Tri-State Trails retools, while celebrating 10 years of successes

Wade Johnston has brought a vision of a connected, vibrant, cutting-edge Cincinnati closer to reality this past year as the director of Tri-State Trails. 

“We want to put Cincinnati on the map and think the trails will do that,” Johnston said.

Wasson Way
Wasson Way

For the past seven years, Johnston has led Tri-State Trails, organized in 2012 by Green Umbrella, Greater Cincinnati’s 20-year-old member-, individual- and foundation-supported environmental sustainability alliance. The trails organization is an alliance of community advocates whose mission is to connect people and places with a regional trail and bikeway network that enhances vibrancy and equity.

Rethinking the organization

Johnston and his organization kicked off 2022 by reorganizing the way it operates and meets, with momentum from successfully raising $10 million from private sources to leverage $44 million in public funding for the high-profile project called the CROWN – Cincinnati Riding Or Walking Network. 

CROWN is a vision for a 100-mile transportation network made up of multi-use trails and on-road bike lanes. It will result in Cincinnati’s first-ever urban trail loop by connecting several key regional trails that are currently noncontiguous – Ohio River Trail, Little Miami Scenic Trail, Wasson Way, and Murray Path. By constructing key connectors between these trails, the CROWN will complete the eastern 24-mile portion of a 34-mile loop.

Johnston studied urban planning at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning, where biking around the city became a passion. 

Wade Johnston of Tri-State Trails
Wade Johnston of Tri-State Trails

“When you’re young and impressionable, it’s easy to envision how your life can be hyper local, how a bike can change the way you think about transportation and proximity to goods and services,” Johnston said.

While the CROWN – which attracted funding from P&G, Kroger Health, United Dairy Farmers and 450 businesses, foundations and individuals – is the highest profile project, Johnston’s organization is bringing together a far wider consortium of public and private organizations, spanning both sides of the Ohio River and reaching north into Butler and Warren counties.

Private funding will prove vital, as construction projects are feeling the squeeze of the supply-chain crisis, with Johnston reporting 20% to 30% increases in the cost of materials and labor. Still, silver linings remain. 

Huge increase in usage

“During the pandemic, so many people turned to parks, trails, and outdoor spaces as a place of refuge for mental and physical health,” Johnston said. “Trail use increased dramatically. We documented 14 million miles traveled on the trail system in 2019; in 2020, we documented 22.7 million miles.”

2022 will mark the sixth year of Tri-State Trails monitoring trail usage across the region. Using data as a membership perk, the organization plans to launch a membership model to help keep expansion going.

Beyond donating to the CROWN, local businesses are embracing it, launching new ventures to capitalize on increased foot (and bike) traffic. In 2021, Busken Bakery launched a walk-up window near Edwards and Madison as a convenient way to grab a coffee or donut while traveling the Wasson Way Trail. Listermann Brewing Co. opened the Listermann Trail House at the western point of Wasson Way’s current trail, where walkers, bikers and joggers can drop in for pizza and beer. 

More to come

In terms of additional trailside amenities, Johnston encourages patience. 

“We are laser focused on the asphalt for now,” he said, “but are looking forward to enhancing the trail with public art, landscaping and lighting. We will do that by building support for more public funding.” 

The CROWN team is currently designing signage and wayfinding systems for the whole network that will link up all the trails, and are considering the Roebling Bridge as a potential spot to officially “launch” the trail. 

Wasson Way
Wasson Way

While Cincinnatians have largely shown support for the CROWN, some questions have been raised about safety on the trail. Johnston is well-aware of the concerns.

“One of our largest goals is to find funding to construct lighting along the trails,” said Johnston. “However, in general, trails have been proven to reduce crime. With more people walking and biking in an area, it discourages people from conducting illicit activities in the space. Keep in mind, parts of what will become the CROWN were derelict rail corridors that no one is monitoring. By building a trail, we are making it an attractive public place.”

How you can help

Tri-State Trails is organizing a number of ways for people to get involved:

  • Active Transportation Coalition, a semiannual open gathering of citizens interested in transportation issues. The first meeting was March 23.
  • Regional Trail & Bikeway Committee, a quarterly meeting of professionals and practitioners.
  • 13th annual “Breakfast on the Bridge,” May 20.
  • “Ales for Trails,” benefiting the CROWN, July 1.
  • Tri-State Trails Trail Summit, Oct. 26.

The organization has narrowed its governing body from a 20-member executive committee, in place since the organization’s formation, to a leadership council consisting of Matt Butler and Jody Robinson, Devou Good Foundation; Frances Mennone, Frost Brown Todd; Sean McGrory, Wasson Way and CROWN; Ryan Mooney-Bullock, Green Umbrella; Todd Palmeter, Great Parks of Hamilton County; and Tanner Yess, Groundwork Ohio River Valley.

Johnston’s enthusiasm for the project, and its potential to help transform Cincinnati’s image into that of a modern, top-tier city, radiates throughout his work.

“More people are choosing to ride or walk to work,” he said. “We’re getting cars off the road, reducing air emissions, and helping people live healthier lives. When it comes to attraction and retention of talent, they are looking for the types of amenities the CROWN offers. For the first time in 60 years, the last census registered population growth. We want to be on the list of ‘Great Cities for Active Living,’ and that’s within reach, becoming a reality in our lifetime.”

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