ST. PARIS – On March 18, Brenda Cook, mayor of St. Paris, submitted a proposal for state improvement funding for a multi-use path, called the Pony Wagon Trail, that will eventually connect Piqua to Urbana through the heart of St. Paris.
In 1979, the Pennsylvania Railroad left western Champaign County, leaving miles of untouched, empty railroad bed running parallel to US Route 36 about half a mile to the south. Throughout the majority of Miami County, this bed has been transformed into a multi-use path, connecting to the intricate network of an estimated 1,500 miles of such multi-use trails throughout Ohio (more than any state in America).
Back in April 2020, St. Paris resident Joe Curran (later elected to the St. Paris Village Council in November 2021) and his wife were walking their dogs in St. Paris. As they passed the old railroad bed that runs through town, Curran wondered why there was no bike trail, as many such retired railroads in Ohio have been turned into recreational paths.
Curran began asking around. He brought the idea to Cook, who has served St. Paris as mayor since 2018 (as well as during a stint in office from 2012-2013) and has become the leader of this effort. Additionally, Curran approached Jim Cook, president of the Simon Kenton Pathfinders (which has become a key supporting group), for advice.
In September 2021, an unofficial “bike trail committee” (interested stakeholders and supportive public officials) convened for the first time after learning that the Logan-Union-Champaign (LUC) Regional Development Commission had offered to fund a feasibility study. The group decided to seek state capital improvement funding for the project once the study was completed.
Then, on Oct. 20, the ad-hoc committee met once again to hear from Director of Roadway Design Amy Rosepiler and Roadway Engineer Daniel Soroka, representatives from the consulting engineering firm Burgess & Niple who would be conducting the feasibility study. This study would examine the existing railroad beds, gauge obstructions and potential crossings, evaluate safety, and present potential routes, projected costs and a hypothetical schedule.
In November, the engineers recorded drone footage along the entire proposed length of the trail before completing their extensive study in February. Burgess & Niple issued the feasibility study to the village on March 12, and Mayor Cook submitted the village’s proposal to the state budget on March 18.
The engineers broke down the trail into four chronological segments from west to east, measuring nearly 12 miles: 1) from the Miami County Line to state Route 235, 2) from state Route 235 to Heck Hill Road, 3) Heck Hill Road to Westville and 4) Westville at state Route 560 to Urbana.
This west-east trail would connect Piqua to the north-south Simon Kenton Trail that crosses through Urbana.
If the state does not select the proposal for funding, other opportunities exist for the project through the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Recreational Trails Program from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the federal Rails to Trails program. The mayor and Curran are also investigating potential local and private investors.
“We are going to be seeking funding from all sources; this is just one of them, and this is the first,” Curran said. “We are waiting to see what the state is going to do, and then we’ll decide if we have to go out and do something somewhere else.”
Curran and Mayor Cook estimate that this project will take three 2-year state funding cycles (biennia), or six years, to fully complete. For this first proposal, the village asked for $1,952,500 in total: $750,000 for land acquisition and engineering costs along with $1,202,500 for the first half of construction on the 2.75-mile segment running through St. Paris (segment two listed above).
“My goal is to have that engineering study done by next July of 2023,” said Mayor Cook. “Then we can begin land acquisition and construction as soon as that’s done.”
This engineering study will determine the final path of the trail. In this first biennium, Mayor Cook hopes to complete construction from 235 to the active railroad that crosses US 36, then tackling the second half of St. Paris’s segment – from the active railroad to Heck Hill Road – in the next cycle.
The railroad poses additional challenges and expense, likely requiring a bridge to be built using the abutments still in place. This bridge would have to meet stringent safety standards, such as American Disability Association handicap-accessible pitch grades, and be at least 23 feet above the railroad bed.
Along the trail through St. Paris, the engineers from Burgess & Niple identified two key stops within village corporation limits: Harmon Memorial Park and the Pony Wagon Museum. Moreover, Mayor Cook anticipates trailheads popping up along the path; downtown business owners have already inquired about placing signage, and private developers may build up amenities such as water fountains, restrooms, air stations, and more.
