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Eco-Explainer: How the East Coast Greenway is one of Philly’s best assets
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Eco-Explainer: How the East Coast Greenway is one of Philly’s best assets

Did you know there is an infrastructure project that has doubled the completed miles than the Border Wall? Let’s Build the East Coast Greenway, not that Wall.

For decades, America has been lacking in large-scale infrastructure projects which historically boost national morale and the economy. Aside from the US-Mexico Border Wall, there are few multi-state infrastructure projects grabbing national headlines.

Meet: the East Coast Greenway.

The East Coast Greenway is a decades-long project (started in 1991) attempting to connect Maine to Florida through one contiguous protected biking and walking route. As of 2021, roughly one-third of the Greenway is completed, 1,000 of the 3,000 miles necessary to finish the project have been built (and dwarfing the 450 miles of completed border wall…)

Upon completion, the Greenway will be 1,000 miles longer than the US-Mexico border wall. 

How do you make a 3,000 mile trail?

Daniel Paschall, the Mid-Atlantic Coordinator for the Greenway explains that the “project is done in chunks, because of its local nature.” The City of Philadelphia, the Parks, and Recreation Department, Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability, and local elected officials have all been courted by the East Coast Greenway Alliance.

“We specifically have a goal to go where people are, we’re trying to make it relevant to people’s lives,” Paschall explains.

An example of local relevant change would be the revitalization of an old railroad bridge connecting Bartram’s Garden in West Philly to Grays Ferry in Southwest Philly. This swing bridge was formerly known as the PW&B Swing Bridge, stood dormant from 1984 to 2018, but is now on pace to be open to the public later this year.

This bridge would not only serve as a part of the Greenway but would better connect West and South Philly which are divided by the Schuylkill River. Currently, there is only one pedestrian crossing connecting West to South Philly for miles in either direction. This would be a one-of-a-kind car-free connector for two communities that currently feature empty storefronts and abandoned buildings on both sides. Connecting these areas will incentivize economic growth, including construction spending, tourism, and property value increases.

Why build the East Coast Greenway?

“Walking and biking are one of the simplest ways to cut your carbon footprint.”

Daniel Paschall

Free of fare and carbon-neutral, creating paths can be beneficial in multiple ways.

“Walking and biking are one of the simplest ways to cut your carbon footprint,” says Paschall “and (making) a trail, elevates walking and biking to a more legitimate level.”

Philadelphia already has the largest percentage of bicycle commuters in any city with a population of over 1 million, creating efficient trails would help encourage cycling further.

Carless trails are safer for cyclists, Pennsylvania averages just above 1,000 bike and car accidents annually. In Philadelphia, traffic deaths involving pedestrians and cyclists are increasing to more than 100 deaths per year, 154 dead just in 2019. Traffic deaths skyrocketed with aggressive driving last year during the pandemic.

The Delaware Watershed portion of the Greenway connects Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Trenton. This route connects existing trails, including the Circuit Trails and Delaware Greenway, and depends on local investment for new infrastructure.

A 2018 study showed that every $1.00 of trail construction generates $1.72 annually from local business revenue, sales tax revenue, and health and transportation benefits. The continued construction of the trail is estimated to create more than 2,000 jobs. In 2019 the East Coast Greenway was given nearly $200 million for planning, design, and construction purposes.

Plus, Philadelphians want it! In November and December 2020, the City solicited input from the public on proposed improvements to Spring Garden St, which is included in the Greenway. Three you of four major takeaways from the neighborhood survey would be remedied by the East Coast Greenway; “Pedestrians and bicyclists want safety improvements on Spring Garden Street, participants want a green, clean, and beautiful corridor and lastly respondents want connections to other neighborhoods, bicycle facilities, and the rivers.”

What does this mean for Philadelphia?

Paschall says he expects Philadelphia’s portions of the East Coast Greenway to be completed by 2025, but he expects the rest of the project to take “at least ten years” to finish. Locally, the Delaware River remains a popular shipping vessel, so there are mixed interests along the riverfront where the Greenway is to reside.

“There are a lot of pieces that are physically very difficult, there’s a portion of (the Greenway in)  Northeast Philly that goes under I-95 in Port Richmond. There is a narrow gap and there’s a railroad property near the roadway. Those areas are going to be the highest hanging fruit.” Paschall explains.

A major factor in developing the Greenway will be acquiring the land necessary for it. “Acquisition is the first step, beyond that there’s still designing and building the trail sections,” explained Karen Thompson, Director of Planning for the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation. The portion of the riverfront that the DRWC operates is slated to be a part of one small chunk of this otherwise massive infrastructure project. However, on the small portion the DRWC controls, Thompson highlights that “on our 6 miles we can connect 10 parks.”

Karen Thompson explained, “We build along the river, building a buffer between the river and development is beneficial.” Written into the zoning code for the Delaware River Conservation District are explicit rules for creating this path “New development in the district must incorporate the construction of a recreation path. Development of the recreation path will enhance the value of adjoining land by creating and preserving attractive green space and making the edge of the Delaware River more accessible.” The zoning code goes on to call this portion of trails the “Delaware River Greenway.”

Reconnecting the people of Philadelphia to its waterways remains a goal of the DRWC. “Throughout history the waterfront was industrial, so most of Philly has been cut off from the waterways for so long,” Thompson carries on “the more that we’ve built, the more people become aware of the amenities.”

There are woes in developing urban trails, but rural settings with small populations and little funding provide a different set of complications. Luckily, Pennsylvania’s section of the East Coast Greenway is small but mostly connects densely populated areas.

Where would the East Coast Greenway be in Pennsylvania?

PA’s greenway route begins in Chester, starting at Marcus Hook working north towards the Philadelphia airport. The trail flows in-land toward Cobbs Creek in Upper Darby then pivots northeast through Philadelphia, following the Schuylkill then crossing through the city and following the Delaware River. After exiting Philadelphia, the path follows the river north through Bristol, Levittown, and Morrisville into Trenton.

The 58 miles of bike path that flows through Pennsylvania follows PennDOT’s Bike Route E, one of eleven State recognized bike paths. Over time the Greenway will stray away from Bike Route E, which mostly consists of busy roads for the new car-free path.

In Philadelphia, the Greenway will “eventually be continuous from the South Street Bridge all the way to Bartram’s Garden” explains Paschall. The route cutting through Philly connects Spring Garden from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River.

A report hyper-focused on the East Coast Greenway’s financial benefits found that a $239 million investment to complete the greater Philadelphia portion of the Greenway would generate over $3 billion in health, environmental and economic benefit. Similar reports on the US-Mexico border wall found little to no financial benefit; the Stanford Study stated that “The wall was expensive to U.S. taxpayers – they paid roughly $7 per person – but saw little to no economic benefits as a result. Some even saw their welfare fall.”

Massive infrastructure projects like the East Coast Greenway are beneficial to local economies, communities, and the national morale when they are well-executed.  Creating a 3,000-mile car-free path for the public to enjoy during a time of extreme political division would be a monumental feat, but if accomplished it would prove that through innovation and community monumental feats are achievable. 

Photos courtesy of the East Coast Greenway


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Jason N. Peters is a writer and journalist from Bucks County, residing in Philadelphia. Jason has bylines in Philly Weekly, the Philadelphia Citizen, and TimeOut Magazine; and has hosted a number of radio programs and podcasts including his chart-topping "Podcast to the Future" - 2100. Jason focuses on working-class issues from Coronavirus in Philadelphia's Prison to Understanding the Medical Marijuana Industry. Outside of journalism, Jason works with local artists and creatives on a variety of projects. View all posts by Jason Peters

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