Thursday, December 06, 2007

Bethlehem rail-to-trail project builds steam

Bethlehem City Council got the ball rolling Tuesday to free up $1.8 million in grants to pay for the greenway, a 3 1/2-mile rails-to-trails park.

But before they cast their final vote and the deal closes later this month, council members want to see exactly what the agreement calls for.

City officials have done some last-minute negotiating with the owners, Norfolk Southern, and cut the deal from 44 acres to 28.

Two adjacent property owners are buying the balance, and all of that must be addressed in the agreement of sale. But the document was not ready in time for council's vote.

Councilman Joseph Leeson Jr. was reluctant to vote on the funding ordinance on first reading, but after questioning the city solicitor, he said council members will still have time in two weeks to derail the project if they don't get copies of the new agreement of sale or approve of what's in it.

''It's a little unorthodox to proceed in this matter, but it is a worthwhile project,'' he said.

Council is expected to decide whether to authorize the sale by Dec. 18.

The park, which has been seven years in the making, meanders through the South Side Business District from Union Station to Saucon Park. City officials have heralded it as a trail to link the community with businesses, residences, parks and institutions such as Lehigh University, drawing people and priming the pump for more economic development.

Community leaders envision the path eventually featuring everything from decorative street lights to a community plaza. It would also be home to a skate park.

The park would hook into existing paths. That would form a continuous trail from the Monocacy Park recreation complex, through the Nature Trail, into the Burnside Plantation, through Monocacy Way, through Johnston Park and onto the Sand Island recreation complex.

After using the Fahy Bridge to cross the Lehigh River, a walker would be able to pick up the greenway and go into Saucon Park.

Mayor John Callahan estimated that developing the park will cost $4 million in total. The city will try to soften the financial punch by doing the project in phases.

The first phase will center on a half-mile that cuts through the heart of the South Side downtown. From New Street to Lynn Avenue, the land will be graded, seeded and planted with trees.

In July, the city struck an agreement to buy 44 acres for $2.5 million. About 10 acres of it was to be resold to adjacent landowners, but since then, the contract was changed, with Norfolk Southern now selling the property directly to the landowners.

The paperwork is being completed before the Dec. 21 settlement.

Callahan said he was especially proud of the city acquiring the property solely through grants: $200,000 from Transportation Enhancement funds, $600,000 from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and nearly $1.1 million from Northampton County.

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