Ladiga bike trail could be completed with COVID rescue money

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Jun. 25—Anniston city leaders have made a deal to acquire the last piece of land they need to bring the Ladiga Trail downtown, Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said this week.

"The agreement is done," Draper said.

City leaders have been working for years to extend the Ladiga Trail — the bike path that runs through Calhoun County on what was once the path of a railroad — into the heart of Anniston. Anniston leaders in recent years have marketed their town as "Bike City," home to well-known cycling events such as the upcoming Sunny King Criterium. Still, the well-traveled Ladiga reaches just into city limits, stopping miles short of the city's downtown.

The trail project could soon get a boost from an unexpected source. Anniston expects to get $13 million in federal aid through the American Rescue Plan Act, the aid plan Congress passed earlier this year to help people, businesses and local governments get back on their feet after the pandemic. Around $350 billion of the money spent in the plan will go to local governments, and Anniston, through a stroke of good luck, gets a bigger share than most cities its size.

It's likely the biggest chunk of Anniston's Rescue Act money will go to finishing the Ladiga. In a plan unveiled earlier this month, city officials proposed devoting $3 million to the project. That number will likely change as the City Council debates the plan, but no other project starts with an opening bid that high.

Tantalizingly close

"Before they got the stimulus money, I was looking at 5 to 10 years before the Ladiga's complete," said Patrick Wigley, owner of the downtown bicycle shop Wig's Wheels.

Wigley rents bicycles to cyclists who want to bike on Coldwater Mountain, where a network of mountain biking trails has drawn praise from cyclists around the country. He's on hand for repairs during other local cycling events such as the 100-plus-mile Cheaha Challenge and the Sunny King Criterium.

He said there's probably much more potential business on the Ladiga.

Get on the trail at the "Welcome to Anniston" sign, and you can bike all the way to the Georgia line. And on to Atlanta, though the trail at that point is no longer called the Ladiga. The trail attracts people from all across the spectrum of hiking and cycling; on an average day in towns like Weaver and Jacksonville, it's not unusual to see spandex-clad cycling enthusiasts whizzing past kids with training wheels and lunch-break speed-walkers.

But the trail peters out before it hits downtown Anniston. City officials have long dreamed of a path that goes all the way to the city's Amtrak station, where out-of-town cyclists could get off a train with their bikes and go home the same way. Right now, some on the council say, Wigley's bike shop may be the only thing drawing Coldwater Mountain bikers to the city's downtown, at least on days when there's not a big cycle race.

A step forward

City leaders have always known that finishing the trail would cost money, but money hasn't been the biggest obstacle. The stretch of former rail bed within city limits has multiple owners, and city officials have had to negotiate with each one. In November, Draper announced that the city had reached an agreement with the Anniston Water Works and Sewer Board for a stretch of former railbed the utility owned. The city also got an easement from M & H Valve for use of some former rail bed the company owned.

The final piece of the puzzle is a one-and-three-quarter-mile stretch owned by the railroad company Norfolk Southern. Draper on Thursday said the city has reached an agreement with the railroad and is working on the paperwork to finalize it. That agreement could come before the council for approval soon, he said. Draper declined Thursday to discuss the price the city would pay for the land.

Draper said Thursday that the multimillion-dollar windfall from the Rescue Plan Act didn't play a role in the timing of the Norfolk Southern agreement. Still, there's little doubt the Rescue Plan money is arriving at a convenient time for the project. City officials in the past have said they hoped to acquire all of the last three remaining parcels and develop them at trail in one construction project.

'Transformational opportunities'

So how does money intended for COVID-19 relief wind up in a rails-to-trails project? Draper said the federal government allows cities to use the money for public health infrastructure. Given the area's well-known problems with obesity and low participation in exercise, he said, the trail clearly counts toward that.

He said he believes the money should go to a handful of large projects that make a clear mark on the community.

"It's our duty, with this money, to spend it on as few things as possible," he said.

In the days and weeks after the Rescue Plan was approved, city officials had little guidance from the federal government on how the money could be spent. Ideas blossomed: replacing dying trees on Quintard, paving roads and more.

Now things are clearer. According to materials from the Alabama League of Municipalities, cities need to use the money to address public health issues, address economic impacts of the pandemic, pay essential workers, pay for city services after revenue was lost to COVID, or build certain types of infrastructure such as sewer systems or broadband.

Asked whether the trail would qualify, Greg Cochran, director of the League, said he couldn't answer the question. Cities have been asking the League about potential projects, he said, and the League usually seeks an answer directly from the Treasury Department.

Some have asked about broadband projects, he said. Others have asked if they can spend the money on a lottery to encourage people to get the COVID vaccine. Cochran is quick to point out that state law could also pose an obstacle to lotteries: Alabama, he said, is one of the few states that prohibits government agencies from giving money directly to an individual person.

"We've been expressing to our cities the importance of taking your time," he said. "Look for those transformative, lifetime opportunities."

One reason to go slowly, Cochran said, is that Congress could pass an infrastructure plan in the near future — a plan that could pay for some projects that cities are now tempted to pay for with Rescue Plan money.

Even if the city signs a deal with the railroad tomorrow, construction on the trail is likely some months away. Planning and bidding for contractors still has to be done. Draper said he also expects to get public input before the city moves ahead with the plan.

"We need to at least hold a couple of public hearings before we make a decision on this," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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