CHARLOTTE – A nonprofit is pushing Mecklenburg County to pick up the pace and build 150 miles of public greenways by 2030 – three times the length in existence today – to stay ahead of rapid population growth.
Greenways for Mecklenburg estimates more than one million people will move to the county by 2035 and a connected greenway network would have a significant, positive impact on economic development, transportation and overall quality of life.
“People are moving here and they will not come with trails, they will not come with roads and they will not come with more land,” said Rick Winiker, an attorney on the board at Greenways for Mecklenburg. “If we can get 50 cars off the street, it will not solve the problem, but it will give us an alternative to the gridlock we will be facing in the future.”
Mecklenburg has 47 miles of finished paths and trails. The current five-year capital improvement program carves out 28 miles of greenways to be funded between now and 2023. The City of Charlotte is also helping fund a 30-mile stretch, known as the Cross Charlotte Trail, running from Pineville through uptown and on to the UNC Charlotte campus and Cabarrus County line.
“Greenways are definitely ranked number one among our amenities that people want and our number one priority at parks and recreation,” Michael Kirschman, deputy director of parks and recreation, said. “Greenways trump anything else. They trump pools and athletic fields. Nothing beats trails.”
Although work is progressing, it’s not moving as fast as originally promised.
The 1980 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Greenway Plan called for 79 miles of greenways and the 2008 plan called for 129 miles by 2018. Winiker said construction is moving at a pace of only three to four miles per year, which means a connected 200-mile network – Greenway for Mecklenburg’s ultimate goal by 2035 – could take more than 40 to 50 years.
Kirschman agreed the work has not stayed on schedule. It took the county 20 years to build 5.5 miles of trails and 17 years to build another 42 miles. He said it would have progressed faster, but the economic recession hurt funding and the county went on a debt diet that cut spending for new projects.
Now momentum is picking up, Kirschman said, and 21 miles of greenway currently in the planning and design stages is slated to open in the next two years.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” he said. “This is like a snowball rolling down a hill and it’s just gaining momentum and gaining mass and the planning takes time, but when it comes, it’s really great.”
He estimates there will be just shy of 100 miles built by 2030, and that’s as fast as the work can go under the current funding model since it costs $1.5 to 2 million per mile. The only way to speed things up is for county commissioners to allocate more money toward future greenway projects, he said.
“With political will and money, you can go to the moon,” Kirschman said. “Greenways for Mecklenburg wants 100 more miles, but this is what they’re really asking for. They’re really asking for $150 to $200 million more.”
Winiker doesn’t think the price tag is too high considering the return.
“It’s not only an investment that makes sense in terms of tax revenue, employment opportunities and quality of life, but we have the money to do it now,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer, but it’s not happening at the pace we need it to.”