A complete American Tobacco Trail by the end of 2011?

We were hiking a new section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along the Eno River today when we came upon an old rail line, which I realized was the Norfolk Southern line that, for a while, looked like it might turn into a rails-to-trails project running from Person County south to downtown Durham. Downtown Durham and rails-to-trails projects reminded me of the American Tobacco Trail, the northern end of which begins downtown, near the American Tobacco Complex. The ATT reminded me of a gaping gap I’d been wondering about lately, which reminded me to call Dale McKeel when I got home. Which I did.

“What’s the latest with the bridge?” I asked McKeel, Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for Durham’s Transportation Division. The bridge in question was the pedestrian bridge over I-40 that will link the 7.2 miles of existing ATT north of the interstate with the 14 miles that resume at Massey Chapel Road and run south through Chatham County into western Wake County, near New Hill. The long-promised bridge is all that keeps the ATT from becoming, at 22 miles, the longest continuous multi-use trail in the state.

“We just posted an update [Dec. 10] on that project on the Web site,” McKeel said. Indeed, once he helped me track it down (www.durhamnc.com > Inside City Hall > City Departments > Public Works > Construction Projects > Active > General Projects/American Tobacco Trail Project – Phase E Pedestrian Bridge Over I-40) I learned that the Corps of Engineers has accepted the city’s application “with minor revisions” and expects to issue a permit within 90 days (pending a review by the N.C. Division of Water Quality as well).

Assuming a thumbs up, from what we could tell that means construction could begin. And that means this missing link, the ATT’s gapping gap, could be completed as early as the end of next year.

McKeel pointed out that the project involves more than just the bridge.

“We’ve had to find a way to thread the trail through the vicinity of Southpoint Mall, particularly south of Southpoint.” They have, he said, as the accompanying snippet of map (gleaned from the 2010 Durham Bike & Hike Map) shows. After crossing I-40, the trail will head west for about a quarter mile before heading south and connecting with the existing ATT at Massey Chapel Road. The plan calls for paving that entire stretch with a 10-foot-wide swath of asphalt all the way to the Chatham County line. (Currently, the trail is natural surface from the county line north to Massey Chapel.) McKeel says they hope to include a six-foot parallel strip of finely crushed granite (as is found in the Chatham County section) from the county line to Massey Chapel. The stretch from NC 54 south to the Chatham line is about four miles.

For information about the American Tobacco Trail as it currently exists, go here.

More about the aforementioned new stretch of Eno River MST here on Friday.

Photo: Photo rendition of the ATT pedestrian bridge over I-40.

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