Tenn. officials make plans for connecting bicycle trails

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A series of bicycle trails across Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia connecting with cities such as Atlanta and Knoxville is possible within the next two decades, officials say.

‘‘It could happen, yes,’’ said Kim Harpe, coordinator for the Southeast Tennessee Rural Planning Organization. ‘‘The reason is the connectivity.’’

As local governments across Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia build small bicycle trails, the next step is to look at how they can be linked to other trail systems, officials said. In time, the result is one continuous trail.

‘‘At some point, we would like to see a paved trail from Chattanooga to Rome (Ga.) to the Silver Comet (trail) in Atlanta,’’ said Walker County, Ga., attorney Don Oliver. ‘‘You have to take your pieces as you get them.’’

The Silver Comet Trail, a paved bicycle path that stretches 60 miles from north of Atlanta to the Alabama line, is an example of a premier bicycle trail that crosses county lines.

Oliver said state and local officials are working to turn a 17-mile stretch of an old rail line just north of Rome, Ga., into a bicycle trail. The north-south path could be the first step toward connecting Chattanooga to Atlanta, he said.

‘‘The hope is to get it paved and better quality,’’ Oliver said.

Daniel Carter, a Marion County bicycle enthusiast, last year sought support from the Southeast Tennessee RPO for a set of trails in that county. Carter said local residents are working on a 25-year plan for trails from Jasper, Tenn., to Prentice Cooper State Park.

Currently, Tennessee Department of Transportation records show 17 existing or proposed statewide bicycle routes. One goes through Marion County and Chattanooga, along state Route 60 and north to Cleveland, east on U.S. Highway 64 toward the Cherokee National Forest and north again to Maryville, Tenn.

Phil Pugliese, bicycle coordinator for Outdoor Chattanooga and the Southeast Tennessee RPO, said such a route would not be a completely paved trail set aside just for bicyclists.

He said parts of the path would follow roads, but within 20 to 25 years it could be feasible for cyclists to ride from Chattanooga to Knoxville, possibly connecting with the Cleveland/Bradley County Greenway near Mouse Creek.

Such projects can be expensive. For instance, a paved bikeway costs about $500,000 a mile, according to Bill Moll, chairman of Bike! Walk! Northwest Georgia, a nonprofit group that promotes and plans bicycle routes.

But transportation officials in Tennessee and Georgia said money is available through the federal Transportation Enhancement Program, which gives states as much as $20 million.

Several million dollars have been spent from the funds to build the Tennessee Riverwalk in Chattanooga and the Silver Comet Trail, officials said. Almost $500,000 was given to Cleveland and Bradley County for its greenway project, records show.

‘‘Money is always an issue, but it’s out there,’’ Harpe said.