By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
JOHNSTON, R.I. — There is a push to expand the Fred Lippitt Woonasquatucket River Greenway from 7 to 10 miles. The current greenway — 5.5 miles of which is an off-road recreation and bike path — stretches from Waterplace Park in downtown Providence to Lyman Avenue. The new segment would continue northbound to Cricket Field at Greystone Avenue and Angell Avenue, near the Smithfield line.
There have been plans to expand the greenway since the late 1990s, according to Alicia Lehrer, executive director of the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. She said Johnston has been particularly resistant to the expansion, noting that both politicians and residents have expressed concerns about maintenance and policing costs, privacy, and property values for homeowners along the bike path’s route.
Now, a new group of local residents hopes to change the conversation by explaining the benefits of expanding the greenway. While vaguely named organizations are in vogue, Johnston Residents for the Proposed Extension of Woonasquatucket Bike Path announces its intentions in clear terms.
Nelson Rocha, who lives near the proposed route of the greenway, began the group with a handful of other local residents. Rocha said the group’s purpose is to build a base of support that can be called on to canvass neighborhoods, attend town meetings and build general support for the expansion.
“We want to make it a grassroots approach and interact with people in a positive way,” he said.
Rocha said resistance to the greenway expansion comes mainly from a handful of residents, most notably those who fear their property values or privacy could be negatively impacted.
“A lot of times, the people who resist something are the most vocal. That’s why we are looking to create a group in favor (of the greenway),” he said
The group is gathering signatures in favor of the greenway expansion through an online petition and will hold a launch celebration at an April 25 greenway cleanup being organized by the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council. After the cleanup, Rocha’s group will host a bike ride that will explore the proposed expansion route.
For Rocha, the benefits of expanding the greenway are abundant. He said the bike path would benefit bicyclers commuting to Providence and recreational users, including walkers and joggers.
“It offers kids a safe place to bike,” he said. The greenway also would encourage tourism and offer people a place to connect with nature, Rocha added.
Lehrer said the greenway expansion is currently little more than a “vague concept.” The route from Lyman Avenue to Cricket Field remains undetermined, and while some of it will be off-road some of it likely won’t be.
“The goal is to get it as close to the river as possible,” she said. “The main hurdle is having a public meeting where the public can see the plans and weigh in with their thoughts.”
According to Lehrer, the mayor’s office and the Town Council, which recently proposed holding a public hearing, are already starting to view the idea of a bike path as a possible asset that could improve property values rather than harm them.
“We feel that (expanding the greenway) is going to transform Johnston and make it a community where more people and families are going to want to settle,” she said.
Lehrer and Rocha both said their goal is to have at least as many greenway supporters at the yet-to-be-scheduled public hearing as there are opponents.
Costs associated with the project include design, construction and maintenance. Lehrer estimated the design portion alone will cost more than a million dollars. She noted there are earmarked funds dedicated to the Woonasquatucket River Greenway dating from the 1990s, but that they will not pay for the entire project.
In a best-case scenario, Lehrer estimated that construction of the greenway expansion could begin in four years.
The Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council maintains the entire greenway using the earmarked funds noted above. When those funds run dry, new funding sources will need to be identified.
“We hope the cities and towns will help us out as they can,” Lehrer said.