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A Hummel Report Investigation

Where Horse Meets Humanity

When a refurbished bike path in Coventry is completed later this year it will have something never tried before in Rhode Island: a parallel equestrian trail - at a cost of nearly half a million dollars. That has some wondering how horses, bikers, roller bladers and runners can all coincide in what will, at times, be admittedly tight quarters. This week we sit down with the point man for the project - and one lawmaker who has some questions.

SCRIPT

Even on a chilly day in January, walkers and bikers are out on the Coventry Greenway, a bike path the town built in the late 1990s that draws many people from town - and beyond.

Since last summer, though, those trying to use the western end of the 4 1/2-mile path have been greeted by signs and fences blocking off the Greenway. It's part of a year-long, multi-million dollar upgrade for a 2.7 mile stretch from Station Street to Town Farm Road, funded largely with federal money and overseen by the town, which owns the path.

Lefebvre: ``Some people still want to walk the dog but we've certainly made great strides by putting the fences in to keep people out and reducing our risk.''

Coventry's longtime Recreation Director Guy Lefebvre is the point man for the project. He understands why people are frustrated with the closure but says it came after the town upgraded another 1.6 mile section of the bike path three years ago.

Lefebvre: ``We learned a lesson in the eastern end and unfortunately we learned it the hard  way, because people who were injured while they using the corridor at the same time we were under construction.  Any facility under construction isn't open to the public while you're building it.  When we build ball fields, when we build tennis courts, when we build any of these other park features, certainly people are not allowed in those areas.''

Hummel: ``But isn't the problem this has been open and accessible for so long and people have habits and patterns and that's getting interrupted.''

Lefebvre: ``I think so, they're of the mindset, because they've been using it they want to. We just tell  them you need to be out of this corridor, you can't be walking here, there's just too many risks associated with the kinds of construction because we're doing earth work, we're doing excavation, we're doing drainage projects, there's a hazmat component. There's just too many things that require heavy equipment operation.  And in many cases the pavement is now gone.''

While the closure has irked some, it's what's included in the construction plans that's raised some other eyebrows among Coventry Greenway users. A mile of the refurbished bike path will include a parallel horse trail - at a cost of about half a million dollars - when it is finished later this year. The state has plans down the line for another nine miles of bike path and horse trail extending to the Connecticut border - at a cost of $12 to $14 million.

Raptakis: ``You have a massive animal that could injure children that are walking or children riding their bicycles - how can you have that take place?''

State Senator Lou Raptakis has been fielding phone calls since the path was fenced off last summer for the upgrade.

Raptakis: `` Why, No. 1, are we spending that money? And if you are thinking of supporting a trail for horses - why not put it out in the western end of town where it belongs? This makes absolutely no sense at all.''

Lefebvre says the project is being funded primarily with federal money, adding that an association of horse riders asked for the equestrian trail - which accounts for about half a million out of the $2.7 million. Lefebvre and officials from state Department of Transportation, which has hired contractors for the project, admit this is a first-of-its kind in Rhode Island - and maybe New England.

Lefebvre: ``There are areas where the trail is removed from the pavement with a buffer of trees that we've been able to maintain between the paved surface and the equestrian trail and in other locations it comes up right along beside the paved surface. Clearly at road intersections, or at bridges crossing the pond or rivers, the trails come together.''

Lefebvre says there will be a learning curve initially for those using the new path.

Hummel: ``Any concern about spooking the horses - the interaction between horse and  humanity?''

Lefebvre: ``Well, there's a protocol as there is with many things in life, and the protocol in a multi-use corridor, where equestrians are sharing the corridor with bikers and others you follow that protocol.''

Horse riders will be able to park at an area off Route 117 that's currently being used as a staging area for construction equipment. A graded path will lead up to the western end of the bike path, then split off to the right initially for the horse riders.

Then there's the issue of the rider taking care of business - after the horse does its business.

Lefebvre: ``We're going to have an expectation that they get off their mount, and tend to business just as we would ask dog owners to do same and clean up after their pets.''

Hummel: ``Some do, some don't.''

Lefebvre: ``That's for sure. And in a lot of cases we're finding that most don't; so it's  going to be  an issue for us to try and enforce these regulations we that put in place.''

Raptakis he's not opposed to a horse trail, but believes it should be put in only west of where Route 102 and Route 117 intersect - away from any major road crossings.

Raptakis: ``And my other major concern is how can you have a public bike path in the proximity of maybe two to three feet way from a horse trail. What happens if a horse is startled by emergency apparatus going to a call. Or the police, fire, rescue; maybe some individual from the public roller blading, talking out loud,  startling a horse.  Where else has  it been done in Rhode Island, or  where else has it been done in New England? Find me another location, maybe in the United States. And I'm going to tell you if we do find another location that's parallel it's going to be in a very rural, less dense population interacting with the horses.

Lefebvre: ``But I think those on horseback are going to take the position that they will always be on the watch for anybody who's approaching and they may do the waiting. Rather than expect that others would yield to them and they would step right out.''

Hummel: ``If you've got a roller blader moving pretty quickly, you're going to wait.''

Lefebvre:  ``I would think they would be the one to wait. They  wouldn't have the expectation that everybody's going to yield to them. I don't think that's instinctive in that, that they're going to wait until  this other person passes by, then I'll make my approach and pass the bridge, and beyond.''

The trail is set to re-open sometime in September.

In Coventry, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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