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Plan to help get people moving

Proposal stresses human-powered transportation

A rendering of how a shared lane might look in Tiffin.

An active transportation plan that would greatly increase the numbers of bicycle and walking trails in Seneca County in the next 20 years has been approved and is in the early stages of development.

The plan, coordinated by Seneca Regional Planning Commission, is a partnership of the cities and Tiffin and Fostoria, Seneca County commissioners, Seneca County Park District, Tiffin Park & Recreation Department, Seneca County General Health District and Tiffin-Seneca Economic Partnership.

The words “active transportation” in the plans refers to non-motorized, muscle-powered means of getting from one place to another such as bicycling, running, walking or similar modes of transportation.

“It’s certainly not a mandate,” said Commissioner Shayne Thomas, a member of the committee. “It’s not a commitment. It’s a plan.”

The plan provides a framework for projects to be completed as funds become available, whether from grants, county or city budgets or elsewhere.

“The fact that we had so many partners in it leads me to believe over time it will get implemented,” Thomas said. “It’s going to take 20 years or longer to implement it. We know that.”

Thomas said the planning process was a valuable as the final plan.

“A lot of people came to the table with ideas that would not have been heard if not for going through the process,” he said.

Thomas said safe trails are important to the county’s future.

“I view active transportation as something that demarks us as a place of the future,” Thomas said. “It makes us a place where people want to locate and have their active needs met.

“If we’re going to be viable into the future as a thriving community, Seneca County will have to have the amenities,” he said. “It’s not the only one, but it’s one of them.”

The plan benefits not only the cities and the county as a whole, but it’s available to the smaller communities.

“It covers a lot of the other political subdivisions,” he said. “They will have use of the plan.”

First phases

The first phase of one of the projects is ready to begin after final plans are in place.

The overall project would connect the St. Francis campus via its US 224 underpass to county property south of Tiffin where the sheriff’s office, Ag Center, Job & Family Services, county engineer, Seneca County Park District and Opportunity Center are located.

The commissioners have a project in the bidding phase that would use grant money to pave the path to the county cemetery.

“About two-third of the way is the indigent cemetery that has a lane that has never been paved,” Thomas said. “From there, we only have two short hops to get over to Port Road, and once we do those two hops, people would be able to run or bike from the city of Tiffin under 224 all the way out to TR 151 without crossing 224 because you under it.”

Another possibility for extending that trail would be to link Tiffin’s Rock Creek Trail to St. Francis via bike lanes on Spaythe Street, he said.

“It’s a critical link because you could leave downtown and ride the trail all the way to south of town,” Thomas said.

From TR 151, marked roads would be lead to Garlo Heritage Nature Preserve, Bloomville, to the east or Forrest Nature Preserve to the south, he said.

Bike routes in Tiffin

Tiffin’s city engineer, Matt Watson, said bike routes already have been taken into consideration as the city plans its street program for the next five years.

He said he’s using a geographic information system to analyze the street program and look at projects as a whole.

“We want to coordinate projects as best we can,” he said. “We can do that just by coordinating the GIS plan. Having this visual available allows us to easily coordinate our street resurfacing projects with proposed shared lane marking projects that were described in the plan.”

He said there are no plans to start this year, but painted markings will be added on a five-year plan as streets are paved.

“Doing the pavement marking on failing street surfaces doesn’t make sense,” he said.

He said projects are to be paid for through grants or possibly through budgeted street funds.

“We’re going to start resurfacing roads that will eventually have shared lane markings,” he said. “Around August, we’ll find out if get a grant.”

“In 2021 we might be able to build a leg of the plan with CDBG funds,” he said.

And he said there are other funding options.

Watson said city streetscape projects would be coordinated with the trail system as well as possibly a trail through Nature Trails Park near the Sandusky River and on South River Road along with coordinating a bike trail with upcoming Ella Street Bridge projects.

Part of the plan also include connecting the city trails that exist, such as Tiffin Middle School Trail.

By following a plan he outlined, Watson said, “the city of Tiffin can have a very connected trail system by 2024. Most of the more complex and costly phases of the plan will not be constructed by this time, no. However, I feel that by this time we could offset some of these phases with just painting shared lane markings in their place and create the connectivity to create a very successful trail system.

“Then, as more funding becomes available (beyond 2024), we can substitute shared lane markings for more off-road trail systems,” he said.

