The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

The Touchet Valley Trail - A Shared Vision of the Future

 

August 29, 2019



By Andrea Weckmueller-Behringer

Planning gives shape to, and documents, the vision of the desired future; as such, planning includes weighing possible options and alternatives, analyzing impacts and benefits, assessing potential challenges and obstacles, formulating strategies and actions, and seeking out funding and other resources.

Currently, this very process is also being applied to the Touchet Valley Trail – envisioned as a paved multi-use pathway – connecting the cities of Dayton and Waitsburg. This proposed trail project was the highest priority recommendation coming out of the Blue Mountain Region Trails (BMRT) planning effort, which was underway between November 2016 and February 2018, and encompassed two states, three counties, and all the cities bordered by the Tucannon, Snake, Columbia, and Walla Walla rivers.

The large-scale BMRT planning effort involved a multi-jurisdictional project team, consisting of 30 city, county, regional, state, federal, and tribal entities, along with health departments, ports, and other partners. Of great importance to the entire project team was the public’s opinion and support, so much so that a significant portion of resources were directed towards three highly successful rounds of public outreach at key decision points in the planning process. (This effort was subsequently recognized by the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association and the Planning Association of Washington for “Honoring Outstanding Contributions to the Planning Profession” in the “Citizen Involvement” category.)

1st Gathering Ideas — Between January 30 and February 2, 2017, the project team held four identical workshops across the region – in Dayton, Walla Walla, Milton-Freewater, and Burbank – all of which attracted more than 450 participants. In Dayton alone, well over 100 members of the public showed up to share their ideas and thoughts on potential locations for non-motorized trail and transportation connections. Well publicized ahead of the actual meeting, the Dayton outreach event was featured in the [Waitsburg] Times, the Union Bulletin, and the Dayton Chronicle on January 19, 22, and 25, 2017, respectively. Following the event, it was again reported on and discussed in the Times on February 2 and 9, 2017, as well as in the Union Bulletin on February 3 and 6, 2017.

At each workshop, participants were able to provide direct input on desired connections and destinations through the mark-up of area maps, which showed existing paths and trails, along with points of interest. Volunteer facilitators provided assistance, answered questions, and recorded all of the public’s contributions. Through the workshops and an online repository, almost 1,000 individual route alignments and associated comments were collected, of which 73% related to regional trails.

Volunteers and partner agency staff digitized and analyzed all comments; and after overlaying the data onto one map, it became evident that the public’s desire for connections throughout the region focused on three areas: recreation along the rivers, connections between communities, and access to the region’s forests.

2nd Regional Prioritization of Conceptual Network — Focusing on the three areas identified during the first round of workshops and using only public lands or publicly-owned rights-of-way, the project team identified 28 alignments that included almost 430 miles of potential regional connections. Supporting the previously gathered public input with a data-driven needs analysis based on population distribution, schools, parks, senior housing, and other land use activities, the project team also identified sidewalks along 15 miles of municipal roadways and 30 miles of additional “in-town” bike routes.

Again, four identical workshops were conducted all across the region – in Dayton, Walla Walla, Milton-Freewater, and Burbank, which attracted around 200 participants. Immediately, the “Dayton to Waitsburg” connection stood out as a favorite, as it touches on two of the three high priority areas and was first among all regional priorities at the Dayton workshop.

3rd Review of Proposed Regional Projects — Informed by the regional prioritization of potential connection, the project team facilitated and participated in extensive discussions between community planners and their engineering counterparts. The outcome was a draft blueprint of the Blue Mountain Region Trails network, which was unveiled during the third round of public outreach that was conducted online. For that purpose alone, the team set up a bilingual online forum, where the public was able to view street-level and route-specific information. The site also provided full access to embed route-specific or general comments as desired.

In order to facilitate the dialogue, the project team had posted specific prompts designed to ask online participants to share their knowledge in the following areas:

Route-specific – Are the proposed routes and trails suitable for the identified uses – walking, road cycling, hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding?

Location-specific – What potential issues need to be considered at this location? For example, are there blind corners, steep inclines, safety concerns, accessibility issues, or potential conflicts between different types of users?

Future use – Are there route locations that should be considered for inclusion in future network updates?

General – Do you have any other comments about this project that you would like to share?

142 specific comments were gathered and subsequently analyzed by each affected jurisdiction to determine if changes to the draft network were needed; only minor adjustments were necessary as a result of this review.

Ongoing Web Presence — Last, but certainly not least, it is important to note that a dedicated and consistently promoted project website was set up to relate up-to-date information to the public throughout the duration of the BMRT plan development. The site – http://www.bluezonetrails.org – garnered well over 20,000 views prior to the adoption of the plan and continues to be maintained as an information repository.

The Blue Mountain Region Trails Plan has already allowed a number of project partners to leverage existing funding sources, such as state transportation or trail grants administered through the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office, respectively, and even federal funding such as the Federal Lands Access Program or the Recreational Trails Program, made available by the Federal Highway Administration. For many of these grant opportunities, having a well-designed plan is a prerequisite to receiving any funding for trail engineering, construction, or maintenance.

The current Touchet Valley Trail effort is the first project to move forward into detailed design. Together, let’s again use good planning practice – weighing possible options and alternatives, analyzing impacts and benefits, assessing potential challenges and obstacles, formulating strategies and actions, and seeking out funding and other resources. I am certain, all involved stakeholders can agree to the underlying motivation and goals – to enrich our region through outdoor recreation that enhances health outcomes, improves mobility, increases quality of life, and spurs economic development. Thereafter, let’s work together to find solutions for some of the detailed questions, which any project like this inherently brings to the table.

And speaking of … The next opportunity for us to work together will take place in just a few short weeks – two public meetings on the Touchet Valley Trail will be held to share community survey results and discuss next steps:

Dayton: Monday, September 16, 7 p.m., Columbia County Fairgrounds Pavilion

Waitsburg: Monday, September 23, 7 p.m., Waitsburg Town Hall

I look forward to seeing you there!

Andrea Weckmueller-Behringer is the Executive Director of the Walla Walla Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization/Sub-Regional Transportation Planning Organization (WWVMPO/SRTPO), which is a federally- and state-designated transportation planning agency. She can be reached at abehringer@wwvmpo.org or 509-876-8002 on weekdays during normal business hours.

 

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