Throughout the central Puget Sound region, wide trails offer the promise of safe and accessible transportation corridors for people who bike or walk. Many are converted railroad right-of-ways, and some connect to high-speed transit. But many stand alone, limiting their utility.
The Leafline Trails Coalition wants to link and expand 450 miles of these trails throughout King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties. And it turns out the pandemic may give that mission a bit of a boost.
West of Tacoma in Gig Harbor, 70-year-old Dianne Iverson stands with her bike alongside a wide, paved trail. Cycling is her passion. She says it’s liberating.
“You feel like you’re a child again and puts a happy face on you. Even in these very difficult times, it still puts a happy face on you,” Iverson says.
She says she and her partner, Paul Dutky, have been seeing a lot more people out with them on the trails during the pandemic. They’re retired and estimate they ride more than 100 miles a week. Their bike is a very special tandem – it’s recumbent in the front, where Dianne pedals.
“I'm a bilateral amputee, and my ability to walk is not as good as my ability to ride a bicycle -- as long as the bicycle is user friendly to me. And this bike is,” she says.
It also helps a lot to have a safe and accessible trail. They live in Bremerton, but this one – the Cushman Trail – is one of their favorite places to ride. It runs through a wooded wetland area that starts near a Costco and Home Depot. It’s in a power-line corridor, says Dutky. It’s 16 feet wide, paved for more than six miles and mostly protected.
“It sort of, like, slices right through the heart of some very difficult terrain, through some residential areas and through town. And it's kind of this magical trip,” he says.
“So this particular route to the south is hilly, but it's very popular because it allows you to get from the shopping mall over to the Cushman Trail, to the bridge – the Narrows Bridge.”
He says a couple of times a year, they cross the bridge to complete a loop ride. It starts in Bremerton, goes through Gig Harbor and Tacoma, then on to Vashon Island and back home, via the Washington State Ferry. But they’re experienced riders. And right now to do that, they have to venture over many treacherous gaps in the trails.
The Leafline Vision
“So just north of where we stand, this trail ends,” says Claire Martini, pointing to what looks like a road block at one end of the Cushman Trail. “You'll see, the power lines continue, but the paved trail ends,”
Martini is a policy manager with the Cascade Bicycle Club and staffs the Leafline Trails Coalition. The organization brings together dozens of groups, all working to build out and connect regional trails.
“And there are a number of gaps like these, whether it's the trail just ends or there's a segment where people using the trail are forced to sort of ‘choose their own adventure’ through traffic,” she says.
“It can be really dangerous. And so our coalition is working to make sure that great trails like this don't just end. They connect you. And you can continue your journey in any direction that you choose.”
Martini notes that the Cushman Trail could ultimately connect from its current 6.2-mile length all the way through downtown Tacoma to Mount Rainier National Park in one direction. And the City of Gig Harbor is currently studying an extension north to the Kitsap County line.
“Connecting eventually, ultimately, to the Sound to Olympics trail. And you can just imagine sort of the amazing trips that become possible when our region is connected by trail like this,” Martini says.
And now that vision is backed by nonprofit groups, businesses and local governments in all four counties of central Puget Sound. They say it would improve public health and connect more people to rapid mass transit while bringing in revenue from users all around the region.
For her part, Dianne Iverson loves the idea – especially because it might mean less driving for her and her tandem partner.
“We live in Kitsap County, and we have one mile of trails like this. So we're very excited about being a member of the Leafline Trails Coalition – so the expertise throughout Puget Sound that has put together these fantastic trails will help us figure out how that might look in Kitsap County,” Iverson says.
The Leafline Trails Coalition officially launched last fall. They’ve been working to identify gaps in the trails network – and to find funding to fill those gaps. They want the state to increase its contributions through the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and say several federal bills could add millions.
They’ve met with members of Congress and made their case that, in the wake of the pandemic, Leafline Trails can help the region solve big problems around climate, health, transportation and the economy.
And they have found favor with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. In his April 2, 2021, letter to the state’s Congressional delegation about infrastructure priorities, Inslee calls out the Leafline Coalition as one of several trail projects worth funding.
"Significant investment in active transportation is needed to address health, equity, and critical safety concerns when biking or walking,” Inslee writes. “Expanding and connecting trail networks such as The Leafline network in central Puget Sound ... would enhance mobility and put people to work quickly across the state."