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The Cayuga Waterfront Trail is Open!

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Planning for the Cayuga Waterfront Trail began at about the turn of the millennium during the Alan Cohen administration, which at this point is sort of like the Iron Age of Ithaca history. It is now possible to walk and bike the entire length of the trail from the visitors’ center on the east end of the lake to Cass Park on the west end. The official opening is the first week of August.

Jean McPheeters, who recently retired as president of the Ithaca/Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, said there were three basic reasons that her organization and its constituents were interested in supporting the project. “First, we could see the linkages to tourism,” she said. “People were showing up at the visitors’ center and asking, ‘Where’s the lake? The configuration of the highways here just prevents people from getting to the lake, unless they go to Stewart Park or a few other places. They wanted to be able to walk along the lakefront.” 

McPheeters added that the chamber members were aware that a walkable community is a healthier community and a more enjoyable one, which is good for business.

Finally, the building of the trail was going to encourage the development of new businesses in the area along the waterfront. If the water was more accessible, then it would attract more commerce, like boat rental businesses and dockside restaurants.

“The first two phases that were built were mostly on city owned land,” said the former chamber president, “so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to build businesses there, but in the middle portion there is a lot of private land, so there are more opportunity for businesses.”

Rick Manning

Phase I of the trail is at the west side of the lake in Cass Park, while Phase III is at on the east side, extending from the visitors’ center on East Shore Drive through Stewart Park to the farmers market at Steamboat Landing. Phase II was delayed because of some private landowners did not immediately see the benefit of the trail and refused to grant right of way through their parcels.

Rick Manning is a landscape architect. When the trail planning process began in the late 1990s he was working for the firm Trowbridge, Wolfe, and Michaels (which was then called Trowbridge and Wolfe). “I was sort of the trail guy at Trowbridge and Wolfe,” Manning said. “I went out on my own in 2000, but kept it as my goal to do this trail as a consulting job.” The City of Ithaca hired Manning to carry forward the project, which at that time meant conducting a feasibility study for Phase I.

“In the early 1970s a fitness trail had been built in Cass Park, but it was only about 6 feet wide,” Manning said. “The state funded us to rebuild that, but I could see that to complete the whole project it was going to have to be a public/private partnership.”

While at a professional conference Manning met the president of the Olean chamber of commerce, who was an avid biker and walker. The chamber president had been inspired by a fitness trail in Rhode Island that his son had told him about. Manning is originally from Rhode Island and checked out the trail himself. The landscape architect was then impressed by how the chamber president went about raising money for his local trail in Olean, a much smaller city than Ithaca albeit also a college town (home to St. Bonaventure University).

Engraved Stones

Private donations paid for trail amenities.

“I thought his approach to fundraising was pretty cool,” said Manning. “He knew how to get money from non-governmental sources.” Manning wasted little time in telling McPheeters about her opposite number in western New York and his trail fundraising technique.

“She got it,” he said, “and she has a lot of energy.”

McPheeters also knew Joanne Florino, who, when all this began, was at the Park Foundation, and eventually led the Triad Foundation. Both local foundations went on to be generous supports of the trail project.

Phase I, the portion in Cass Park, went forward relatively smoothly, taking only about two years to go from planning to construction in 2002 and early 2003. According to Manning, it was built by city public works crews at night and on weekends.

“The grant for Phase II was received before we finished with Phase I,” said Manning. “That was for $450,000 for the part between Cass Park and farmers market.” Manning admitted to having been surprised at the reaction of the private landowners along the planned path of Phase II. “I guess we were a little naïve,” he said. “We went into this thinking that everyone would really be excited about the idea.”

They weren’t. Several landowners could see no benefit at all in having a bike trail go across or past their properties. “All the landowners knew [about the trail planning process],” said Manning, “but I guess they thought it wouldn’t happen. But then the money came, and they had real concerns.”

They were excited in concept, said Tim Logue, a traffic engineer for the City of Ithaca who worked closely with Manning to develop the waterfront trail. According to Logue, the owner of André Petroleum stated at several public meetings and in writing that he was concerned about terrorists using the trail to get close to his stored propane and about the careless flicking of cigarettes by other trail users.

Logue felt that Puddledockers, a kayak rental business whose property is bisected by the trail, had legitimate concerns. He noted that their business has grown since planning for Phase II began and that the city is working hard to minimize the disruption to Puddledockers, but that during construction that has been difficult.

Around 2004 and 2005 the discussion about rights-of-way “got ugly,” according to Manning. The city government tried to using eminent domain, but they were not able to successfully carry it through. Manning was reluctant to skip over Phase II and go on to Phase III because it would mean having two unconnected portions of the trail complete for an unknown period of time.

In 2006, with the help of Fernando D’Aragon at the Tompkins County Transportation Council, the  Cayuga Waterfront Trail project received $1.2 million from the federal Department of Transportation grant program called “T21.” When you are trying to get a federal grant, it is helpful to have federal connections. Dan Lamb, an assistant to then-Rep. Maurice Hinchey, worked very hard, according to Manning, to secure the transportation grant for the Ithaca trail.

