New Funding Means Greenways Will Be Completed Faster

Liz Belcher says the new funding is “Manna from Heaven.”
Liz Belcher says the new funding is “Manna from Heaven.”
Liz Belcher says the new funding is “Manna from Heaven.”

Roanoke Valleys Greenway Coordinator Liz Belcher calls it, “Manna from Heaven”… the recent changes that made the Roanoke Valley its own transportation management area (TMA) also meant federal money should soon be heading this way, much of which ($12 million) will go towards the completion of the Roanoke River greenway.

2010 census numbers that shows 200,000-plus residents in the valley made the region eligible for federal money.

“We had been hearing for a while that the regional commission might get that money but initially we were thinking it would be a million dollars,” said Belcher; but that funding just became $4 million a year over a three year period for the Roanoke River greenway. The funds have to spent in three years, so Belcher and company did an assessment of what greenway projects they could complete in that time frame.

Another $1.2 million will go to the Plantation Road improvement project, which will include sidewalks and bike paths – and could be an alternative route for part of the Tinker Creek greenway as it comes up from Roanoke City and heads towards the Hollins University campus and Carvins Cove.

The Roanoke Valley Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, comprised of local representatives in the Transportation Management Area, voted on their priorities for the $14 million in federal funds that would be available. Finishing the Roanoke River greenway came out on top after a vote to score the wish list.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board must sign off on that priority list this month in order for the funds to be freed up; Belcher does not anticipate any problems there.

Belcher was happy to see that despite a myriad of needs where that money could be spent, that localities seemed to recognize the importance of finishing the Roanoke River greenway, considered the spine of the trail system. “It clearly was the front runner for the money – it really scored well on the regional aspect.”

The fact that much of the engineering work has been done and the right of way issues in many cases have been resolved meant the greenway completion project was also more shovel ready, another factor that weighed heavily in the scoring.

At this point the longest continuous stretch on the Roanoke River greenway runs from the 13th Street parking lot near the water treatment plant to Bridge Street in Norwich. That’s 8 miles long. There is an additional segment that runs on streets to the bridge that connects to the Tinker Creek greenway which adds another mile-plus. Roanoke County is also working on a stretch from the 13th Street parking lot towards Vinton and the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The “Bridge the Gap” campaign, designed to raise money for a four-mile gap between Salem and Roanoke City, remains important as a way to heighten awareness for the greenways. “It’s been very important as match money to [various] grants,” noted Belcher, who has been the biggest advocate for development of the greenway system for more than 15 years. When that section is done between the two localities, Belcher envisions a “golden spike moment,” complete with a ribbon cutting.

When it’s all done the Roanoke River greenway will run from Green Hills Park in western Roanoke County to the Blue Ridge Parkway near Explore Park. A right of way through the park is also a possibility if all of the parties involved can agree on the path location.

A three-mile section now open in Salem has become more and more popular, with around 6000 people using it monthly according to a recent count. More than 24,000 people were measured at one popular section of the Roanoke River greenway over a recent one month period; now Belcher says people using it must try harder to get along: walkers, runners, bikers, dog walkers etc.

With so much greenway now in place Belcher doesn’t have to work so hard on convincing skeptics why they are desirable. “It has become much more obvious to people what the value is – because they’re using it.” 

The businesses attracted to the Roanoke River greenway recently – the Wasena Tap Room, East Coasters Bicycles (coming soon), the River House apartments, Underdog Bikes etc. are another sign of the greenway’s potential, as are some rising residential property values near the path.

Gaps in the Roanoke River greenway exist near Green Hill Park at the Salem-Roanoke City border and in eastern Roanoke County. The federal funds that will soon head this way means the greenway could be completed in 5-7 years – much faster than originally anticipated. “I’m thinking [by] 2020…we should be finished,” said Belcher.

By Gene Marrano