IT IS A bike path with issues. Constructing it seems to have taken forever. People park cars on it. And illegal dumpers make deposits on it.
Yet last Saturday as I pedaled my bike along a stretch of the recently completed Jones Falls Trail, I had to admit it was a nice ride.
The trail, for cyclists, joggers and hikers, is 1.5 miles long and about 10 feet wide. It runs along Falls Road linking Druid Hill Park and Penn Station. Tucked just east of the Jones Falls Expressway, the trail is on a stretch of Falls Road known to most of us either as the home of the Baltimore Street Car Museum or the home of the salt dome. The latter is the often-televised municipal yard where television reporters do stand-ups warning of a coming winter snowstorm, while in the background snowplows and trucks are loaded with salt.
On a recent warm, lazy September afternoon, I rode my bike along the trail. On one side I could see the Jones Falls, a stream that is far from pristine. But after I overlooked the plastic bags stuck on the trees lining the banks, the bubbling waters seemed positively picturesque.
On the other side of the trail, an old streetcar clacked along its tracks carrying a load of young passengers who, I knew from experience, were about to be told about the glories of Baltimore's trolleys. In the distance, freight and passenger trains rumbled along the rails. I thought to myself that I would like to keep this spot as my little secret.
That is not likely to happen. Lately the trail has been widely trumpeted. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who was instrumental in getting federal funds for it, has announced the completion of the first phase of trail; so has the state of Maryland, which distributed the federal money to the city's Planning Department, which designed the trail.
And Sept. 19, folks drawn to the annual Jones Falls Valley celebration will discover the trail. It's likely these outdoorsy masses will like what they see.
Though newcomers may soon crowd me as I ride, I will still feel connected to the trail. For the past few years I have regularly cycled along its route, and I watched it being built.
It is not a perfect path. Like many aspects of the urban experience, it is somewhat quirky.
First of all, the pace of construction was painfully slow. In the two years since work began in November 2002, my hopes would rise as parts of the trail - stretches near the Druid Hill Park swimming pool and a section hugging Falls Road - would be paved.
But for months other segments, especially the switchback - a zigzag path up the hill that connects the Falls Road section to the Wyman Park Drive entrance to the park - made virtually no progress.
Cyclists would often have to come to screeching stops to avoid hitting an orange barrel that had rolled onto the pavement or to avoid going head over heels as the paved path became a treacherous construction zone without warning.
Now newcomers to the trail will have it easy. There will be no barrels to dodge. Although the switchback does have one rather harrowing turn, it is paved, and its roadbed is smooth.
Cyclists might, however, have to steer around the occasional car parked on the bike path. In the past weeks, I have been surprised by several vehicles planted in my way. Once a father and son had the doors of their car wide open as they waxed the vehicle, smack in the middle of the trail.
This problem might disappear when signs go up declaring that the stretch of asphalt is a path, not a parking lot. Perhaps the parkers did not know. The dumpers, however, I think know they should not be dropping trash on the bike path. They just think they can get away with it. They seem to especially like the spot where the path crosses under the North Avenue viaduct. A homeless fellow used to set up house there, complete with a couch. He appears to have moved on, but a big lump of trash and construction debris appeared on the path near his old homestead.
Building this trail has been a challenge, Cardin said yesterday, but it has been worth it. The trail, he said, will provide a different way for people to move around town, linking cyclists and pedestrians to rail stations. It is part of a larger project that eventually calls for trails winding from the Woodberry Light Rail through Druid Hill Park, past Penn Station and down to the Inner Harbor.
There are similar trail projects under way along the Gwynns Falls watershed, he said, and in Anne Arundel County near BWI airport.
Building a trail along a streambed also gives people a chance to appreciate a watershed's natural beauty, Cardin said. "The Jones Falls watershed is a treasure," he added, something you don't fully comprehend when you're zipping along the expressway.
I don't know if, as Cardin and some planners project, cyclists will use the Jones Falls Trail to zip to Penn Station then hop on a train. But the trail does provide a sylvan pathway to neighborhoods the JFX pushed apart. Moreover, riding the trail is a pleasant way to remind yourself that the Jones Falls was a stream long before it became an expressway.