Curran and the mayor concur that regardless of how this project is funded, it will represent a huge win for St. Paris and the larger Champaign County.
“Aside from the obvious recreational opportunities inherent in a multi-use trail, the possibilities for St. Paris are absolutely fantastic,” Curran said. “Our downtown will be visited by riders from everywhere, and we can expect new housing to develop on land alongside the trail. Who doesn’t want to live next to a bike trail?”
The path will connect several notable historical landmarks as well.
On South Springfield Street in St. Paris, the trail will pass the historical plaque that marks the very ground where President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train stopped on April 29, 1865 en route to his final resting place in Springfield, Illinois.
The trail will also pass the inspiration for its name: the foundation of the Walborn & Riker Pony Wagon factory, in operation from 1881 to 1914. This heritage is honored at the Pony Wagon Museum, located at 510 South Washington Street.
“We need to preserve these rights of way for posterity while we still can,” Curran said.
Mayor Cook looks forward to drawing in more visitors to the village to celebrate such rich history.
“I just think anytime you bring people to our community it opens the door for economic growth and development,” she said. “People are going to come to town, get off their bike, they’re going to need a soda, an ice cream, a bag of chips. They’re going to spend time at the Pony Wagon Museum, because it’s a family-friendly environment.”
The Pony Wagon Trail will be friendly to bikers, walkers and runners, children’s strollers, dog walkers, and more. Mayor Cook, an avid walker, looks forward to the safety and peace of mind she will enjoy while walking along the trail, far removed from road traffic. Additionally, the wooded area along many parts of the path will provide a calming, natural environment.
The project has amassed a multitude of key supporters, including: the six members of the St. Paris Village Council, St. Paris Village Administrator Spencer Mitchell, Bike Miami Valley Executive Director Laura Estandia, Champaign Economic Partnership Director Rich Ebert, Champaign County Engineer Stephen McCall, Clark County Transportation Coordinating Committee (TCC) Transportation Director Louis Agresta, Miami County Park District Executive Coordinator Janeen Selanders, City of Urbana Community Development Manager Doug Crabill and Brad Bodenmiller, Director of the LUC Regional Planning Commission.
From Graham Local Schools, Superintendent Brad Silvus and Director of Operations Don Burley offer their support, as the path would bypass the elementary, middle and high schools; the district is working with the mayor to consider applying for the Safe Routes to Schools grant, which would provide connectors from each school to the trail.
Many political representatives have expressed interest and excitement in the multi-use path: State Senator and Senate President Matt Huffman (who sponsored the proposal for state funding), Congressman Jim Jordan, State Representative Anthony “Nino” Vitale, and State Senator Steve Wilson (who also serves as the co-chair of the Senate Trails Caucus).
Additionally, St. Paris community members and local committee members Jeff and Diane Burroughs, Terry Howell, Carolyn Klingaman and Councilor Lynn Miller have voiced their support.
On March 31, the St. Paris Council also received an official letter of support signed by the Champaign County Board of Commissioners: Bob Corbett, Tim Cassady and Steven Hess.
It’s an exciting time for the village, as several other applications for capital funding have been entered in recent weeks, one being another proposal to the state budget to fund a feasibility study for a possible Champaign County Community Center at 370 East Main Street (the site of the old junior high).
“To the best of my knowledge, St. Paris has never really boldly asked the state to be on the capital improvement plan,” Mayor Cook said. “I just think St. Paris has so much to offer people. It’s just a wonderful place; there’s a lot of options here in town, and we need to work on it.”
The committee hopes to receive a response to their proposal by early summer.
For updates on this and other community projects, interested St. Paris residents can attend the village council meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month at 7:30 p.m. in the municipal building. These meetings are also streamed on the village’s Facebook page.
Reach Katie at [email protected]