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A group of island leaders and cyclists have renewed a push to carve out a multi-use bike path alongside the Newport Secondary Rail Line.
NEWPORT - The Newport Secondary Rail Line slices through the city with ease..
From the historic Point to the base of the Mount Hope Bridge and through the pastures of the exclusive Carnegie Abbey Club, the line traces a narrow 14-mile path along the west side of Aquidneck Island on its way to the northern edge of Portsmouth..A relic of the past for most; a key - if elusive - piece of the island's future to others.
On a recent blustery Saturday, a small group of public officials and cycling enthusiasts climbed aboard the parlor car of the Old Colony & Newport Railway and set out for what the volunteer organization calls its "long ride.".
Warmed by a cast iron pot belly stove, the 15 or so passengers chatted, took in the view, and dreamed about the possibility of one day seeing bicyclists pedaling out the window. Among those riding the rails on this day were Evan Smith, CEO of the Newport and Bristol County Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Art Weber, Middletown Town Council president, Portsmouth Town Planner Gary Crosby, and Newport Hospital's Bart Grimes..
The outing was organized by Bike Newport founder Bari George, who has rekindled the idea of creating a mixed use corridor along the rail line that could accommodate cyclists from Newport to Portsmouth..
It's a concept that's been visited upon before but with little success..
As Peter Martin, a former member of the city's Planning Board and current state Representative reflects on his website, StacyHouse.com, "When I retried (in 2000), I realized that one of the major problems in Newport is the isolation which resulted with the construction of the Newport Bridge in 1968, of the North End from the center of the city.".
Indeed, when the state constructed the Pell Bridge interchange and America's Cup Avenue, it was done so to connect one end of the island to the other. What it did was divide a community..
Being a self-proclaimed 'old retired guy' at the time, Martin started a community survey regarding the feasibility of converting the Newport Secondary Track, particularly from the Depot to the Fourth Street Diner, into a shared rail corridor and a bike path / pedestrian walkway..
He posted the information on his website, and the results are still there. And while they - and other studies conducted in ensuing years - have shown overwhelming support for converting the rail line into a shared use corridor, as the city and state grapple with other, more pressing needs, the rail-bike path has been sidelined as a low priority project..
However, according to proponents, the need to encourage cycling as a means to improving health - especially among the city's youth, is a high priority indeed..
George is hoping to change that..
"It's definitely been discussed in the past, but it just might be that the timing is really right, right now," she said. "Definitely economically, and also culturally. If you could imagine what it would be like if there was a place where our kids could just hop onto and ride their bikes. It's breathtaking, just the idea of it.".
She has a supporter in Dick Adams, the chairman of the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission.
Describing the prospect of a shared use corridor as a "great thing" for island residents and visitors alike, Adams applauded Bike Newport's interest in the project..
"The ability to be able to bicycle from one end of the island to another would be just wonderful," he said. "I think the other thing it would do of course is offer an alternative to the heavy traffic problems that we have, particularly during large events.".
It could also be a lifesaver for some of Newport's most at-risk populations..
As most any cyclist will attest, moving from the North End of the city into downtown is a chore best done by car. Those who bike or walk the roughly one mile from the Admiral Kalbfus rotary to the Gateway Center are doing so at great risk. Cars and buses dominate here; bicycles and pedestrians are secondary..
"There's not one place on this island, let alone in Newport, where families can ride together on a designated bike path," George said..
The problem is particularly pronounced in the North End, where major arteries and a lack of safe bike routes pose a real danger to recreational cyclists. Therein lies one of Bike Newport's most daunting challenges: If the city is going to build a culture of cycling, it needs infrastructure to sustain it..
Likewise, proponents say, if Newporters are going to build healthy lifestyles, and foster a healthy environment, then cycling should be a key part of the equation..
To that end, the Newport Secondary Line, which has naturally evolved into a transit route of sorts for those migrating by foot from North to South, might just be city's best chance to encourage more families to leave their cars at home and take to their bikes..
Further, with the construction of the new Pell Elementary School on Dexter Street in the city's North End, it would only seem to strengthen the case for developing an intermodal path that would connect the two sides of the city..
According to George, getting families active and on bicycles could have a profound impact not just on the city's recreational landscape, but also on the health of the community at large..
"We have a lot of concern for our kids and their health and their wellbeing," she said, adding "This is really about getting our kids and our families out onto [a healthy] path.".
"The right of way exists," AIPC Chairman Adams noted. "It has all sorts of complications, but it's going to pull together a lot of people. I think if we can pull together the political will and the general organization skills to make it happen - it has potential that is just kind of staggering.".
For Martin, the shared corridor could also have a significant impact on the railroad..
"We need to keep the corridor alive," he said. "Regardless of what mode of transportation we use it for, with the exception of cars, it's got to be a corridor of transportation that's unlike others and allows people to come through the island.".
However, saving the line and converting it into a multi-use path, is likely to come at a steep cost. According to a 2002 study from the AIPC, it's estimated that upgrading the line and engineering a full-island bikeway would cost upwards of $24 million to complete..
However, Adams sees promise in Bike Newport, which in a short 12 months, has demonstrated an uncanny knack for pushing projects from concept to completion..
"Here, you've got a group that really wants to push it, and that's usually what's required," Adams said. "Otherwise it would just languish as an idea.".
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