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109 miles of trails in Fort Wayne paved with determination

July 19th, 2018

By Joseph Dits | South Bend Tribune

The paved trails in the Fort Wayne area — 109 miles of them so far — radiate from the city center like five evenly placed spokes on a wagon wheel. Three follow the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers that converge here. Several smaller trails connect like spurs or float on their own like satellites.

Want to go somewhere?

One day, I follow a local guide as we bike from broad sidewalks to trails southwest from downtown, following signs as the Towpath Trail leads us to Eagle Marsh, a 756-acre restored wetland.

Another day, I track northeast past the Historic Fort Wayne, a recreated fort from the 1800s on the St. Marys, and then, by the city water treatment plant, I look up at a statue of a Jesuit priest and scientist who some believe named the three rivers — his outstretched arm points to their confluence. I link onto the Rivergreenway as it curls by the St. Joseph atop a levee and reach Johnny Appleseed Park where, just beyond the city campground, I find the park’s namesake. His grave and stone memorial is rimmed by apple trees.

That’s only a taste. On my June visit, I didn’t make it eastward on the Maumee Pathway, but I’m told it’s on one of the city’s greenest shorelines, venturing beyond sight of homes or buildings. It runs about 8.5 miles, ending at the city of New Haven, Ind.

Nor did I have time to hit the Pufferbelly Trail, which is 7.5 miles shy of plans to go 13 miles straight north to the county line (1.2 miles are being built this year). There are visions of making it part of an 80-mile link from Pokagon State Park in Angola, Ind. to Ouabache State Park in Bluffton.

An extra 4.5 miles of Fort Wayne’s trails will be paved this year.

This impressive network grew out of a commitment by the city and trail advocates on common goals.

The paving began in the mid-1970s as the Rivergreenway began to take shape, all of it as part of city parks. In 2005, the city moved the trails effort to its public works division, signaling a focus to make it a commuter network — on par with maintaining streets — not just scenic paths, says Frank Suarez, the division’s spokesman.

That kicked trail building into high gear. Roughly 80 miles, Suarez says, have been built in the last 12 years alone.

It was just before 2005 that a magazine ranked Fort Wayne the fourth fattest and unhealthiest city in the U.S. Patrick Stelte believes that motivated city officials even more.

“We’ve been very progressive (in trail building) in the last 20 years,” says Stelte, a lifelong resident who’s president of the bike club Three Rivers Velo Sport.

More momentum came from southwest of the city, where a cyclist’s death on a rural road spurred the creation of the Aboite New Trails group, which generated money to build a grid of trails among neighborhoods in Aboite Township. Not to forget employers who were asking the city how it could stoke their workers with an active lifestyle.

“Now everything is going forward,” Stelte says of advocates and city and county officials. “No one is working against each other.”

Kent Castleman believes the city’s trail system is unique in Indiana because it has an advocacy group with three paid staff (soon to hire a fourth) that he directs, Fort Wayne Trails, which formed in 2011 as the merger of Aboite New Trails and two other trail groups. Not only that, the city also has a full-time manager of greenways and trails, Dawn Ritchie, plus a full-time trails program manager.

They mind 86 trail miles in the city itself while trying to link with 10 communities around the perimeter.

Stelte watches a healthy amount of daily trail traffic from his house. Each year since 2016, trail counters have recorded an average of 558,000 people, strollers and tall dogs that have tripped the infrared beams — 14 of them placed evenly across the trails, Suarez says. Some of the counters that were placed in 2012 show rising numbers. Ritchie says that, plus feedback and growing demand for the 300-plus bike racks in the city, prove that more people are using the trails to commute.

Oddly, though, I had to navigate through downtown itself on streets and sidewalks until I hit the trails. There are only a few bike lanes. Castleman says the city has just adopted a “complete streets” policy to fix that deficiency.

Meanwhile, the city’s bike share program is about to grow. The company Zagster has run the program as a test for the past two years, with 30 bikes at five docking stations. Later this summer, city planner Paul Spoelhof says, Zagster will deliver more than 250 bikes in a modified version of the dockless system that we’ve seen Lime run here in South Bend and Elkhart. Called Pace, Spoelhof says it’s meant to prevent the “headache” of bikes being scattered on random lawns and sidewalks. When done, users must lock the bike with a built-in cable designed to fit to almost 30 Pace stations or the city’s bike racks.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What can Michiana learn from Fort Wayne?

Castleman admits that Fort Wayne must do more to educate bikers about safety and to let tourists know about the city’s trails — and, of course, to connect more trails.

“I don’t think we’re done,” he says.

Finding the trails

Find a map of Fort Wayne’s paved trails at FWTrails.org. Physical copies of this map are at the Fort Wayne Trails office, 300 E. Main St., Suite 131, and at Visit Fort Wayne, 927 S. Harrison St., along with bike shops like Fort Wayne Outfitters and Bike Depot, 1004 Cass St.

Categories Quality of Life