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Sitka’s Cross Trail: Transportation dollars extend, transform urban path

The Cross Trail is designed for bikers, hikers walking side-by-side, and skiers -- the "multi" in multimodal. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The Cross Trail is designed for bikers, hikers walking side-by-side, and skiers — the “multi” in multimodal. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Sitka’s urban Cross Trail is about to get a little bigger, thanks to an infusion of nearly $1-million in federal transportation funding.

Sitka Trail Works is developing the trail in partnership with the city of Sitka and the US Forest Service.

The non-profit trail builder has learned how to tap federal transportation dollars to get more Sitkans outside on foot or on bikes, including KCAW’s Robert Woolsey.

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In the spirit of full disclosure I should state that I ride a mountain bike to work just about every day. I take my lunch breaks, often on my mountain bike. I even vacation on my mountain bike.

Just this once I thought I would work on my mountain bike.

Riding on the trail: When it’s really sunny in Sitka like it has been this summer, the crew of guys I exercise with, we might opt for a bike ride and a run around a trail , like Beaver Lake. But day in and day out, for all-purpose fitness and recreation, the Cross Trail has turned out to be our go-to place.

So, I’m not exactly neutral on the subject of the Cross Trail, and neither are the guys I ride with, Brant Brantman and Brian McNitt. They’re just ahead of me, down a steep section of the trail, admiring a jump some local youth have improvised out of a rotting log.

Rob: You see any actual blood on the other side of it?
Brant: I don’t even see skid marks.
Brian: This used to be a regular chip pile, sawdust, now it’s got a red tint to it!

About three-and-a-half miles of the Cross Trail have been improved since 2007. Most of the route winds along, up and down, through the forest. The first phase of the project, though, between the Kimsham ball fields and Sitka High School, was unlike any other trail project in Sitka, and was a little controversial. It replaced a narrow, often-flooded, boardwalk trail with a wide “multimodal” gravel path.

“It’s not a road, it’s not a street. But it’s a larger trail that provides a diverse access,”
says Brian Hanson, president of Sitka Trail Works.

“For bikes. For more than one person to walk across it. You can have several people abreast walking on it. So you can have much more diverse access.”

Sitka Trail Works plans to one day extend the Cross Trail to the ferry terminal in Sitka. Learn more about Sitka Trail Works and its capital campaign online.

That section of the Cross Trail, and all subsequent improvements, has been designed as multimodal. There are signs warning both skiers and bikers of steep grades.

So far, Trail Works has leveraged $1.4-million in transportation funding to pay for the trail, and nearly another million is on its way from the Federal Lands Access program for a new extension.

The new section of multimodal trail will extend the Cross Trail through the Indian River subdivision, and connect to existing bike paths going right into downtown Sitka. Two connector trails will link adjacent neighborhoods on Pherson and Baranof streets.

The original trail followed an old pipeline. It was rough, but a quick getaway for some quiet time in the woods. Nobody commuted on it. Hanson hears an occasional complaint from someone who misses the old route.

“We don’t have the goat trail back there, but we have those kinds of trails around Sitka, too. In order to get the federal monies, we need to build them this way. There are pros and cons, but we think the pros far outweigh the cons.”

"Multimodal" doesn't necessarily mean easy. Bikers Brant Brantman (l.) and Brian McNitt agree the Cross Trail is a beautiful -- but demanding -- ride. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

“Multimodal” doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Bikers Brant Brantman (l.) and Brian McNitt agree the Cross Trail is a beautiful — but demanding — ride. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

That seems to be where Brant and Brian are, as we pause by a waterfall that tumbles into the Cascade Creek gorge. Brian says he sees many more people hiking on the new trail than on the old.

Rob – What was it like, then and now.
Brian – Well, you couldn’t ride your ride your bike on the Cross Trail then. It was real rugged, you had to watch the ground all the time because it was full of roots and rocks, which is kind of nice for hiking. But for biking it is just amazing now. It’s such a great ride.
Rob – Tell me about this spot where we are right now, Brant.
Brant – Well, we’re standing on the new Cascade Creek bridge. And it’s just spectacular. All directions you look, you feel like you’ve been transported to some idyllic alpine setting.

Turning a trail into a multimodal path may not always ideal. But Sitka Trail Works has decoded the mysteries of the federal transportation funding scheme that makes a route like this possible, right in our backyards.

Maybe I’ll be more neutral when I’m back at my desk.

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