D.C. trail project embarks on longest mile

Bike/hike link to Maryland needs a path through Sandcastle

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A dream that began in 1975 with the abandonment of 87 miles of railroad line from Cumberland, Md., to Connellsville -- a biking/hiking trail that would connect Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. -- is on the verge of coming true.

But there's one difficult mile left for planners to pedal, and it goes through Sandcastle Waterpark in West Homestead.

With Friday's opening of a one-mile stretch in Duquesne and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato's announcement of an agreement with a railroad that will allow construction of another 2.5 miles, Sandcastle is all that stands in the way of completion.

Mr. Onorato was confident enough of a deal with the water park's owners, Parques Reunidos of Madrid, Spain, that he set a target date for completing the last section of the trail known as the Great Allegheny Passage -- Nov. 11, 2011, or 11/11/11.

"That's our rallying cry now," said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, who has worked for more than three decades along with hundreds of volunteers to bring the project to fruition.

A deal with Sandcastle has been elusive. The park's former owner, Kennywood Entertainment, for years refused to consider allowing the trail to pass through, claiming safety and liability fears.

Hopes rose a year ago when Mr. Onorato and Kennywood/Sandcastle President Peter J. McAneny said in a joint news release that they had made "significant progress" to accommodate the trail through Sandcastle property.

But Mr. McAneny stepped down a few months later, setting back the negotiations.

"They now have their new management structure in place. We've had some very positive conversations with the vice president who oversees water park operations throughout the country," said Mr. Onorato's spokesman, Kevin Evanto.

Dignitaries on Friday cut a ribbon on a trail section stretching from the Riverton Bridge, a 1,200-foot span that crosses the Monongahela River between McKeesport and Duquesne, to Grant Avenue in Duquesne.

The section includes a 60-foot tunnel and passes through Regional Industrial Development Corp.'s Riverplace City Center development.

An agreement announced by Mr. Onorato with Norfolk Southern Railway clears the way for construction of another 2.5 miles, including two bicycle-pedestrian bridges: one connecting the RIDC section of the trail to the former U.S. Steel coke gas pipeline area behind Kennywood, by crossing Norfolk Southern's Port Perry rail yard; and another over Norfolk Southern tracks to a portion of the county's Carrie Furnace site on the south side of the Mon in Whitaker.

From there, the trail will connect to The Waterfront in Munhall.

That section should be open by early summer, Mr. Evanto said.

Ms. Boxx last week recalled riding the last train between Cumberland and Connellsville after the Western Maryland Railway announced it was abandoning the line in 1975.

It was nine years before the first 9.5-mile trail section opened in Ohiopyle State Park. It was an instant hit that propelled construction of other segments over the ensuing quarter-century.

Mr. Onorato on Friday recalled being told several years ago that the final nine miles of incomplete trail between Washington and Pittsburgh were in Allegheny County, and said he vowed then to rectify that.

"We're almost there," he said Friday.

Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.


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