Does it help to have friends in high places? If there’s any truth to the old political adage then expect to see rapid development of the East Coast Greenway through the region, now that homegrown Dennis Markatos-Soriano is executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. The alliance was founded in 1991 with the goal of creating a paved, 3,000-mile path for bikers, walkers, runners and other non-motorized travelers spanning the East Coast, from Key West, Fla., to Calais, Maine, on the Canada border. Markatos-Soriano, who grew up in Pittsboro and graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 2001, was appointed executive director of the alliance in August. We caught up with Dennis at the ECGA’s Rhode Island headquarters to get an update on the trail and hear what his plans are for its future.
Can you give us a quick update on where the East Coast Greenway stands? How much of it is plotted, how much of it is completed and how much of it still needs a home?
The vision for the East Coast Greenway is to have a safe, accessible greenway from Key West, Florida, all the way to Maine’s border with Canada. While we have mapped out a complete route that many cyclists have enjoyed from end-to-end, most of the current route is on-road. So far, we have over 650 miles of the 2,900 mile route on paths that everyone can enjoy — from small children to senior citizens. And hundreds of more miles are under construction in dozens of communities, from 2 mile paths connecting parks to more than 50-mile routes that connect major tourist attractions. We take pride in our greenways being accessible to all non-motorized recreation, from cyclists and rollerbladers to walkers and joggers.
What are the biggest obstacles facing completion of the ECG?
In rural areas there are long stretches of countryside between communities. These areas, especially in the Southeast, often have streams and rivers with extensive flood-plains and riparian wetlands. While these areas provide wonderful on-road routes for cyclists the expense of developing off-road facilities and assuring that amenities are available for bikers and hikers is a real challenge and significant expense. However, as use of the East Coast Greenway grows I believe that regional transportation improvements and economic benefits to small rural communities will prove that greenway development will generate important environmental, economic and quality of life benefits in towns large and small.
Several greenway projects in the Triangle are being fast-tracked thanks to the stimulus package. One example: the Neuse River Greenway, which is part of the ECG and will run 26 miles, from the Falls Lake dam to the Johnston County line. How much of an impact is Stimulus money going to have on the ECG overall?
We are delighted that stimulus dollars are flowing toward improving vital clean transportation infrastructure like our greenway. This wise use of dollars to create green jobs and invest in a climate-friendly future is helping us accelerate progress on the ECG and connecting beautiful sections that millions can enjoy. Important segments of the ECG in Wilmington and Raleigh are just a few examples of stimulus money at work. More needs to be done, but this federal support is a great boost.
Can you point to a specific stretch of the ECG as an example of the entire trail’s potential? That is, is there a long stretch of completed trail that’s already serving as a tourist draw and/or acting as a viable secondary transportation network?
There are a number of sections that are becoming tourism attractions and local commuter paths. For instance, the Mt. Vernon Trail through Alexandria, Va., is a great mix of tourism, commuter and recreational (exercise) traffic. And the Hudson River Greenway on the west side of Manhattan serves thousands of commuters and recreationists every day. Farther up the coast, the Charles River Bikepath in Boston and nearby communities, serves downtown commuters, students at the many colleges and universities, and many tourists who want to see Boston and Cambridge.
Where do you see the ECG in five years?
In five years, we see the ECG providing an enjoyable, clean, and low-cost transportation option for tens of millions of people up and down the East Coast. We will have multiple half-century and century rides available to cyclists who want to explore their local natural landscapes. We will have a great alternative to the sedentary, obesity-inducing lifestyle of driving from bed to work to couch as commuters can use the most fuel-efficient vehicle available — the bicycle (30+ miles per burrito :). Walkers and joggers will have the pleasure of enjoying a tree-lined path instead of dodging cars on the road or getting nowhere on a treadmill.
Also, we envision the ECG as a tourism attraction that helps Americans explore their country and also brings tourists from all over the world to bike to major landmarks on our corridor from the great universities in North Carolina to the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the Statue of Liberty in New York. European cycle tourism is already significant — so building this infrastructure in the U.S. can help drive economic recovery here and connect visitors to the green hotels and businesses sprouting up across NC and beyond. Tourists who travel by bike can really get to know the communities they visit and lower the environmental impact of their travel.
Vision, coupled with funding and rising political will, make the Greenway one of the most popular projects that people can get behind to improve their lives.
Currently, the ECG runs through the heart of the Triangle, piggybacking the 22-mile-, all-but-about-two-of-which-are-completed American Tobacco Trail. With you being from Pittsboro and having graduated from UNC, should we expect to see the ECG’s route suddenly take a western swing through the region?
Good question 🙂 Our trail planners have done a great job establishing the current spine route, which I anticipate remaining mostly the same. But we will definitely encourage a spur that allows ECG users to visit the beautiful communities of Chapel Hill/Carrboro, Pittsboro, and others around the state. And by linking in communities such as Chapel Hill we can expect to bring more and more users to the ECG, furthering our momentum, visibility and utility.
I should also add that in addition to our spine route that runs through the Triangle, we are also developing an alternative route, near the coast from Richmond, Va., to Wilmington via Colonial Williamsburg (and the Great Dismal Swamp!).
Now is the perfect time to become a member of the ECGA as a way to help foster a green economic recovery and build a trail that can be enjoyed by North Carolinians for generations to come.