Gretna — Gretna officials want to duplicate the recent explosion of bike paths in New Orleans on a smaller scale with a shared-use bike path that would connect Gretna City Park to the city’s downtown.
Gretna officials hope to have the new path installed within the next few months, and it would be a small step toward fulfilling the master plan discussed by city officials since 1999. Mayor Ronnie Harris said the shared-use bike path will be a simple grouping of signs and pavement markings notifying drivers and bicyclists that they must share the road. City workers will install the markings and signage along a route that stretches through several subdivisons and showcases many of the city’s most popular destinations.
Once in the city’s downtown, the route will connect with the existing $475,000 bicycle trail along the Mississippi River levee that the city built with state funds in 2004. Riders also will have the option of using the Gretna ferry to ride over to New Orleans.
A bike path that connects the city’s southern edge with its downtown has been discussed for years, but because of funding issues, the project has been unable to get rolling.
In 2011, the city was awarded a $304,000 grant from the Transportation Enhancement Program to build an even more substantial bike path along the same route. However, as part of the grant, Gretna had to pay for the engineering of the route, and the city couldn’t find the money for the project, Mayor Ronnie Harris said.
In addition, Harris said that Councilman Vincent Cox III, a cycling enthusiast, wanted to see the work completed faster. The initial path would have taken years to build, while the shared-use path can be completed in a matter of months. The shared-use path will be built in two phases with funding from the Recreational Trails Program that was moved from another project. Cox said the project should cost $60,000.
Harris acknowledged that the shared-use path is modeled after what New Orleans officials have done throughout the city and has been approved by the Regional Planning Commission. Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans officials have increased the city’s bicycle paths seven-fold, and the result is that bicyclists are becoming a regular and accepted part of the city’s culture. Shared-use bike paths have become popular around the country as an economical way to encourage bicycling. However, Harris said he would eventually like to return to the bigger plan, which included dedicated lanes.
“The problem with the Transportation Enhancement Program is that it’s a three-year plan,” Harris said. “Councilman Cox wanted to move faster than three years.”
Cox said the initial plans called for something the city didn’t need at this point. It would have been a great project, but a shared-use path can serve the same purpose. Cox already commutes to New Orleans on his bicycle using the ferries, and he said, at times, it can be daunting. He said the city needs something now.
“That’s basically building the great pyramid of Egypt when all I really wanted was a shared-use path,” Cox said.
The shared-use path, along with an education program for city residents, should make it safer for bicyclists. Drivers will be warned that bicyclists are on the road, and cyclists will know exactly where they should cross major streets. Cox said the city can send out notices on city water bills or through social media sites.
Harris said notification is crucial because of the possibility of accidents when bicyclists and motorists share the road.
Some of the streets bicyclists will use are the busiest in the city.
“My concern has always been the liability,” Harris said.
Based on the proposed route for phase one, bicyclists will travel north and south through the city on Huey P. Long Street. Riders can use Gretna Boulevard to travel east to west or use the existing bike path beneath the West Bank expressway.
The path also will go through the New Garden Park subdivision on Willow Street. Eventually the city would like to add a second phase to the bike path along Hamilton, Fifth and 11th streets that would create a big circle. Cox said convenient crossings for bicyclists already have been created at the West Bank Expressway, and riders will have the benefit of crossing the expressway at traffic lights.