Coordinator hopes to expand Huntington trail system
HUNTINGTON, WV — To some, Huntington is an unhealthy city on an economic downturn, but that couldn't be any more false for people like Bethany Williams, who live, work and exercise in the city.
Williams, an avid cyclist and program coordinator for the Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute, a research and economic development firm headquartered in Huntington, is part of a team that manages the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health, commonly known as PATH.
The expansive trail system is a pedestrian and bicycle alternative transportation network that connects vital portions of downtown Huntington, neighborhoods and Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District parks.
West Virginians outside of Huntington may not be familiar with PATH, but they could see the trail come to their city if Williams had her way.
"Alternative transportation like PATH is a big piece in the development of every progressive city," Williams said. "My goal is that RTI can keep adding on to it. I'd like to see a trail that connects cities like Charleston and Huntington."
PATH is Rahall Transportation Institute's primary trail project, but the firm is involved in the development and management of others, like the Hatfield and McCoy trails located throughout the state.
While Rahall Transportation Institute is a major sponsor of PATH, the trail is a community project spearheaded by the city of Huntington and the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District. Other sponsors include the Paul Ambrose Charitable Foundation, Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, Cabell County Commission, Cabell Huntington Hospital, St. Mary's Medical Center and other local nonprofits and businesses.
The city of Huntington is the primary administrator of grant funds PATH receives and is responsible for hiring designers and contractors for construction. Charles Holley, director of development and planning in Huntington, said PATH has received a total of $4.5 million in grant money since its inception.
He said the city has sought innovative ways to connect PATH trails, one being the use of cemeteries. He said people were already using them to get between trailheads, but they had to use openings in fences to get inside.
"We have to look at the city a little differently," Holley said. "What are the existing assets we can utilize?"
Holley said the city decided to open Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District-owned cemeteries for PATH users and that it intends to connect more portions of PATH in the years to come. Ultimately, Holley's goal is to see every Huntington resident to be within a half mile of the system.
Williams believes better access to PATH will create more interest among the community and stir more excitement for using alternative transportation.
"We definitely need the community behind this project," Williams said.
Perhaps the most active members of the community are Ken and Sharon Ambrose, whose son Paul has been the main inspiration and namesake for PATH.
Paul Ambrose was a Huntington native, a graduate of the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University, a student of former Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop and a leader in the creation of the Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity. Once the call to action was completed, Paul Ambrose flew to a conference in Los Angeles about adolescent obesity. He flew out on American Airlines Flight 177. It never landed, and Paul Ambrose lost his life in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While his life was taken from him, Paul Ambrose's family and community members, who were affected by his work, were inspired by his passion for preventative health care. He also received national recognition when the Surgeon General's Call to Action was published in December 2001, for which he received a posthumous Surgeon General's Medal of Honor.
Paul Ambrose's work in preventative health care brought obesity (especially in children) to the forefront of the U.S. health care agenda and initiated several healthful eating and exercise initiatives around the country.
He had a particular impact in Huntington. Ken and Sharon Ambrose believe Paul would have been most proud of the work in Huntington being done in his name and for the sake of preventative health care.
Williams said people in Huntington have become more receptive to alternative transportation and healthful lifestyles since the introduction of PATH trails. She said it has health benefits for people who use it and that it relieves traffic congestion and improves the city's air quality by reducing the number of cars on the street.
When the travel option favors alternative transportation, Williams would rather take her bicycle.
"It (using alternative transportation) is a different way of life that takes getting used to," Williams said. "But once you do, you don't ever want to go back."
Williams is part of a growing cycling community that uses the PATH system in Huntington. Williams said about 15 miles of off-road PATH trails have been completed, but they are often separated by stretches of road that can be difficult to cross, especially for pedestrians.
Rahall Transportation Institute and the city of Huntington plan to move forward with the development of PATH by connecting the current sections and creating a more cohesive alternative transportation system. Accomplishing that will not be easy, Williams said. To connect PATH trails, portions of heavily-trafficked commercial and residential properties will have to be crossed.
Both Williams and Holley remain optimistic that PATH will continue to grow and be looked to as other cities create alternative transportation infrastructure.
For West Virginians interested in learning more about PATH and using its expansive trail system, there are several events like Tour de PATH scheduled throughout the year.
Tour de PATH is an event that promotes and increases awareness of cycling as a means of travel, fitness and recreation. Proceeds from the event go to additional public awareness, map creation and development of PATH.
The next Tour de PATH has yet to be scheduled but will take place sometime this fall.