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New report looks at cycling ecosystem in Northeast Pennsylvania

Cover of Pennsylvania Environmental Council's study: NEPA Trails: Assessing Connections and Community
Cover of Pennsylvania Environmental Council's study: NEPA Trails: Assessing Connections and Community

In Northeast Pennsylvania, there are dozens of multi-use trails for cycling, including miles of mountain biking paths and almost unlimited gravel and mixed-surface riding opportunities.

A new report from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) offers a roadmap on how those resources can help turn the region into a cycling destination.

“We'd like you to think of it as the seeds ... or the founding document that we can take to move forward," said Janet Sweeney, vice president of PEC.

The study, NEPA Trails: Assessing Connections and Community Report, is a living resource to promote bicycle tourism in the region. It was funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission and focuses on eight counties including: Carbon, Lackawanna, Luzerne, Monroe, Pike, Susquehanna, Wayne and Wyoming.

On May 18, representatives from the NEPA Trails Forum met to discuss the report at Sabatini's in Exeter. The group, that provided input for the study, is made up of organizations, government entities and individuals who are involved with trail development in the region. They acknowledged that the cycling network can also be outside the boundaries of those eight counties.

The Pennsylvania Environmental Council did a similar study from Erie to Pittsburgh in Western Pennsylvania. For the NEPA version, PEC did a survey, held stakeholder meetings and looked at around 30 different plans for the report, including individual trail feasibility studies from the past 20 years, said Helena Kotala, PEC program manager.

The report identifies the spine of the NEPA Cycling Network. Traveling southbound, it starts at the Pennsylvania/New York border in Susquehanna County on the D&H Trail. That trail ends in Simpson and picks up the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail which currently ends in Taylor. The spine then connects through the Wyoming Valley on the Luzerne County National Recreation Trail and levee trail system. The last section is down the D&L Trail, which ends in Jim Thorpe in Carbon County.

The spine is missing a few connecting vertebrae, which, when completed, will create a continuous trail from New York to Philadelphia. The Heritage Trail will eventually end in Pittston. The D&L trail has a gap between Wilkes-Barre and Mountain Top. Both sections are being developed.

The entire network of road, gravel and mountain biking trails spurs out from the spine, including into the Poconos and the Endless Mountains.

The report points out a lot of the existing cycling infrastructure including at state parks like Lackawanna and Prompton, and discusses other opportunities, like promoting gravel cycling and gravel road connections. Gravel riding, which is biking on dirt and gravel roads, is the fastest growing form of cycling.

Brett Hollern, PEC’s director for trails and outdoor recreation, said that the group should start working on branding and networking. He pointed to the Oz Trails in Northwest Arkansas as a model.

He said the entire project needs to be looked at holistically. Trails might mean different things to local residents than to those who come to cycle from out of the region.

“It's about more than just connectivity," he said. "It's also about the culture and it's about the community.”

Ultimately the report suggests that making NEPA a cycling destination will help improve public health and economic growth. A united trail system could create a transportation network for people to cycle from home to work.

"We know that trails ultimately benefit these towns, they're bringing people in to buy coffee, you go to the local restaurants, buy a bike, all these things, it's really going to be impactful, especially these areas that are depressed," said Rachel Stark, PEC’s Northeast Pennsylvania Program Coordinator. "Whole towns ... now have an opportunity to bring in new wealth in the new way,"

PEC President David Woodwell pointed to the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage. He said it creates $800,000 per mile, per year of economic impact.

"The cycling world spends a lot more money, a lot more time, travels for it," he said during the meeting. "It's also got all those co-benefits locally for health, for recreation and transportation.”

Now that the report is out, representatives will begin meeting with stakeholders and elected officials to promote the plan.

“We're also going to kind of take this book on tour," said Stark.

To read the full report, visit pecpa.org/news/cycling-community-connectivity-in-nepa/

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.