The trail contingent reluctantly went forward with Phase III, while haggling over Phase II continued. “The design work [for Phase III] was done by 2008,” said Manning, “and the construction was done in 2010. In the meantime, with our support, the city got support for the Route 13 crossings at Dey and First streets, which are tied into all this.”

The recent Form Ithaca charette, run by Rob Steuteville of Better Cities & Towns and the STREAM Collaborative, focused in part on the portion of the city between Route 13 and the lake from Cascadilla Creek to the Cayuga Inlet. They recognized Route 13 as a barrier to further development of the neighborhood and, in addition to narrowing the crossings (which is now underway), recommended re-designing the highway to make it less forbidding for pedestrians and bicyclists to cross. Although the new neighborhood has not yet been built, the waterfront trail will very soon be easier to get to via Dey and First streets.

“We had the money for Phase II,” Manning said of the 2008-2010 period, “but we couldn’t get past the land thing. Then the DOT [state Department of Transportation] offered to take care of it. It’s a really complicated process, but they have a whole department that does it routinely. But it was unusual for them to do it for a trail, and it still took three or four years to do it.”

The money for property acquisition was not included in the budget of the government grants because the planners had naively assumed the landowners would be happy to donate the rights-of-way. It therefore had to be raised from private sources. Manning gave a lot of credit to McPheeters and D’Aragon for keeping the profile of the project high through the prolonged period of time necessary to raise the money.

The Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 organization that is affiliated with the chamber of commerce (which is a 501 (c) 6 organization and pays taxes and cannot accept tax-deductible gifts). 

McPheeters began her fundraising efforts by starting with larger businesses, like Tompkins Trust Company (which, like the chamber, has a not-for-profit affiliate called the Legacy Foundation), but then continued reaching out to smaller businesses and eventually to individuals. “We were fundraising for amenities, like the benches and the features at the trailheads,” said McPheeters. “But private donations were also important because some of the grants that we were getting required private matches.”

While the DOT was instrumental in acquiring private land to complete the trail, its depot on the waterfront is something that McPheeters and Manning would like to see moved. McPheeters would like it to move somewhere else so that the land can return to the tax rolls and businesses could be developed on the site (which covers several acres) that would use the waterfront location to its best advantage. McPheeters said that the county planning office has gotten money from the state economic development office to come up with a plan for this site, which has a commanding view of the mouth of the flood control channel and Cayuga Inlet, South and West hills, and the west shore of Cayuga Lake.

The DOT has actually acquired a parcel of land in Dryden where it could move, but because the transition would cost money, the department seems in no hurry to leave its present site. 

In the end, design, rights-of-way acquistion, construction and post-construction cost under $500,000 for Phase I, $2.94 million of Phase II, and $1.3 million for Phase III, a total of $4.75 million.

The trail runs between the DOT depot and the water’s edge, a place where very few members of the public have ever stood before. A much more visible piece of the trail is the crossing that it shares with Route 96 over the flood control channel at the base of West Hill. 

Manning said that the trail took one half of a 14-foot lane of traffic away. The idea, he said, was proposed by avid local biker Dave Nutter. The area had been a right-turn lane, but it was often used by driver to merge left.

The existing arrangement is not the permanent one. For one thing, the street will be re-lined to create two 11-foot lanes for automobiles and two 4-foot bike lanes. In addition, the barrels that are set up on the westbound lane will be removed when an “impact attenuator” is installed where the waterfront trail incorporates the former right-turn lane.

“There shouldn’t be much impact,” said Logue, the city traffic engineer, “because two lanes have to turn into one and this just forces the merge to be earlier. There actually may be some benefit because people used to race down the right[-turn] lane and then merge quickly.” He admitted that the stretch of Route 96 between the intersection with Taughannock Blvd. and Cliff Street was still complicated.

“We set up experiments with barrels there twice,” Logue said. “We didn’t find any significant impact [from giving the right-turn lane to the waterfront trail], and the DOT agreed with us.”

“We looked at the idea of putting in a bridge,” said Manning, “but it would have cost something like $3 million.” This is nearly as much as the entire three phases of the trail project together.

Phase II, which will complete the trail, cost $2.5 million all together. The city (and therefore the city taxpayers) paid only 20 percent of that, with the rest paid for through federal grants.

It was actually Logue’s job to keep track of all the finances and the trail did cost more than originally expected. “Rick didn’t expect to have pay for property,” said Logue of Manning, “ and that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The design costs were higher in some places. In places where you have a permanent easement, you need to make you stay in there.” 

The bridge over the Cayuga Inlet at West Buffalo Street, which was lowered onto its concrete abutments on July 13, had been costed out 10 years ago and, of course, cost more to manufacture and transport now.

The money that was raised privately, as opposed to government grants, was completely separate and under the aegis of the chamber of commerce, not Logue. Those funds have been going to pay for trail amenties and Manning said that the Cayuga Waterfront Trail has more amenities than some.

“If you go from one end of the trail to the other and read the interpretive signs,” said Manning, “you can learn a fair amount about the history of the Ithaca watefront.” The trail, he said, “means that everyone can be part of the waterfront without having to own a boat.” •

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