Opinion Columns & Blogs

Partners need shared vision

Juxtaposition of two stories on the front page of Friday's Charlotte Observer could not have been more ironic.

One was about an announcement later that day of a plan to build a network of trails, spanning 15 counties in the two Carolinas and costing between $100 million and $140 million over the next decade and a half.

The second article was about how a city election in Huntersville, N.C., north of Charlotte, might signal the death knell for one leg of the planned Charlotte Area Transportation System, or CATS. It seems that a majority of the new town council doesn't cotton to helping pay for stations to serve the northern link of the Queen City's planned rail system.

So why would backers of the former plan have reason to expect regional support for a web of hiking trails when some politicians might be opting out of mass transit? If a city councilman can't see the advantages of a rail link with Charlotte, why would he pay for granola munchers to take a hike?

The two are apples and oranges in some ways. For one, you can build a lot of trail for what a single mile of rail transit costs. For another, some big corporate players in Charlotte already have pledged millions for the Carolina Thread Trail, and various state or federal programs are expected to cover much of the remaining expense.

Another reason to be optimistic about the trail is that some sections already are either completed or will soon be underway. In York County, for example, a two-mile section of the Nation Ford Trail has opened in Fort Mill. Another, more ambitious trail will connect Kings Mountain State Park, west of Clover, with Crowders Mountain State Park in North Carolina.

Both of these local efforts have two key elements: A shared vision and willing partners.

In the case of the Nation Ford Trail, a developer who understood that a trail along a picturesque creek would enhance the quality of life for future residents worked with the Nation Ford Land Trust and others.

Dave Cable, who serves as director of the Carolina Thread Trail and also directs Catawba Land Trust, is the Johnny Appleseed of the trail network. Cable says the idea was first planted during the Voices and Choices regional planning process a few years back.

Most of the time such exercises produce glossy reports, full of noble dreams and handsome graphics but little else. Perhaps because a regional trail system is low-hanging fruit when compared to such monumental issues as air pollution, water scarcity and transportation gridlock, leaders concluded the Carolina Thread Trail could set a precedent for cooperation across county and state lines.

As conceived, no local government would be forced to participate. There is no thought that the trail would be advanced through condemnation powers or even that the final network would look exactly like the schematic disclosed last week. In other words, Charlotte is not big-footing the effort in the manner some feel was done with CATS or the recent fight over interbasin transfer of Catawba River water.

A regionwide network of trails won't happen until enough champions emerge throughout the 15 counties to persuade political leaders and landowners of the advantages of participating. Some of those include:

• Healthier lifestyles, especially for our obese children, who are glued to their computers and cell phones

• Energy conservation and cleaner air: Some people would rather live close enough to their work to be able to walk or bike

• Eco-tourism and economic development: In addition to businesses that cater to outdoor enthusiasts, many companies prefer to locate where employees may enjoy such amenities.

• Outdoor classrooms, bird-watching groups and other activities that can be tailored for people of all ages, races and ethnic groups

• Value added to residential and commercial property adjoining or in close proximity to trails.

Cynics will come up with a list of reasons why trails can't or shouldn't be built.

But who knows? Perhaps if enough Carolinians bump into each other on the Carolina Thread Trail, they will start figuring out how to solve our bigger problems.