On the right path

Antis Township pursuing Bellwood to Altoona trail

Antis Township Manager Lucas Martsolf surveys the former railroad ground the township has an option to purchase that will allow for a hiking and biking trail connection between Bellwood and Altoona. Mirror photo by William Kibler

Antis Township supervisors have an option to buy a 119-acre, 2-mile swath of ground that will allow the township to realize its ambition for a hiking and biking trail that connects Bellwood and Altoona.

The land lies along the west side of the mainline tracks between the big power line south of Bellwood and 20th Street in Juniata.

The link may trigger an effort by the city to create its own trail or trails that could lead south to Hollidaysburg to hook up with a planned connection between the Lower and Six-to-Ten trails — both of which are part of the patchwork comprising the national 9/11 trail, a triangle with vertices at Shanksville, New York City and Washington, D.C.

“It’s gonna be history,” said Antis Township Manager Lucas Martsolf, who was celebrating Friday after obtaining a signature on the option agreement from landowner Antis Salvage LLC.

“It’s a critically important project,” said Steve McKnight, CEO of the Altoona-Blair County Development Corp., which, in recent years, has emphasized recreation over industrial parks as key to economic growth. “These kinds of amenities help attract people to our area who can work with one of our existing businesses, start up their own business or invest in one.”

A walk with Martsolf on Thursday along existing trails and unpaved roads through woods and fields on the newly optioned ground — environmentally compromised by the railroad before there were environmental regulations — revealed streams, an old stone railroad bridge, abandoned railcars, including rusting tank­­ers, a boxcar and a gondola; tracks overgrown with vegetation or submerged in gravel and abrupt hillocks — all evidence of heavy industry generations ago.

The land is ripe not only for hiking and biking, but horseback riding, fishing, field trips for environmental and historical education, running and bike races, cross-country and track practices, even festivals and an amphitheater, according to Martsolf.

“It’s not just a trail,” he said. “I can see it developing over decades.”

Connections help

The presence of the existing roads and trails — a network in some places — on a tract averaging about 900 feet in width — will make development much less costly, Martsolf said.

Its industrial history — it was “abused” — also makes it a favorable candidate for funding from the state, Martsolf said.

“(State officials) want to see it in conservation,” he said.

The railcars, if they can be left, would add to the charm, according to Martsolf and McKnight.

Altoona officials have had preliminary discussions about hiring a consultant for a feasibility study on extending the trail that Antis plans to bring to northern Juniata, said Community Development Director Lee Slusser, adding that City Council has not approved any expenditures.

“It’s definitely something worth looking at and figuring out what role we can play,” Mayor Matt Pacifico said. “(But) we haven’t really begun to dig in the weeds yet.”

While developing trails on Antis’ newly optioned land may be straightforward, it will be “a bit trickier” in the city, where there may need to be a mix of off-street trails and designated pathways on existing infrastructure, including sidewalks and streets, with dedicated bike lanes, or, less desirability, “sharrow” lanes where both motorized and bike traffic both go, Pacifico said.

How it turns out will be largely dependent on the width of the city’s rights of way on particular streets, he said.

Areas where a trail could go include downtown Juniata, which is about a mile from where the Antis trail will end, and the Ivyside campus, as well as through to the south, officials indicated.

Regardless of what the city does, there should be plenty of grant money available, Pacifico said.

“It’s a neat opportunity,” Slusser said. “(But) there’s a whole bunch of things (we) have to think through.”

Grant funds expected

The price for the newly optioned ground by Antis is $318,000, according to Martsolf.

The township is confident that it will receive a grant from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for half of the purchase amount, Martsolf said.

If the state doesn’t grant the money, the township will pay for the ground from its capital reserves, Martsolf predicted.

The northern section of the newly optioned ground — from Lower Riggles Gap Road to the power line — will provide the rest of the land Antis needs to execute a $900,000 Phase 2 of its rail-trail project, as outlined in a feasibility study.

The township previously bought two pieces of ground for Phase 2 — the northern end of which is at Becker Road, just south of Bellwood.

The township hopes to apply for construction funding next year for Phase 2 and could start building it in a couple of years, according to Martsolf.

The township hopes to begin building Phase 1 next year, with help from a $155,000 engineering grant from Keystone Recreation and an $875,000 construction grant from PennDOT’s Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside Projects fund.

Phase 1 will extend the existing Bells Gap Trail from the Bellwood-Antis Community Park across the mainline into downtown Bellwood, then north for a short distance to a proposed trail head, while also extending the trail south from the park across a planned bridge across Bells Gap Run to Becker Road.

Phases 3, 4 and 5 call for extension of the trail north from the downtown trail head to Tipton, Tyrone and maybe even State College.

The southern section of the newly optioned land, running from Lower Riggles Gap Road south to Juniata, is beyond the scope of the township’s trail feasibility study, but acquiring it seemed to be a natural next step, according to Martsolf.

Municipal cooperation

Martsolf hopes that fundraising and construction for this section can be a multi-municipality effort.

“Regional cooperation is starting to swell,” he said.

Such cooperation increases “political clout,” making it easier to raise funds, he said.

The township is hoping eventually to acquire a 172-acre swath of former railroad ground on the east side of the mainline, almost a mirror image of the newly optioned land, according to Martsolf.

The township had a one-year option to buy this 172 acres and tried to exercise that option within the allotted time but couldn’t get the owner to respond, he said.

It plans to ask the court to enforce the deal, he said.

This land, too, has existing trails, which would provide access to the Little Juniata River for fishing and other activities and would be ripe for environmental conservation, he said.

The trail effort for Antis began after the township created a comprehensive community plan in 2014, Martsolf said.

The recreational segment of the plan recommended creation of a park and recreation plan, which the township undertook.

That park and rec plan called for soliciting the opinions of township residents, which showed that the clear No. 1 priority was more hiking and biking trails, Martsolf said.

The trail feasibility study followed.

“We listened to our residents and took their advice,” he said.

“People like these kinds of things,” McKnight said of the proposed trail. “It adds to our livability.”

“It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of Blair County that we will make available to all the residents of Blair County,” said Township Supervisors Chairman Dave Worthing. “And more importantly, make available to tourists.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.