Dozens of cyclists cruised down winding trails Sunday in southeast Baton Rouge following the official opening of a bridge over Ward Creek connecting what is to eventually become a 13-mile bike and pedestrian path linking major shopping areas and medical complexes.

The ride on a crisp, sunny morning was meant to celebrate BREC's completion of a key part of the $6.8 million planned “health loop,” a network of bike and walking trails that's been extended with the opening of the bridge.

The bridge links two trail segments that were separated by the creek and now gives riders and pedestrians the ability to travel safely between the Mall of Louisiana and Siegen Market Place.

"This was a missing link," said BREC Assistant Director of Planning Reed Richard during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the bridge Sunday morning. "And there's a lot more to come."

The new bridge connects trails BREC has built since beginning construction of the health loop in 2013, which officials plan to further extend in some areas.

The planned loop winds through the parish's Health District around the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, near the LSU Health System Surgical Center and Ochsner, before continuing to Pecue Lane along Ward Creek.

The Ward Creek bridge was also partly funded through a $1 million donation from Blue Cross Blue Shield and with the support of private property owners who saw several benefits from the trails, BREC officials said.

More importantly, it separates pedestrians and cyclists from sharing roads with drivers, which safety advocates say is much-needed in the city-parish following fatal crashes and close calls over the years.

They point to statistics showing a growing number of serious crashes involving motorists and cyclists in Baton Rouge and throughout the state. Indeed, a 2018 Wall Street Journal analysis ranked Louisiana second nationally in bicyclist deaths, behind Florida.

BREC Assistant Superintendent Brandon Smith said the 2004 death of a cyclist near Perkins Road Community Park and several others since then have led to a groundswell of calls to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.

This summer, a pair of bicyclists were killed in separate crashes within a span of just 24 hours after being struck by vehicles.

Doug Moore, vice president of Bike Baton Rouge, said bikers frequently encounter hostile drivers, a frustration he faults on lack of bike-friendly infrastructure.

"We don't want to be in front of an angry and impatient driver any more than an angry, impatient driver wants to be behind us," Moore said.

The trail project is a small but important step to keep travelers safe, Moore said, and will serve as an encouragement for people to bike or walk to places instead of driving to get to them.

"Hopefully, as more people discover these trails, and as they become bigger and connect more parts of the city, people will feel comfortable to get out of their cars," Moore said.

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com.