Imagine getting on a bike in lower Camden County and riding all the way to Maine or Florida.
"The Spine" could help get you there.
Also known as the Cross County Trail, this proposed 32-mile bicycling and pedestrian thoroughfare between the Camden Waterfront and the Atlantic County border would mainly utilize existing streets and rights-of-way through urban, suburban, and rural areas of the county.
And it could be substantially complete by 2025.
"We have nothing like it now," says Clementon resident Cherie McCann-Williams, a devoted cyclist frustrated by "having to put my bike in the car and drive to where I can ride."
Says Jessica Groff, a Rowan University graduate student who lives in Stratford, "It's a great concept."
She and McCann-Williams were among about 30 people attending an open house about the Spine on Dec. 1 in Lindenwold. Public comments are still being taken at camdencounty.com/trails/.
"We're calling it the People's Trail, so we want to make sure people have input," says Freeholder Jeff Nash, a champion of the project.
By linking parks and open spaces, as well as local trails and town centers, the Spine would likely spur additional connections in local towns, eventually helping establish what's envisioned as 500-mile countywide trail network.
The Spine also would connect the county to the Circuit Trails, an eventual 750-mile Greater Philadelphia network of walking, running, and cycling paths connecting to another system known as the East Coast Greenway.
"The Spine is not something that the [county] tax rate will have to go up to pay for," says Jack Sworaski, director of open space and farmland preservation for Camden County. "We're going to be looking for federal and state grants for this."
I'm walking with Sworaski and county planner Andrew Levecchia in the Collingswood portion of the trail through Newton Lake Park, where landscaped walkways and scenic water views coexist with busy streets.
We're a couple of blocks north of the freight rail line along Atlantic Avenue that runs through Oaklyn, Haddon Heights, Stratford and other municipalities.
"The right-of-way is wide enough for a trail and runs through some areas that don't necessarily have pedestrian infrastructure," such as sidewalks, notes Liz Sewell, of the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which supports the Cross County Trail.
This eight-mile Atlantic Avenue stretch may become a key segment of the trail; the county is expected to decide on a final alignment in 2017.
"Connecting these communities would attract people to their town centers," says Levecchia.
"It also could provide access to farmland and open space we have acquired over the years."
Support for the Spine has not arisen overnight or in a vacuum.
Elise Turner, communications manager for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, says her agency is providing technical assistance and financial support to finish the Circuit.
The commission has provided $805,000 for improvements along the Cooper River in Camden and $125,000 for construction of a trail connecting Kaighns Avenue to Route 130, Turner says in an email.
"The Camden County spine is a wonderful project," says Olivia Glenn, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation's regional manager for the South Jersey metro area.
She works with grassroots groups in Camden to encourage the development of a city trail network called the Camden Greenway, which would connect to or be part of the Spine and the Circuit.
"The county is certainly ahead of the curve," notes Chris Mrozinski, a Haddon Heights resident who serves on the Camden County Open Space Advisory Committee.
A runner and cyclist, Mrozinski has become a passionate advocate for the Spine.
Chatting with him ("I could talk about this stuff all day," Mrozinski laughs) I think of the effort it took to create Camden County's handsome park system a century ago.
Conceived by business and civic leaders as a way to enhance the desirability of Camden and its suburbs, the system took decades to build.
But this wonderful amenity might never have been built at all if people inside and outside government then hadn't had the foresight, and the enthusiasm, to take the first steps.