NEW PALESTINE — A hefty price tag put dreams of connecting the Pennsy Trail between Greenfield and Cumberland on hold last year, but proponents are eying a new strategy.
Friends of Hancock County Trails, a citizen group interested in connecting the trail between the communities, is working to bridge the gap in installments, starting with a short stretch between Cumberland and New Palestine.
The old Pennsylvania Railroad bed just south of U.S. 40 already has been turned into a hiking and biking trail in two stretches: about 6 miles in Greenfield and 3 miles in Cumberland. The 4.5-mile stretch between county roads 150W and 600W is unpaved and in the hands of private landowners.
Friends of Hancock County Trails has a nine-member board and meets monthly. Its long-term goal is to create 13.5 total miles of contiguous trail from Greenfield to Cumberland.
Board president Larry Lindley of New Palestine recently approached the Hancock County Commissioners with the group’s plan to bring that goal to fruition.
The Friends of Hancock County Trails has set up a fund with the Hancock County Community Foundation to raise money and apply for matching grants for the project, he told the commissioners.
He said the cost of the first phase, about 1.5 miles, will be about $1.5 million for land acquisitions and construction.
The plan is to pick up the trail from the west, where it ends in Cumberland at Mt. Comfort Road. The first phase would bring the trail over Gem Road to the Washington Village Apartments.
The group has raised more than $2,000 for the project so far and plans to apply for federal 80/20 matching grants to help pay for paving one section at a time.
“We’re in good position to get those grants,” Lindley said.
Cumberland officials, who also are involved with the Friends of Hancock County Pennsy Trails group, said they, too, would like to see the trail completed.
“We’re hoping we can eventually make that connection,” Cumberland town manager Andrew Klinger said. “We know it is going to take time, but we’re getting the right pieces in place and are continuing to move forward.”
Last fall, county officials heard the results of a study on the cost to complete the connection from Greenfield to Cumberland. At $7.2 million, the price tag was just too high for local officials.
County Commissioner Brad Armstrong said he supports the idea of breaking the project into more manageable sections and getting the community involved.
Landowners who would see the trail go through their backyards showed some resistance during initial discussions, arguing that connecting the trail could lead to an increase in criminal activity coming here from eastern Marion County.
“If they can find a route where people are willing to not remonstrate against it, it would sure make things a lot easier for this to go,” Armstrong said.
Commissioner Tom Stevens said that, while he is not against connecting local trails, he wants to make sure funding to construct any section doesn’t compete with funds for county roadways.
County officials also said they’d have a hard time supporting anything that used eminent domain — a government’s ability to take land from private owners for public use — to extend the trail.
“I would encourage you working with landowners,” Commissioner Marc Huber said.
Lindley said his group is in the process of figuring out exactly how many landowners they’ll need to talk to about acquiring property for the proposed 1.5-mile section.
Klinger said the town of Cumberland likely would be willing to donate its small section of land near the old Gem water tower off Gem Road.
“We might be able to reroute portions of the trail where it goes through our land, and we could donate that,” Klinger said.
Staff writer Maribeth Vaughn contributed to this report.