How the $2 million Mary Black Rail Trail expansion will transform downtown Spartanburg

April 28th 2022

Published by Spartanburg Herald Journal- full article here

Downtown Spartanburg has begun the construction of a $2 million pedestrian and bicycle trail extension that will take the Mary Black Foundation Rail Trail to Barnet Park.

With car lanes reduced due to the trail's future path, experts say the reduced vehicle lanes will still hold enough capacity for present and near-future traffic demands.

This 0.6-mile extension will start from the current Rail Trail terminus near the intersection of Union and E. Henry streets, stretch through Union and E. Kennedy streets, to S. Converse Street, and end at Barnet Park on E. St. John Street.

Union and E. Kennedy streets will be reduced to two lanes from their current four lanes. the northbound lanes on Converse Street will be reduced from two to one.

"Up until recently, when the pedestrian paths got really popular, we've had large roads," said Jay Squires streets and stormwater manager for the city of Spartanburg. "So, we looked at, 'is there anything we can do inside those roads to shrink them down for vehicular traffic in order to accommodate that pedestrian-friendly access as well?'" 

According to Ernie Boughman and Ashley Gunderson with Toole Design, the transportation design and planning company for the project, the team considered location and traffic volume in selecting the streets for the rail trail extension. 

"These streets are what we refer to as 'overbuilt,' meaning they can handle a lot more cars than are on it today or in the near future," Boughman said. "So that allowed us to use some of the travel lanes as the new trails."

Currently, Converse Street sees about 1,800 vehicles per day but can handle 15,000 with its current number of lanes. Kennedy and Union streets both see about 4,500 vehicles per day, but can "easily carry 15,000 to 16,000 a day," according to Boughman.

Developers eye future of Mary Black Rail Trail 

The trail extension will connect The Fitzgerald, a 132-unit apartment building under construction, the heart of Main Street, Spartanburg Community College, Chapman Cultural Center and Barnet Park.

Part of the reason why The Fitzgerald's owners chose to locate at the corner of Henry and Union streets, Ringo said, was the planned Rail Trail extension.

This protected trail will be the first of its kind in all of South Carolina, with the Converse Street section being two-way and curb-protected from vehicle traffic. The sections on Kennedy and Union streets will have a more "traditional greenway trail feel," Boughman said.

"We have bike lanes in some places, but they're painted and narrow," said Squires. "With the protected trails, especially if you have small children, they'll give you a level of comfort."

The curb on Converse Street will be similar to a 6-inch step seen on sidewalks. The trail on Converse Street will have curb landscaping such as grass and bushes and a wide, pedestrian sidewalk area. For other sections, pedestrians will not be separated from bicycles on the trail, much like how it looks on the current Rail Trail. 

Managing pedestrian, bicycle injury risks in downtown Spartanburg

Increased pedestrian and bicycle activity on the trails can also render a greater vulnerability to vehicle traffic. In South Carolina, there were 1,105 fatal crashes in 2021. In 2020, there were 187 pedestrian fatalities and 16 bicyclist fatalities, according to the South Carolina Department of Public Safety.

Squires acknowledges that there "could be" potential risks of unprotected trails and the mixed pedestrian- and bicycle-use trails, but he said the city will look at these risks and see whether any improvements or restrictions need to be made.

"Pedestrians are supposed to have the right of way," Squires said. "But is there a foolproof process? Probably not. You're going to have to count on them looking out for each other."

Based on her experience at the Mary Black Rail Trail, Ringo is confident that vehicles will respect the safety of pedestrians.

"I think motorists will adjust their behavior as they get used to the trail facility," said Laura Ringo, executive director of Spartanburg PAL (Partners for Active Living). "We've seen that with the (existing) Rail Trail. Most of them will stop or yield. They are very careful in that situation. I think there will be a similar behavior change as vehicles are used to seeing pedestrians and bikes in that space."

The speed limits for the modified roads, according to Squires, are 35 mph in the city unless otherwise posted. 

"I'm going to say (the speed limit) is going to vary for different roads, depending on the SC Department of Transportation standards," Squires said. 

Completion of new Mary Black Rail Trail segment expected by October

The construction process is currently underway and expected to be complete by October. Squires said uncertainties are expected as the supply chain has seen a delayed supply of concrete, the main project material, by two to three weeks. 

There will be road closures and detour signs, but the City of Spartanburg and the contractors are making efforts to effect local businesses as little as possible during the process. 

"We're not going to close it all at once so it will be different phases and different sections," Squires said. "Businesses will still be able to open and have customers. What you'd have to do is go up and just hit your detour route to go around to get there."

Federal, state and local contributions helped fund the long-standing project. 

"There were three baskets of funds ... local funds from the city that were approved years ago associated with downtown streetscaping; federal funds originally committed to the Palmetto Trail Network and state DOT funds for the transportation alternative program funds," City Manager Chris Story said. 

New Rail Trail extension part of The Daniel Morgan Trail System

The extension is part of a trail system envisioned by PAL named The Dan (The Daniel Morgan Trail System). According to PAL's website, the Dan will be a 50-mile urban trail system connecting existing trails with proposed trails. 

Although many residents are still heavily reliant on vehicles, Ringo believes the trail extension will invite more pedestrian and bicycle usage. 

"Before the Mary Black Rail Trail was built, it was pretty unusual to see anyone walking down Union Street or Pine Street," Ringo said. "But in 2020, there were over 200,000 uses on that corridor. So I think as soon as the connection into downtown is built, and it feels safe, we'll see a similar increase in its use."

Squires is also optimistic about the future of the Spartanburg trail system.

"The Rail Trail has been a tremendous success," Squires said. "This is going to allow you the avenue to get to the downtown area so you can go shop or go to a restaurant. If you only build one segment and don't connect them together, I think it's sort of like an island onto itself. In order for it to be successful, you have to have connectivity."

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