Connection, celebration prepared for trail linking Pittsburgh to D.C.

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A June 15 celebration in West Homestead and Downtown will mark the completion of a 330-mile trail network linking the city and Washington, D.C.

Dedication of the last segment of the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile trail that connects with the C&O Towpath at Cumberland, Md., will conclude a herculean effort that began with the abandonment of 87 miles of railroad line in Western Pennsylvania and Maryland some 38 years ago.

The event, called "Point Made!", will feature a ribbon-cutting near Sandcastle Waterpark, where the last section of trail is under construction, followed by a mass bicycle ride on the trail to Point State Park "for the party part of the event," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance.

The celebration also will feature a weeklong bike ride from Washington to Pittsburgh, leading up to June 15, a 24-hour relay ride and unveiling of a "Forks of the Ohio" marker at what will be the western terminus of the Great Allegheny Passage.

The passage and C&O Towpath form a nearly continuous dedicated trail of 330 miles from Pittsburgh to the nation's capital.

Construction of the final segment will be completed in late May, Ms. Boxx said. But completion of renovations at the Point State Park fountain and a restart of the fountain aren't scheduled until June 7, so the event was planned for after that date.

"We really want to celebrate the years of hard work and all of the hands that have made this happen," she said. "There's a lot to celebrate."

Construction of the final segment has remained on schedule thanks to favorable winter weather, Ms. Boxx said. The section at Sandcastle needs to be completed by April 15 so the park can begin preparing to open for the season, while the adjacent section crossing Keystone Metals property will be finished in late May.

Placement of steel beams for a 12-foot concrete wall separating the trail from the metal recycling operations was completed Tuesday, she said.

The missing link, about a mile long, has agonized trail enthusiasts for years. The former owners of Sandcastle at first refused to allow it to be built across the water park's property, then entered negotiations that got sidetracked when the park was sold.

Finally, in October 2010, Allegheny County reached agreements with the new owners, Palace Entertainment, and CSX Railroad allowing the last piece to be built. At the time, officials hoped to open the section by Nov. 11, 2011 -- 11-11-11 -- but wound up renegotiating with the property owners because they wanted a wider and safer trail -- 10 feet wide instead of six feet, Ms. Boxx said.

"We would not build a trail that did not meet our safety specifications," she said, crediting the staff of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald for spearheading the second round of talks.

Development of the Great Allegheny Passage began in 1975 with the abandonment of 87 miles of railroad line from Cumberland to Connellsville. Nine years later, the first 9.5-mile section opened in Ohiopyle State Park.

By 2001, 100 continuous miles were open from Meyersdale to McKeesport, and the trail was attracting more than 300,000 visitors per year.

The last nine unfinished miles, all in Allegheny County, proved to be among the most challenging. Trail developers had to acquire 28 parcels from 18 different owners. A key contribution came from U.S. Steel Corp., which donated the Riverton Bridge crossing the Monongahela River and removed a former coke gas pipeline in West Mifflin and Duquesne to clear about two miles for trail development.

Norfolk Southern Railway agreed in 2009, after 21/2 years of talks, to allow trail bridges over active rail lines in Whitaker and Duquesne. A 3-mile segment that includes the bridges and cost $6 million to design and build was opened in 2011.

Trail organizers believe the Great Allegheny Passage will attract more than 1 million annual users when it is completed.

While the June event celebrates completion of the trail into Downtown Pittsburgh, two additions remain incomplete: connections of the Monongahela Wharf trail to the Smithfield Street Bridge and Point State Park.

Riverlife spokesman Stephan Bontrager said both projects are in final design and that about $1.5 million needs to be raised to complete construction. Officials hope to break ground for both links this year, he said.

nation - neigh_city - region - state - Transportation - neigh_south - outdoors

Jon Schmitz: jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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