continue moving, encouraging the city to be creative.”

Construction for the path finally began in early April of this year, and was originally scheduled for completion by the end of October. So far, however, the only paved portion of the path runs from Bluestone Elementary to Hillandale. 

“Our contractors experienced a little bit of delay on both of these projects,” Hartman said. “We’re shooting for mid- to late November for both of them to be completed…our goal is definitely by the end of the year to be able to hopefully schedule a ribbon cutting.” 

An excavator rests where it is being used in construction of the Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path at Bluestone Elementary.

Who will the trail serve?

While SVBC was a major advocate for the trail, Lawrence doesn’t want it to be thought of as a bike trail.

“It’s not a bike trail,” Lawrence said. “We also advocate for people walking and biking as well. I think in the case of these types of paths, you’re going to see the majority of the users actually be on foot.” 

Hartman agrees.

“Connecting three schools and two parks is a great asset for students to use not only to go between the schools but also to get to and from school and get to and from the parks,” Hartman said. “We look forward to families using it that would want to come to one park, maybe they’re at Hillandale and want to go to skate at Westover. Instead of getting in the car and driving over there, you can just walk on the trail and get to Westover and use those amenities and then come back.”

And Lawrence suspects that most bikers on the trail will be casual bikers. 

“I think the majority of people you see on bikes will be in regular clothes, they won’t be in spandex… the people that are looking to ride those further distances are often looking to get out to the county roads as soon as possible,” Lawrence said. “These paths are about regular people going regular places in regular clothes.”

A bicyclist rides his bike on a paved section of the Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path, alongside Bluestone Elementary on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2021.

How is the city paying for it?

The city received $3 million for the Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path project in 2016 through VDOT’s revenue-sharing program, where the state puts up 50% of a grant an the locality puts up the other 50%. The Cale Trail is funded through another $350,000 grant opportunity that the city received through the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which provided 80% of funding while the city matched the remaining 20%. 

After the project is completed, Hartman foresees the trail becoming more connected with other places of community interest.

“Once we get this linear shared use path constructed I’m sure we’re going to find creative ways to make those auxiliary connections to different neighborhoods or different activity centers to get them to and from the trail to use it,” Hartman said.

An existing paved path that has allowed access from Thomas Harrison Middle School to Wyndham Drive will also allow access to the Cale Trail section of the Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path.

The project is among the city’s larger plans to make it easier for people to commute by way of walking or biking. A “guiding document” according to Hartman, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan was adopted by city council in 2017 in order to further these goals of interconnection, and staff often use it when new grant opportunities or developments arise. 

“The city staff is taking initiatives now to extend these types of networks through grant funding opportunities, and that’s a place we were not at 10 years ago,” Lawrence said. “I think the question now is if there’s the political will to not only seek funds but to spend city dollars as well.… You reach this balance where you’ve got to have skin in the game to make these grants work…. If we really want this connectivity, we have to put some resources in the same way we do to our roads and infrastructure.”

Part of the disc golf course at Westover Park is visible alongside the orange safety netting that marks the path of Cale Trail section of the Garbers Church Road Shared Use Path.

When asked if there is a future where these projects might rely more on money coming out of the city’s pocket upfront instead of grant opportunities, Hartman was on the fence.

“I think it depends on what the project is, what the need is, what the city’s budget looks like at that point,” Hartman said. “The city is committed to using our local dollars as best as we can on our projects. As good stewards of those dollars that we do collect, we want to make sure we find every mechanism to leverage them and stretch them as far as we can.” 

As for the soon-to-be-named path, Hartman is looking forward to its opening. 

“We’re excited that construction is starting to come to completion, and we’re excited to get it wrapped up and share it with the city.”

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