Newly released Palmetto Trail master plan aims to fill gaps

jholleman@thestate.comApril 16, 2014 

— One key to the new master plan for the Palmetto Trail released Wednesday night is to fill in the gaps of the cross-state path, and a corporate donation announced at the event immediately laid the groundwork for completing one pesky missing link.

SCANA donated $100,000 to help build a bridge from the last decked train trestle in the Wateree Passage to the Wateree River.

When the Wateree Passage was built years ago along a former railroad line, the last few former railroad trestles were too deteriorated to simply be re-decked. So the trail dips down to the ground for that section into the river flood plain, which often is impassible.

When the new bridge is completed in the next year, the Palmetto Trail finally will make it from Sumter County into Richland County in wet times or dry. Another short section on dry land in Richland County also needs to be blazed from the river out to U.S. 601, according to Natalie Britt, executive director of the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, which plans and builds the trail.

From where the Wateree Passage comes out at U.S. 601, there’s a 2.8-mile trail section heading north along the road, then it stops. The master plan calls for the trail to be extended along U.S. 601 until it take a left turn to connect with the existing passage through Fort Jackson.

On the other side of Columbia, the trail currently ends at the north end of Riverfront Park. The master plan offers two possible routes continuing north. One shares space with the existing railroad corridor, though rail companies have been reluctant to allow hiking trails along active tracks. The other option dips in and out between the Broad River and S.C. 215, following utility easement and dirt roads or going through quasi-public property such as Columbia International University and LinRick Golf Course.

Eventually, that section will continue into Fairfield County and connect with the current pedestrian bridge over the Broad River at the start of the Peak-to-Prosperity section. Based on the new master plan, that “eventually” will be within the next decade.

The plan features maps detailing the best routes to fill in the eight largest gaps and realign six other sections.

“At the crux was to develop a plan to finish the trail,” said Jean Crowther, who put together the plan for Alta Planning and Design. “In 10 years, the goal is to have a well-maintained and continuous trail that serves as a spine for other trails.”

The key to making that happen, according to Britt, is more support from corporations such as SCANA and Boeing, which funded the creation of the plan. The foundation also is buoyed that funding for the Palmetto Trail has been included in the early versions of the state budget for the first time since 2007.

“Now we’re in a little better economic situation in South Carolina, which will help move this forward,” said former Gov. Jim Hodges, who supported state funding for the Palmetto Trail during his administration. Considering the growing population in the state and the loss of open land, Hodges said, “If we don’t do something like this now, we’re going to lose the chance.”

The original plan for the nearly 500-mile Palmetto Trail was put together 20 years ago. In some cases, the planned route was more hopeful than realistic.

The portion from the Wateree River to Awendaw on the coast was relatively easy to complete because of the amount of public land along the Santee Cooper lakes. The new plan calls for realigning some of those sections to improve the hiking and biking experience.

Other long sections have been built through public lands in the Upstate, but there are many gaps from the Wateree River to Oconee State Park. About 350 of the approximately 500 miles has been built.

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