About 16 months from now, bicyclists will be able to ride from the Inner Harbor to Pennsylvania Station on a smooth path all their own.
Little by little, crews working in the shadow of the Jones Falls Expressway are inching their way north, building a concrete and belgian-block median to separate four-wheel traffic from the two-wheel variety.
The $3.5 million, state-funded segment of the Jones Falls Trail will start at Lee Street near the Baltimore Visitor Center, wrap around the Inner Harbor and follow the Fallsway to the train station. From there, riders can access Druid Hill Park and the Maryland Zoo.
"This segment of the trail will really solidify the backbone of the city trail system," said Nate Evans, the bike and pedestrian planner for Baltimore's Department of Transportation.
When completed, the trail also will supply "the missing link" in the city's portion of the East Coast Greenway, a 2,800-mile network of bike paths stretching from Maine to Florida, said Greg Hinchliffe, Maryland's greenway coordinator.
The 2.8-mile segment also "serves as a model" for building dedicated bike trails elsewhere in the city, Hinchliffe said.
Planning for the Jones Falls route started in the late 1990s, said David Nafisi, a city transportation engineer. Construction has come in fits and starts, depending on the availabilty of funding. The portion from Pennsylvania Station to Clipper Mill on the north side of Druid Hill Park opened first. The city received state funds last year for the segment between Cylburn Arboretum and the Mount Washington light rail station. Eventually, planners hope to extend the trail north into Baltimore County to Robert E. Lee Park.
But design issues concerning road crossings slowed the progress on the southern segment.
Once those were resolved and the money was appropriated, crews were ready to move. The recent spell of warm weather has helped speed construction.
The city estimates that about 250 cyclists use Guilford Avenue as their north-south commuting route each day. Last year's Bike to Work Day attracted some 1,320 people. Having a safe route that ties together existing trails will only encourage more commuters and might even get traffic on the weekend from tourists wanting to get from the Inner Harbor to the zoo, Evans said.
He said a dedicated bike path, called a cycle track, "really increases users' level of confidence and opens up riding to all level of ability. There's no fear of competing with vehicles."
Hinchliffe agreed. "Now riders use Charles, St. Paul and Cathedral to commute and that's not for the faint of heart."
The cycling advocate hopes the Jones Falls Trail will accelerate the city's participation in a bike-sharing program.
After putting the brakes on a plan for a privately run, short-term bike rental program earlier this year, the Rawlings-Blake administration reversed itself last month and invited a Denver company, B-cycle LLC, to negotiate a contract with the city to operate a 250-to-300 bike network.
"This missing chunk of trail is the infrastructure to help promote a Bike Share program," said Hinchliffe. "It opens the door to a wide variety and ages of bike riders."