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Green light for a green mile of ‘rail with trail’ in N.J.

A stretch of East Atlantic Avenue between the main commercial streets of Haddon Heights and Audubon, will feature the first purpose-built segment of the Cross Camden County Trail, a 32-mile walking and cycling connection between Camden and Winslow Township.

Cars along East Atlantic Avenue in Audubon. A one-mile trail along the road, planned to open in 2021, will connect Audubon and Haddon Heights.
Cars along East Atlantic Avenue in Audubon. A one-mile trail along the road, planned to open in 2021, will connect Audubon and Haddon Heights.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The route of a onetime Reading Railroad line that helped create and connect Camden County communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is being reborn as a walking and bicycling trail in the 21st.

A one-mile segment of the planned Cross Camden County Trail along East Atlantic Avenue between Audubon and Haddon Heights is expected to open in 2021. Eventually, the 32-mile county trail from Camden to Winslow Township will link to the 800-mile Philadelphia regional Circuit Trails system, and to Shore trails as well.

"The stars have aligned,” said Liz Sewell, Northeast regional trail development manager with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. The nonprofit advocacy group helped launch a movement to build a national cycling and walking network in 1986.

A $1.2 million state Transportation Alternatives Program grant will pay for construction of a 12-foot-wide asphalt trail on the grassy right-of-way between the still-active Conrail freight line and East Atlantic Avenue. It is the cross county trail’s first purpose-built segment; other sections already exist as county or municipal trails.

The county freeholder board in April awarded a $4.5 million contract for design of the Aubudon-Heights segment and nearly 19 other miles of the trail. Said freeholder Jeff Nash, who came up with the idea of the cross county trail as the “spine” of an extensive countywide system: “This is an amenity that will enhance property values and attract young families to these communities.”

In Audubon and Haddon Heights, elected officials, merchants, cyclists, and walking enthusiasts like me welcome the prospect of an attractive link between our charming, convenient, and somewhat low-key downtowns. Both Merchant Street and Station Avenue have seen businesses come and go in recent years, a familiar phenomenon as shopping areas nationally struggle to adjust to online competition and changing consumer taste.

“We’re very excited about what we see as a linear park that will actually connect both business districts," said Audubon mayor John Ward. “We really want this to happen.”

“The trail is super important,” said Joe Gentile, a Heights booster and business owner whose lively Local Links eatery is at the corner of Station and East Atlantic. The intersection also is home to the Haddon Heights Farmers Market.

“The trail really is going to change the landscape of Atlantic Avenue,” Gentile said. “It will be good for business, too.”

Aaron Clark, who opened Smoke BBQ at the corner of Merchant and East Atlantic in Audubon nearly two years ago, agreed.

““I like what the trail can be,” he said “People who use the trail are going to need to pause for refreshment at some point. Will they use it to come and get some barbecue? You never know.”

Clark is on to something. Fifteen years ago, who would have thought the overgrown ground between an active freight railroad line and the Schuylkill River through Center City would be transformed into the popular, ever-expanding Schuylkill Banks park?

Similarly surprising, on a more modest scale, is the Merchantville Mile, a popular local walking and biking trail advocates hope to someday connect with Pennsauken and Camden’s rehabilitated park system along the Cooper and Delaware Rivers that also has access to the new bike ramp and walkway on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

"The Circuit system is our highest priority level of regional trails,” said Chris Linn, manager of environmental planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. The DVRPC is partnered with government and nonprofit entities to generate political support and funding for local trails and helped obtain the $1.2 million construction grant for the East Atlantic mile.

“A bikeway along the East Atlantic corridor has been a goal for 20 years, and it’s very exciting to see this first [piece of the] project come to fruition,” said Linn.

Much of the cross county trail heading east out of the city of Camden will follow the former Reading line through a string of traditional suburban, working-class communities like Oaklyn, Barrington, Magnolia, Laurel Springs, and Clementon. “It’s a particularly strategic part of the cross county trail because it connects a lot of walkable communities, and has the potential to get a lot of use,” Linn said.

The entire trail “is being built for people from 8 to 80,” said Jack Sworaski, director of the county trails project. “It will be something everybody can take advantage of, not just hardcore cyclists or marathoners.”

Although supporters are elated by the prospect of construction starting, the Conservancy is concerned that funding for much-needed improvements to a “pinch point" on the cross country trail — the Park Boulevard and Route 130 intersection in Pennsauken — as well as other projects statewide may be unavailable due to the complexity of obligating New Jersey’s $54 million in TAP funds, which are provided by the federal government. “The longer the money sits on the table, the more likely it is to be lost,” Sewell warned in a recent blog post.

Back in Audubon, Desserts by Design co-owner Rene Price paused while waiting on customers at her Merchant Street bakery on a sunny morning last week to talk about what the trail could mean for the borough’s downtown. “It’s a wonderful idea,” she said. “A pleasant and safe way to connect these small towns."

The DVRPC’s Linn said the trail could even unite the places along it like the railroad did — but on the “more human scale” of bike-riding and walking.

I look forward to finding out.