Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Tahoma to Tacoma Trail Network could deliver major results for Pierce County

Dixie Gatchel will turn 92 in May. Along with her husband, Clay, who died in 2005, Gatchel volunteered at Mount Rainier National Park for nearly 15 years, including a long stint running the park’s volunteer program.

It’s just one notable accomplishment in a life spent, in large part, dedicated to enjoying the park and encouraging others to do the same. In 2003, The News Tribune’s Jeffrey P. Mayor noted that the Gatchels have each spent 17,000 hours volunteering at the park — the equivalent of more than eight years of 40-hour work weeks.

But Gatchel’s relationship with Mount Rainier goes beyond that impressive feat. In 1948, she and her husband spent their “so-called honeymoon” in an “old leaky tent” at the old Longmire Campground, she recalled during a recent phone conversation.

Gatchel knows the park better than most.

Now she’s part of a broad coalition of people working to create what could be a game-changing project for not just Mount Rainier, but the communities in the iconic mountain’s shadow.

Spearheaded by the Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s Active Transportation Community of Interest, this week the organization and regional partners such as the Foothills Rails to Trails Coalition and ForeverGreen Trails officially launched an effort to build momentum for what’s being called the Tahoma to Tacoma Trail Network.

Specifically, the vision is to finish “a region-wide system of attractive, safe, low-stress connections” trails, all the way from Point Defiance Park in Tacoma to Mount Rainier National Park.

According to the Watershed Initiative’s Liz Kaster, the idea of a connected series of trails from Tacoma to Mount Rainier goes back decades.

Still, an official campaign to make it happen is something different — and that’s exactly the undertaking of Kaster and the Watershed Initiative. The effort, which Kaster says has been building for about a year, hopes to gain steam Thursday night when a report by Alta Planning and Design will be presented at an event at Court House Square in Tacoma.

The plan, at this point, includes a “main alignment” running through parts of Fife, Puyallup and Sumner and a secondary “Pipeline Trail Alignment” that would provide access from Tacoma to the South Hill area before rejoining the main line and continuing on through Orting, South Prairie, Wilkeson and Carbonado. In addition to providing access to Mount Rainier, Kaster says the network would also create “key transportation routes for those communities.”

While Kaster estimates that 30 percent of main alignment is already in place, she says additional planning work is needed to come up with a hard estimate for how much finishing the project might cost and hesitates to speculate when it could be completed. All of it, she says, “really depends on the amount of political support” that materializes. She tells me community support for the project is already strong.

Which brings us to the study. Using information from sources like the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Alta’s report attempts to quantify the possible economic, health, tourism and equity benefits of completing the trail.

Derek Abe, a senior planner with Alta and the report’s project manager, crunched the numbers and concluded that completing both proposed sections of the trail — a total of roughly 77 miles, some of which already exists, such as the Foothills Trail and the Puyallup Riverwalk Trail — could result in a total of more than $16 million a year in economic benefits. That includes more than $1.9 million a year in health benefits, over $4.2 million a year in transportation benefits and more than $10 million a year in tourism dollars.

“This level of walking and biking actually translates to benefits we can describe in ways that will resonate with our partners, with decision makers, and with potential funders,” Abe says. “The way we’ve found it to be most effective is often in monetary terms.”

Not surprising. But, according to Abe, the potential benefits go beyond money.

With just over 38,000 households living within a half-mile of the two alignments, and more than 286,000 households living within 3 miles, the report concludes that completing the both sections could result in an increase of 3.7 million miles biked every year in Pierce County, and provide access for over 57,000 people living below the poverty line.

As far as grand ideas go, the Tahoma to Tacoma Trail Network is grander than most. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss it as a pipe dream.

“There are so many possibilities,” Gatchel tells me of the plan’s potential.

She’s exactly right.