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Fund cut leaves Yough bike trail in limbo

Monday, July 21, 2003

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The future visitors center along the northern section of the Youghiogheny River Trail in West Newton is a fine-looking structure, a reproduction of the original Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad station that once occupied the site.

But the interior of the West Newton Trail Center is unfinished. No work has been done since last fall.

"We ran out of money," said Bob McKinley, manager of the Regional Trail Corp., which spent about $250,000 in federal money to build the visitors center off state Route 136 and now needs about $300,000 more to finish it.

For years, his organization has relied heavily on funds from the Federal Highway Administration to develop the rails-to-trails system in southwestern Pennsylvania.

In the past 10 years, it has received about $3 million for trails, including the $250,000 for the visitors center. Nationwide, about $3.05 billion has been spent on construction of bicycle, pedestrian and rail-trails.

"That amounts to about 2 percent of the federal money spent on highways," he said.

Now, with the federal budget deficit looming, funding for future bike trail projects nationwide is in jeopardy.

"Without that money, I don't know what we will do," McKinley said.

The transportation appropriations subcommittee in the U.S. House is currently debating a proposal that would eliminate the pool of money earmarked for bicycle trails in 2004 and put it into highways, said Brad Clemenson, district director for U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown.

"I think that because of the budget deficit, there's less money available for transportation, and as a result, people are advocating for highways," Clemenson said.

"In Western Pennsylvania, we have a world-class system of bike trails. If we lose this federal funding, it would be hard to finish these," Clemenson said.

One uncompleted project is the red brick visitors building, with finely honed architectural features, in West Newton. It was designed by architect Ray Sweeney, a West Newton resident whose firm, Sweeney and Shank, is based in Castle Shannon.

Plans for the West Newton Trail Center include restrooms with flush toilets, a maintenance garage for lawn mowers and equipment, a visitors center with maps and a shop, and offices for the nonprofit Regional Trail Corp., which develops and manages trail corridors in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Adjacent to the center is a restored 1928 rail car that is being converted into the Yough River Environmental Education Center, a place where students can study the river and the flora and fauna along the trails.

The design for the center is copied from the original Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Station built at the site in 1910 and demolished in the 1980s.

"When the P&LE sold us the right of way, they gave us boxes and boxes of plans," McKinley said.

Sweeney said the building is slightly bigger than the original rail station, but built in the same style, with brick detailing re-created from old photographs. He said the trail organization decided to build a structure that reflected the history of the region.

McKinley said the Allegheny Regional Asset District and private foundations have been major funding sources for trails. With federal sources in jeopardy, McKinley anticipates that his organization will have to work harder to tap local sources and trail users.

"We will probably be at the trailheads with tin cans," he said.

His organization also relies heavily on volunteers to clean, maintain and improve the trails.

McKinley said one of the biggest new helpers on the trail project is an initiative called Blazing New Trails, which was started last year by Diane Koneffko, a Belle Vernon High School teacher.

Koneffko and fellow teacher Don Paradise won a grant from the state Department of Education to create a program for troubled students to do community service projects on the trails.

With the $579,000 grant, Koneffko said, they designed a Web site and sent out letters inviting 500 high schools in Pennsylvania to participate. She said 38 schools across the state signed on and are developing volunteer projects for problem students.

On the Youghiogheny River Trail, she said, 17 students from Belle Vernon High School who were in the alternative education program signed up for the community service venture to work on trails they had never used or even heard about. They planted wildflowers and designed an art project that is displayed at the edge of Cedar Creek Park.

The students also wrote a script and did a video about the history of the trail, which will be donated to the new education center in the rail car at West Newton.

"They dressed in costumes and acted it out. They really got into it," she said.

At the end of the school year, Koneffko said, "we had a dinner for them and the students got to talk about what they did."

"I think they felt so proud," she said.

In the next few weeks, she said, the students will install bat boxes along the trail to counteract infestations of mosquitoes and black flies.

"The Pennsylvania Game Commission will help us," she said.

McKinley was delighted with the collaboration, one of many that keep the trail system operating.

His organization has built the Youghiogheny River Trail's north section, a 43-mile hiking and biking trail from McKeesport to Connellsville, and nine miles of the Five Star Trail from Greensburg to Youngwood. It is in the early planning stages of building several other trails in Westmoreland and Fayette counties.

It is part of the Allegheny Trail Alliance of seven organizations building a network of 200 miles of trails that will connect Pittsburgh with the C&O Towpath in Cumberland, Md., which continues to Washington, D.C.

Jan Ackerman can be reached at jackerman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1370.

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