Greenway, partners aim to redefine transportation in Savannah

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Caila Brown, Nick Deffley and Brent Buice visit Savannah's Truman Park Linear Trail

By Elizabeth McGowan // Contributor

SAVANNAH, Ga. — The 3.1-mile stretch of Truman Park Linear Trail in southeast Savannah is a gem. It’s constructed of concrete, not asphalt, so it won’t crumble in the South’s brutal heat. It connects five neighborhoods with three major parks.

 And, perhaps most crucially, it is a giant magnet for bicyclists and pedestrians since opening in November 2020.

“Now that it’s on the ground, people are hungry for it,” Brent Buice, East Coast Greenway Alliance Georgia and South Carolina manager, says about the initial—and only—segment of completed multi-use trail in Savannah. “When we show them maps of the trail system we have in mind, their eyes light up and they ask, when is it going to be finished?”

Buice and other Savannahians are intent on harnessing that enthusiasm to build out an expansive trail network that not only provides safe passage for all but also routes the East Coast Greenway on an underused and well-preserved system of canals once used to deliver goods and supplies throughout the seaside region.

“We inherited a walkable and bikeable community,” Buice says. “We’ve got a lot of room to improve.”

Their ambitious homegrown endeavor, the Tide to Town Urban Trail System, is a partnership among local government, schools, the transit authority and neighborhood organizations.

City alderman and bicycle commuter Nick Palumbo is a bigtime backer of creating a socially-just infrastructure that fosters community by linking residents via trails and bike lanes to their jobs as well as amenities such as schools, recreation centers, hospitals and libraries.

“Bicycling improves our health and is the best way to get around,” Palumbo says. “What’s not to love?”

The concept of tying Savannah and surrounding Chatham County together via trails has existed—on paper—for almost three decades. Friends of Tide to Town opted to force the idea to the forefront beginning in 2017.  

 “We figured other states and communities are doing this, so why aren’t we?” says Caila Brown, board chair of the nonprofit. “There were a lot of independent pieces, but nobody had ownership over all the projects. Tide to Town wanted to take the time and initiative to connect the dots.”

One of those “dots” is a two-mile slice of the Springfield Canal and its adjacent towpath that borders Laurel Grove South Cemetery, historic burial grounds for Black residents in northwest Savannah.

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Nick Deffley, Caila Brown and Brent Buice at Springfield Canal, a key potential East Coast Greenway segment in Savannah

Tide to Town proponents envision it as the future Heritage Trail. It would become the first section of canal to be incorporated into the East Coast Greenway, which now follows a course on Savannah’s downtown streets around its distinctive squares designed by reformer and English settler James Oglethorpe.

“We can’t make rail trails here because our trains are still operating,” Buice says. “But we can convert the canal towpaths.”

Realistically, transition of that first canal piece is at least five years away because funding and designs don’t yet exist.

“Right now, partly because of COVID, city government is lukewarm to this as being a transformative thing for the city,” Buice says. “Leaders think it’s a ‘nice to have,’ not a ‘need to have.’ It’s a plodding methodical process.”

The city has right-of-way to about 30 miles of canal infrastructure, a network that resembles a figure eight from an aerial view. Each stretch of canal carries a distinctive name and Tide to Town envisions keeping those intact.

“There’s no part of this that doesn’t make sense,” says Nick Deffley, the city’s director of sustainability. “The biggest challenge to getting it on the ground is funding.”

Whatever local dollars they can tap into will have to be supplemented with federal transportation money. The outlook for that prospect brightened with the November passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

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Brent Buice and local partners exploring Savannah, Springfield Canal and the Woodbine Trail with Steven Parker, Deputy State Director for Senator Jon Ossoff in 2021

With climate change a looming threat, Deffley emphasizes, a coastal community such as Savannah must focus on not only getting people out of their cars but also draining excess water to keep flooding at bay. The city, recognizing the value of capturing runoff, has spent millions of dollars to upgrade canal infrastructure.

While NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard) delayed the 3.1-mile section of the city-owned and -operated Truman Park Trail for decades, its completion has given the community a visual instead of more chatter about a hopeful proposal. The county followed city specifications to coordinate construction, at a cost of roughly $2.5 million per mile.

Even though that trail won’t ever be part of the East Coast Greenway, just because of its location, it’s a centerpiece of Tide to Town’s focus on accessibility.

“I know we’re at the tipping point with this because the public is asking for more all of the time,” Deffley says.

He’s eager to bolster that momentum with another six trail miles. Completed, those nine continuous miles will link 18 neighborhoods and 800 acres of parkland.

“Even this little piece of trail generated an enormous amount of interest and demand for more,” Palumbo says. “The great secret is persistence, every step of the way.”

Washington, D.C.-based Elizabeth McGowan is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has won a Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards for her journalism. In late fall 2021, she pedaled the Savannah, Ga. to Key West, Fla. segment of the East Coast Greenway with a group from Colorado-based Timberline Adventures. McGowan is also the author of “Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America.”

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