by Casey Cappello
In the fall of 2004, the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club organized an initiative to paint the railroad trestle that crosses over Germantown Avenue near Cresheim Valley Drive. The simple goal of repainting the abandoned trestle turned into an art contest, which turned into the Cresheim Trail Project.
Nearly ten years later, the Cresheim Trail Project is now a formal committee, working toward the goal of opening a seven-mile trail that spans two counties. Nearly 10 years later, however, the train trestle remains unpainted.
“Mt Airy USA decided to hold a contest to pick the artwork for the bridge – I just wanted it painted,” said Carl Shaifer, a longtime Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill resident and Rotary Club member.
Shaifer is the man responsible for encouraging the Rotary Club to gain access to the trestle to have it painted. Even though he only wanted the trestle to be painted, he fully supports the trail project and, up until his recent “retirement” from the Rotary Club, he invested a considerable amount of his time and emotions for close to 10 years.
Shaifer wanted the trestle painted because it no longer functions as part of an active rail line. As he sees it, the bridge serves as an important, historical gateway between Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill. In its present state, the trestle is not much more than an eyesore collecting dirt and rust.
The art project for the train trestle began through the simple effort of the Chestnut Hill Rotary Club to beautify a decaying structure.
There were 20 participants in the 2004 contest for the trestle artwork hosted by Mt. Airy USA. The winner, Stacy Levy, was chosen by a committee. Levy’s artwork is a sculpture made of glass and scraps of metal that depicts a forest scene.
“It is one of the best sculptures this city might see, and it’s sitting somewhere gathering dust,” Shaifer said.
The local artist’s sculpture is not on display because the Cresheim Trail Committee cannot gain lawful access to the trail or the train trestle. Both the trail and the trestle are owned by the Philadelphia Electric Co. (PECO) because it is part of a right-of-way used for power lines.
Members of Mt. Airy USA and the Rotary Club decided that since legal access to the bridge is required, the entire trail that the bridge is a part of should be cleared and made available to the community.
In 2008 a feasibility study of the trail was conducted by Bob Thomas of Campbell Thomas Architects. Thomas has been working since the 1970s on planning, designing and building trails throughout the Delaware Valley. He has been a fervent supporter of the Cresheim Trail Committee since its inception.
The feasibility study cost approximately $40,000. According to Thomas, half of the study was funded by DCNR, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the other half by matching contributions from public and private entities. The grant for the study came from DCNR and was given to the Foundation of the Rotary Club of Chestnut Hill, and matching funds were raised by the Cresheim Trail Committee.
The Cresheim Trail Committee sees the trail as a crucial asset to the community for several reasons. The trail will connect two neighborhoods in Philadelphia – Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill – with three suburban neighborhoods in Montgomery County – Springfield Township, Laverock and Penn Oak – and the construction of the trail will provide a boost for the local economy.
“The concept of any community-based trail should be to bring people together – to bring together the youth, the elderly, families, small businesses, and so forth,” Shaifer said.
Susan Dannenberg, one of the committee’s primary planners, said she saw trails as being “community builders.”
“Once you have a trail in your backyard you start using it – to walk the dog, to take your friends out on it, you take your family out on it, et cetera,” she explained. “And, of course, it [the trail] also connects a lot of schools, a lot of religious organizations, and even colleges as it goes out toward Arcadia. A price cannot be put on the value of community unity and connectedness, but there are also some concrete, financial reasons that support development of the Cresheim Trail.”
According to Dannenberg, there are many financial reasons to explain why any community should embrace the conversion of abandoned rail trails for walking and bicycling.
“First of all, there are lots of studies that have been done which indicate housing prices will increase,” Dannenberg said. “Also, building the infrastructure for trails actually yields more jobs than something like the construction of highways because with highways an outside contractor is usually brought in, whereas trails are generally built by local companies.”
Dannenberg also noted that government funding for trails, such as the Cresheim Trail, is usually done through federal grants, which can lead to confusion for some members of the community.
“People are sometimes opposed to trails and other community projects because they think it will come out of their local taxes,” she said. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s not always tax money from the county level that funds projects like trails – it usually comes from federal grants.”
“So, it’s actually a very good thing for a local community economically, but it’s often difficult to make that understood,” Dannenberg said.
Dannenberg also commented on the need for a trail that allows members of Chestnut Hill and Mt Airy to walk and bicycle safely.
“One thing that I’ve noticed about Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill, is that there are not any good bicycle or pedestrian paths organized between the two communities,” she said. “If you want to bike or walk in Chestnut Hill, you have to use McCallum Street, Cresheim Valley Drive, Germantown or Stenton avenues.
“All of them are high-speed roads. “Nobody in their right mind would bike on Cresheim Valley Drive, and yet I see people biking on it all the time. As a walker, when you get to the end of McCallum Street to turn right on Mermaid Lane, there are no sidewalks on Mermaid Lane. So, as I see it, there’s this real lack of connection between the two [communities].”
According to members of the Cresheim Trail Committee, PECO has been hesitant to relinquish authority over the trail because it requires a reliable and stable entity to accept liability regarding use of the trail by the general public.
“To my knowledge, PECO has not had any recent contact with the Cresheim Trail Committee,” said Liz Williamson, a senior communications specialist at PECO. “I spoke with the legal department, external affairs, and the real estate department – no one in any of those departments is aware of any recent discussions between PECO and the Cresheim Trail Committee.”
According to Williamson, PECO only has one concern regarding ownership of the bridge over Germantown Ave. She said PECO wants to be sure that any organization that takes over responsibility for the bridge will be able to properly and safely manage the structure.
“PECO is open to having a conversation with interested parties, whether that results in some sort of leasing agreement, or actual ownership through sale, or PECO donating the bridge,” Williamson said. “In general, we are open to conversations with any organizations or municipalities.”
According to Williamson, nothing definitive was ever proposed regarding ownership of the bridge and trail. PECO needs a clear understanding of the group and its goals to determine any action.
PECO may not be the obstacle blocking the trail’s path to completion, but according to members of the Cresheim Trail Committee, there are plenty of bureaucratic complications slowing forward progress.
Dannenberg, who is a relatively new member of the committee, is highly motivated to get the trail opened, even if it takes several years.
“Lots of other trails in the area have similar (licensing) agreements,” Dannenberg said. “I just heard from someone in the Parks and Recreation Department that it took seven years for part of the Schuylkill River Trail to get opened.”
“I’m still in the process of figuring out who in City Hall has influence [over these matters], and who I need to speak with,” she said.
Dannenberg has a realistic understanding of the bureaucratic process that slows the completion of any civic project, but she is optimistic about that the Cresheim Trail will eventually be completed.
“At this point, there’s not much more I can do, other than to continue to build our case,” she said. “I want to make sure that we have all the answers to any potential questions when we do get the chance to negotiate.”