“The overall success in a good trail program is having that connection,” he said. “You can build legs any time you want, but unless it connects, you’re always hitting a dead end.

“In the plan there’s great connectivity between city and county and to larger trails,” he said.

Next steps

As the first phases are being planned, Regional Planning Director Charlene Watkins said the committee met earlier this week to decide which partner will handle which aspects of the plan.

She said Regional Planning will remain the umbrella for organization and will be available for writing grants, but the plan is to be carried out by individual groups.

“The city of Tiffin has already started to incorporate the plan into the roadwork,” she said. “Lane sharing, markers and all that.”

She said the county engineer’s office would work on projects such as marking bike routes on rural roads.

“Everything in the plan is proposed,” Watkins said. “Nothing is set in stone.”

Watkins said she is seeking people interested in forming a Rails to Trails nonprofit organization to someday place trails on abandoned railroad property.

“There’s going to be a need for a nonprofit to look at the future,” she said. “It takes a long time get these things done.”

She said a group plans to meet with representatives of the Firelands rail trails group to find out the organizations structure and operations.

“Just so we kind of understand what needs to be done,” she said.

Another aspect of the plan covers education and community outreach, Watkins said.

The committee plans to meet with the YMCA, youth group, the police department and sheriff’s office and other groups that might plan bike rodeos where children can learn bike safety such as how to ride a bike on the street.

“We need to get that educational piece out there for our citizens so they are safe and protected in obeying the rules,” she said. “And all drivers need to know what the rights of bikes are.”

Watkins said a bicycle club in the county would be a good addition as well to organize rides and help with education and awareness.

“We need somebody to come forward to organize that group,” she said.

Health and recreation

“Speaking from the county park district level, we wanted to see routes set up to parks and in between parks that connect communities to parks so they could have a safe means to recreate in those park areas,” said Seneca County Park District Director Sarah Betts. “The active transportation plan addresses the issues.”

She said her next steps are to establish timelines.

“First off, we need to talk it over with the board and go through the plan with the board, and then we can see what partnerships exist and create timeframes,” she said. “Some are short term and easy to accomplish. Others will be long term projects.”

Although she’s new to the community, Betts said she already has seen a need for trails.

“Just in the short time that I’ve been here, I can see the community wants more long-distance trails and they’re seeing the benefits other communities have seen.”

One of those benefits is economic development, she said.

“That’s what those trails help to ignite in the community,” she said.

The health benefits of being outdoors is another important aspect, she said.

“It’s a whole new way of thinking, a new way of life,” Betts said.

Health Commissioner Beth Schweitzer said active transportation is one of the ways the Seneca County General Health District is addressing health issues in the community.

“Certainly, having more active transportation in the community is one of our goals at the health department,” she said.

During a community health assessment, she said, chronic diseases related to obesity were prevalent in the county.

While she was learning the results of the health assessment, she said she discovered the group already was working on a trails plan so she joined the committee.

“We said this is great that we have this already occurring,” Schweitzer said. “One of our goals is to get our people in the community active and moving, but it’s difficult to get access to ways to do it. This definitely fits into our goals.”

She said the easiest projects will be completed first, and those that have grant funding available.

“I’d like to see everything done,” she said. “But you take bites as you can.”

As for overall health, Schweitzer said short amounts of exercise are better than none at all.

“They say even 10-minute intervals are good, but to really get your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes three or four times a week,” she said.

Background

All the current plans stem from a conversation at a Regional Planning meeting about county transportation issues, Thomas said.

“One of the top priorities that came out of it was to increase the number of bike trails, bike lanes and walking paths in Seneca County,” Thomas said. “We formed an ad hoc committee that was for active transportation directly.”

The timing turned out to be good, he said, because the Ohio Department of Transportation was putting together a state map of bike routes.

“Seneca County was a big black hole,” he said. “There was nothing there.”

At nearly the same time, Thomas said, the Seneca County General Health District had performed a health assessment and discovered one hindrance to a more active lifestyle was the lack of recreational trails.

Thomas said one of the notable findings was a perception that there was lack of a safe place for bicycling and walking.

“That really solidified our through process,” Thomas said. “We had to address this shortcoming and so we got in contact with ODOT’s people that deal with active transportation.

“The timing was perfect because they had just opened up a grant round for planning purposes,” he said.

The committee applied for a grant to conduct a study.

“We were one of four in Ohio to get that grant,” he said.

The committee started putting maps together.

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