On Oct. 11 the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation hosted a day-long meeting exploring the benefits and cost of "active transportation" in Whatcom County. The Whatcom Active Transportation Summit was attended by Whatcom County citizens, staff from multiple county and city agencies involved in transportation, and elected officials including County Executive Jack Louws, Ferndale Mayor Gary Jensen and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.
The summit effectively made the case for investing in Whatcom County bike and pedestrian infrastructure now. The event's presenters helped to distill the concept of non-motorized trails and paths as a form of transportation which, as such, should be incorporated into the existing transportation infrastructure of Whatcom County.
Active transportation, defined as any non-motorized mode of transport, presents a wide range of benefits including improved community health, increased tourism, climate change offset, traffic reduction and other economic advantages. The summit explored such broad issues as they specifically affect Whatcom County and offered the proposed Nooksack Loop Trail as a vision for the future.
In what was widely applauded as the event's most inspirational moment, three speakers provided personal accounts of how walking and riding a bike dramatically changed their lives. The health problems associated with lack of physical activity in this county include hypertension, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity. This sedentary lifestyle epidemic is rapidly becoming the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States. The stories of Darlene, Jeff and Jason becoming involved with the SmartTrips program were a vivid testament to how a simple trail can lead to remarkable health improvements.
Presenters cited active transportation infrastructure not only as a promoter of community health, but of economic health as well. Mel Monkelis, executive director of Whatcom Events and organizer of the annual Ski to Sea race, cited the Ski to Sea race as a generator of $1.2 million into the local economy, while labeling the City of Bellingham as the recreational center of the Pacific Northwest. He argued that this economic boon would expand to Whatcom County's other communities with added capacity for participation as the result of an investment in trail infrastructure in the county.
The drive to expand active transportation infrastructure in Whatcom County is not new. The Comprehensive Parks, Recreation and Open Space Plan, as part of Whatcom County's comprehensive planning process, has included major trail development since the early 1970s and been adopted or accepted by Whatcom County councils since that time, though little has been completed to date. Appropriately, Clallam County Senior Transportation Planner and champion of the successful Olympic Discovery Trail, Rich James' presentation was structured as a "how to" guide to executing major trail plans in rural communities.
With the success of the Olympic Discovery Trail as undeniable evidence, James posited that funding such a project was possible with the vision of a supportive community, buy-in from local governments and agencies, dedicated agency staff and a grassroots support network connected to other networks such as user groups and national organizations. Aggressively seeking grant and local funding and inclusion in the six-year Transportation Improvement Program were pillars of his formula for success.
The Nooksack Loop Trail has every potential to follow in James' footsteps. The trail, presented to the public at the summit, proposes the amalgamation of 40 years of trail planning at the county level to form a 45-mile loop in the core of Whatcom County. Intended as a transportation and recreational corridor between four of the county's population centers, the tentative route would serve up to 150,000 citizens within a five-mile radius. Bellingham, Ferndale, Lynden and Everson are the incorporated beneficiaries of the trail, comprised of segments from the Coast Millennium Trail, Nooksack River Trail and Bay to Baker Trail.
Implementation of the Nooksack Loop Trail would result in increased access to the health and wellness benefits of walking and biking for formerly underserved populations in unincorporated Whatcom County. Its 45 miles of crushed gravel would expand the participation capacity for popular events that already draw millions into the county's economy each year. The Nooksack Loop Trail was offered at the summit as an opportunity for forward momentum in the pursuit of expanded active transportation infrastructure, and would provide a core loop from which all of Whatcom County's population centers could eventually be served.
The Whatcom Active Transportation Summit served to consolidate the knowledge of myriad local experts and interested citizens in a setting both informative and inspirational. Momentum from the event should develop a foundation of support for future projects like the Nooksack Loop Trail.
Presentation slide shows and audio from the Summit can be found archived at www.wprfoundation.org/active.
Daniel Tepper is president of the Whatcom Parks and Recreation Foundation Board.