Trail movement gathering steam in Pierce County

It’s been 24 years since Pierce County voters blessed the County Council’s decision to build the Foothills Trail, the popular paved bicycle-pedestrian path that cruises through farmland and riverside from Puyallup to South Prairie.

Trail opponents had forced a referendum on the trail project, hoping to kill it. But a 53 percent majority gave it the green light.

No doubt a much larger majority would now approve of the project. On pleasant days, the 15-mile trail is busy with walkers, runners, cyclists, families shepherding children in strollers and on training wheels, roller skaters and even fishermen and horse riders. Fears that the trail would increase vandalism and threaten property values proved unfounded.

Offering spectacular views of Mount Rainier and the Carbon River, the trail is now widely recognized as one of the county’s most accessible and valuable recreational assets.

The Foothills Trail has been followed by construction of Tacoma’s Scott Pierson Trail, which includes a thrilling traverse on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge; the recently lengthened Cushman Trail in Gig Harbor; Puyallup’s RiverWalk Trail; a Sumner trail that will connect to the Foothills Trail and to King County’s Interurban Trail, and Eatonville’s Bud Blanchard Trail. The Water Flume Line Trail in South Tacoma and the Prairie Line Trail through the University of Washington Tacoma campus are recent additions to the list.

That’s a lot to celebrate. And there may be more to celebrate soon. The Legislature’s new capital budget is likely to include funding for completion of the missing link in the Foothills Trail – a winding, four-mile section through a beautiful wooded ravine between South Prairie and Buckley. Cross fingers. Trail advocates have been waiting years for this.

The City of Tacoma is serious about building a shared-use path that would replace the dangerously narrow sidewalk along Schuster Parkway. Connecting the north end of downtown with the Ruston Way waterfront, much of the trail would be elevated, affording great views of Commencement Bay.

An additional benefit: The buttressed trail also would help stabilize the slide-prone slopes along the parkway. Engineering work is already underway, and the city is seeking state funds for design and construction. The city’s ultimate goal is a Dome-to-Defiance Trail.

Prospects are also promising for a new trail, following existing Tacoma Water right-of-way, that ultimately could connect Tacoma’s East Side with Puyallup and the Foothills Trail. Bureaucrats call it the Cross County Commuter Connector; the Pipeline Trail is what users will call it.

This trail could become a key step in completing a long-envisioned Mountain to Sound trail from Mount Rainier National Park to Commencement Bay.

Promoting that vision is one goal of the Rainier to Ruston Rail-Trail Relay and Ultra, an annual 52-mile run from the park’s Carbon River entrance to Ruston Way in Tacoma. This year’s event will be held on June 6, National Trails Day.

The trails movement is clearly gathering momentum in Pierce County. Here, as in many cities and communities around the nation, there is a growing popular and political consensus that trails are valuable public assets. Benefits include economic development, improving public health and providing alternative means of transportation for commuters.

Building more miles of shared-use trails is great. But the greatest benefit comes from having a true network or system of trails connecting all or most of Pierce County’s cities and communities. This is the goal of the newly created Active Transportation Community of Interest, part of the Russell Foundation’s innovative and wide-ranging $10 million Puyallup Watershed Initiative.

For up to 10 years, this broad-based group of public officials and advocates will receive funding to build political will and public support for completing a regional trail system in Pierce County.

That’s a tall order for a cash-strapped county that has long lagged behind its neighbors in constructing public trails. It might take another 24 years to accomplish. Let’s hope it comes sooner. But no matter how long it takes, it’s a vision well worth pursuing.

David Seago retired in 2008 as editorial page editor for The News Tribune. He is a board member of the Foothills Rails to Trails Coalition and ForeverGreen Trails.