Have you ever taken a jog around Blawenburg, Belle Mead, or Skillman, and come to the end of a sidewalks and passable trails, running straight into brush? Or do you wait until weekends to fiddle with your car’s bike rack, and drive to Princeton, New Hope, or elsewhere to get your feet and two wheels turning?
Somerset County wants to hear from residents at its spring public session — Thursday, April 11, starting at 5 pm at the County Administration Building, 20 Grove Street in Somerville — on the comprehensive “Walk, Bike, Hike Plan” shaping up for paths and trails near you. A presentation and maps of existing and potential network connections of county trails, bike lanes and paths aims to “set the course.”
The Walk, Bike, Hike plan with its tagline, “Connecting Vibrant Communities” is a work in progress that continues to evolve with community and municipal officials’ input. According to Kenneth Weeden, AICP, Supervising Transportation Planner with the county Planning Division, funding for this plan came from a two-year Regional Study grant from the NJTPA (North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority) which is expiring at the end of June. This year more funding for the county plan and its implementation will be sought.
Somerset County’s website describes its new plan as “an integrated network of multi use trails, paths and bicycle infrastructure that serve a variety of transportation needs by connecting all users to opportunities, services, and destinations in the region.” Safety considerations for walkers, bikers, and drivers remains the top priority as the draft plan evolves. County Engineering and Public Works officials help scrutinize each step. Weeden said the mapping is being refined almost daily as County Planning, County Parks staff or municipalities find new routes.
“We met with Montgomery a few months ago, including Planning and Open Space staff, and they gave us great input. We hope to have them provide further input at meetings over the coming weeks. Obviously on April 11 and beyond we welcome public input on the draft — it is a living document as the mapping evolves with new potential and as we review it with consultants and both public and municipal partners,” he explains.
Montgomery Township Health Officer Stephanie Carey spoke with the News in mid-March about the county’s Walk, Bike, Hike Plan and its genesis with the Healthier Somerset Coalition, involving a network of healthcare providers, county and municipal divisions, businesses, schools, nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
“Our Community Health Improvement Plan is really endorsing the idea of creating connectivity between trails so they can be used both for recreation and as another way to get around safely. The Montgomery Health Department is working with Somerset County Planning Division and its director Walter Lane, as well as Montgomery Township, to facilitate awareness of our trails system and to try to bring some resources to close some of the gaps in the bike trail system. The idea is if it’s easier and safer for people to be active then people will be more active,” Carey explained.
The first public meeting on the Walk, Bike, Hike Plan was held in Somerville on November 29, 2018, and the county posted its PowerPoint and a PDF map of existing trails online. Locally, Montgomery’s Planning Director Lori Savron and Open Space Coordinator Lauren Wasilauski are proactive with Somerset County officials and engineers on the planning portions of area trails and paths.
According to Carey awareness of the beautiful existing trails in the county is a complimentary goal to an expansion.
“It would be wonderful to have a uniform countywide map so people know where trails are and where they lead to. Then there is a practical problem of connecting them. There are ¼ mile gaps where someone could die trying to get from the bike trail to the next piece of roadway. That keeps a lot of people from doing any bicycle commuting. So there is the knowledge and outreach addressing where a safe place to bike or hike is, then there’s investment in Complete Streets policy. The construction priority is trying to identify those places we need to fill in the gaps so people can consider biking or walking for transportation,” she said.
Recent examples of Complete Streets and increasing walkability in Montgomery, as prescribed by Planning Board and departmental review of applications, include the sidewalks along Route 206 in front of the car dealerships at the southern edge of town, as well as the new Country Club Meadows retail components at 206 and Belle Mead-Griggstown Road, which includes a pedestrian crosswalk. Carey commented on the Montgomery Promenade site plans, Madison Marquette developers included a bike rack area.
“New developments coming in need to meet the Complete Streets standards to make it safe for walking and bicycling while reasonable for cars. Hopefully younger people (adolescents) can get around without having to get behind 2,000 pounds of steel and reducing carbon emissions. Then there is a question of connecting the new and existing. Planning Director Lori Savron has worked with project managers to examine connector pathways, helping create a ‘walkshed’ or ‘bikeshed’ with everything leading to a main trail. There is an environmental aspect and economical aspect, but our health is an often-overlooked underpinning with all of this. A healthy environment is where healthy people live,” Carey says.
Carey noted Walk, Bike, Hike collaborations led by County Planning Director Walter Lane, a presenter at many Central Jersey Transportation Forum meetings, and “transportation advocate” Linda Rapacki, marketing manager of Bridgewater-based 501c3 nonprofit RideWise. Residents who would like more information about this countywide project are asked to email firstname.lastname@example.org.