Connect the Spots

Officials and volunteers are working to link the city's trail networks

The paved River Trail can be a breezy ride. (Julie Ann Grimm)

On a sweltering Friday morning, Tim Rogers carries his GPS unit to map an unmarked stretch of trail near the Dale Ball access lot at the intersection of Cerro Gordo and Upper Canyon roads.

“This is what we call the jungle section,” Rogers says, ambling beside the willows and wild roses that grow near a narrow portion of the Santa Fe River. Eventually, he reaches a clearing where a city water treatment facility used to sit. When it came down, Rogers and a group of volunteers almost immediately got to work with rakes and shovels, developing a single-track trail.

Planners are calling it the "Dale Ball Connector." (They decided against "South-Central Connector" when someone pointed out that the name invoked a Los Angeles neighborhood.) For years, if hikers or cyclists wanted to move from the system of Dale Ball trails that lay south of the Santa Fe River to the central section that stretches north toward Hyde Park Road, they had to step off the natural trail and onto paved road for about one-tenth of a mile.

When the new connector opens to the public later this year, that will change.

"It's an example of what we can accomplish with volunteers," Rogers says.

Dense foliage along the Dale Ball “jungle section” is cleared by volunteers. (SFCT)

The Dale Ball Connector is one of the first projects to grow out of an initiative called the Grand Unified Trails System, colloquially known as GUTS, which seeks to improve trail connectedness throughout Santa Fe.

The central vision of GUTS, spurred on by the Fat Tire Society and Santa Fe Conservation Trust, is to establish a continuous loop linking Santa Fe's outlying natural trails. Planners also intend to connect paved trails in the city's urban core to the natural trail systems on its edges.

The Dale Ball Connector is what Rogers calls "low-hanging fruit." More ambitious plans, including a connecting trail between Frank S Ortiz Dog Park and La Tierra system, will require clearing more hurdles, namely obtaining property rights.

"Actually physically building trails is easy. With a little bit of experience and the right tools, anybody can do it," says Tim Fowler, the Fat Tire Society representative on the GUTS steering committee. "The processes to make it official and legal are the hardest tasks. It seems painfully slow."

As our city's reputation as an outdoors destination has steadily risen over the past couple decades, officials have greenlighted a number of projects to make it easier for hikers, bikers and equestrians to get around. But as with GUTS, legal, political and financial obstacles often stand in the way of execution, delaying projects for years or even decades.

A plan to develop a 15-mile, continuous trail along the Santa Fe River, connecting downtown to the urban boundary near the city wastewater treatment plant west of Hwy. 599, has been in the works since the late 1980s.

Through 2012, the city worked on developing a stretch of paved trail from the intersection of West Alameda and St. Francis Drive to the west edge of Frenchy's Field. From that point, the river trail exists only in patches.

A proposed section from Frenchy's Field to Siler Road has been in the works for at least five years, delayed by troubles obtaining rights from private property owners.

"One of the main issues was we had several areas of overlapping ownership claims going back decades," says Scott Kaseman, the river trail project manager.

Having closed rights on six of 15 properties (another six are in the process), Kaseman aims to begin construction of the mile-long section in November. He says it will take another 12 to 15 years to reach the treatment plant, during which time planners will work on finalizing designs, as well as acquiring property and funding. Kaseman has already requested cash for the next proposed stretch, between Siler Road and San Isidro, and hopes to put the $6 million project up to a vote on the upcoming November ballot.

"It's been a lot slower than we thought," says County Commissioner Kathy Holian.

A long-awaited plan to construct an underpass north of the critical intersection of Cerrillos and St. Francis finally looks like it will come to fruition after decades of talk. Railroad tracks that run through the crossing have long been an annoyance, even a safety hazard, for cyclists. Rogers tells SFR that he has personally witnessed two minor accidents at the intersection.

In May, the city approved nearly $5 million worth of construction contracts for the project, which will be mostly federally funded. They're shooting for an August groundbreaking, according to Santa Fe Public Works Supervisor Leroy Pacheco.

"It really puts us on the map as far as taking pedestrian and bicycling accessibility really seriously," Pacheco says.

Back on the unmarked connector on the Dale Ball Trails, Rogers stops a few yards from a roadside trailhead at a makeshift post that marks Junction 28, which he installed last week. An updated trail map is taped on top of the stake, with the words "New Junction" written with a red Sharpie below. It's just a placeholder, he says, before they replace all 44 junction signs this summer to reflect the ongoing changes in this still-growing system.

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