By John Jeter
If streets really were paved with gold, South Carolina legislators likely wouldn’t have raised the gas tax 12 cents a gallon over six years to generate $600 million a year to finance infrastructure improvements. At the same time, though, some Greenville County municipalities see another road toward the state’s chronic pain in the asphalt: trails.
“When I first came on the Council about nine years ago,” says Brandy Amidon, the 35-year-old mayor of Travelers Rest, “there was an article in the Travelers Rest Monitor that said 80 percent of the buildings were empty. Now, in 2018, if you’re, like, ‘Brandy, I want to open a business on Main Street,’ I don’t have a business for you to move into.”
Amidon credits the boom, of course, to the Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail, which opened in 2009 and ends about a mile north of Travelers Rest’s downtown—a 22-mile cash-injection tube.
She says hospitality-tax figures reflect how much the trail has paved the way to growth. In 2009, the 2-percent levy on all prepared meals and beverages served in town generated about $330,000. Last year, the city’s take nearly doubled to $634,000.
Perhaps that’s partly why rails-to-trails are becoming a bigger part of life in the region. As Dean Hybl, executive director of Ten at the Top, a consortium of Upstate counties, puts it: “Trails are a growing part of connecting, enhancing mobility, creating vibrant communities, and promoting economic development across the region.”
Other Greenville County leaders are on the same path. Easley and the city of Pickens collaborated on the 8.5-mile Doodle Trail. Spartanburg boasts the 1.9-mile Mary Black Foundation Rail Trail, Greenwood has its 2.5-mile trail, and various paths in the half-mile to mile range, including a short ribbon of trail in downtown Fountain Inn.
That’s where Shawn Bell, the latter city’s administrator, wants in on the action.
“We’re adamantly working on trying to get the Swamp Rabbit Trail down through Fountain Inn,” he says. “You’ve made Travelers Rest a destination. People will get on the Swamp Rabbit and get lunch, dinner, drinks. Whereas, before that, I don’t think too many people were driving to TR.”
Bell says Fountain Inn is seeking a grant for $238,000 from the federally financed Transportation Alternative Program. The money would come through the Greenville-Pickens Transportation Study, an agency that encompasses parts of Greenville, Pickens, Anderson, Laurens, and Spartanburg counties. GPATS creates transportation plans and allocates funds.
Bell points out that paving a trail costs nearly as much as paving a road does, about $250,000 per mile. The Swamp Rabbit Trail, for instance, cost $3 million for the nine miles stretching from Willard Street in Greenville through downtown Travelers Rest, according to Ty Houck with Greenville County’s Recreation District. Travelers Rest added $4 million in streetscape improvements, he says.
Still, that’s mere tollway change compared with infrastructure needs listed in GPATS’s 10-year transportation plan. Horizon 2040 calls for $18 million in annual spending over 16 years. Of $307 million budgeted, public-bus systems and public trails, to name just two pieces of the spending plan, are set to receive about $31 million each.
“We’re going to be building a trail,” Simpsonville Mayor Janice Curtis says flatly.
Meanwhile, the city still must navigate less-than-optimum roads that plague every other Upstate community.
“We’re probably looking at at least $1 million in roadwork here in Simpsonville,” she says, naming Main Street, Fairview, and Harrison Bridge roads. “There are just so many roads that need attention right here in our little neck of the woods.”
She adds, “We actually would love to have a bridge across I-385 that’s dedicated to nothing but the Swamp Rabbit Trail. The more cars you can park and get people out to walk, that would get people here and put Simpsonville on the map.”
Mauldin Mayor Dennis Raines says he envisions his Golden Strip city becoming a walkable “urban village.”
Like others, he hopes such land-use shifts would ease congestion on such major thoroughfares as U.S. 276 and Butler Roads, which bisect Mauldin. The goal: get off the roads for which the state Department of Transportation has paid drivers nearly $50 million in personal injury and damage claims since 2010.
While Mauldin still benefits from the massive $251 million I-85/I-385 project, Raines says, “I think that by the time we get that built, if you have a magic wand, you’ve got to look at high-speed rail, but I’m not even sure where you even put that.”
Raines, who admits to hailing Uber for leisure trips into downtown Greenville, joins others who hope to see driverless cars and ride-share initiatives here.
“They’ve got to go on a road somewhere—unless you do the Jetsons thing,” he says, “but people laughed years ago about Dick Tracy talking on his wrist phone. Well now, guess what.”
Despite that, developing a public trail is no pedal-to-the-metal process.
Amidon recalls initial pushback on the eve of the Swamp Rabbit Trail’s opening in Travelers Rest nearly a decade ago.
“Somebody said, ‘Well, those bikers don’t bring money into town, they don’t have credit cards,’” she says. “But they have a credit card somewhere in those Spandex shorts, they come, they shop, they eat. They are a big part of the money piece on Main Street.”