Let’s just all take a deep breath.
The Grantham Rail Trail has been a hot topic with the environmental community and elected municipal officials for a few weeks now. As more conversation has continued between Councillors and Community Members, more information has been released regarding the plan for this path.
The hope, through writing a third post about this trial and greenspace is that we can thoroughly explain the issues and concerns brought forward by the St. Catharines Environmental Alliance (SEA), The City of St. Catharines and its Councillors.
SEA shares the City’s goal to create a transportation plan that focuses first on foot traffic and bikers, next on public transit, and last on cars. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw significant improvements in air quality around the world, as there were less cars driving daily. 1 With the city declaring a Climate Change Emergency, reducing the number of cars on the road can cause significant impact.
However, reducing the amount of greenspace our already cramped city has to offer, is going to have us fighting against ourselves in this climate change battle.
A few points to mention before diving too deep into this topic:
- Originally stone dust was planned to be used on this trail when this project first came to Council.
- The term Active Transportation Trail, in which Councillors refer to this trail as, is self defined as a trail that connects water, parks, schools, and shopping. (More into this point later)
- This trail will cost $1, 565,000.
We will start with the obvious topic. Asphalt is by no means good for the environment in any capacity. Asphalt pavement is a high VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) substance that emits a brew of organic compounds that pollute the air and water. It typically has a lifespan of 20-25 years but narrow pathways, such as the profile proposed with this project, can require significant repairs within 10-15 years.
In regards to how this will affect the neighbourhoods in the area, the production, loading, transport and installing of asphalt releases harmful materials into the air. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states “Asphalt processing and asphalt roofing manufacturing facilities are major sources of hazardous air pollutants such as formaldehyde, hexane, phenol, polycyclic organic matter, and toluene. Exposure to these air toxins may cause cancer, central nervous system problems, liver damage, respiratory problems and skin irritation.” After installation, asphalt continues to release hazardous air pollutants into communities, especially when hit with extreme heat and sunlight, according to research published in the journal, Science Advances. Researchers from Yale University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry found that “asphalt-related products emit substantial and diverse mixtures of organic compounds into the air” and that “asphalt emissions from roads and roofs may be a bigger problem than emissions from all petrol and diesel-powered vehicles.”
Then we also have to consider the physical environment and the creatures that live amongst the trees and plants that fill this space. You could likely walk the trail and count how many trees you can see, maybe if you are lucky, count a few rabbits, many squirrels, chipmunks and birds; but what about what you can’t see? As of writing this, there is no plan released from the city on how many trees they plan to remove from this space, if they are going to replace the trees at the completion of the project, or if there is any amount of greenspace and pollinators planned to be placed along this space to welcome the animals and insects back into the space that they will be forcefully removed from.
The city has stated that prior to the construction work being undertaken (which is planned for late Summer 2022), there will be a detailed design of this project presented through a future public information center or other similar stakeholder engagement platform2.
Asphalt is also known to cause issues with flooding that stonedust or grass would generally deal with through alternative runoff and water retention.
“Our neighbourhood is already prone to flooding due to outdated and ineffective storm sewers and invasive tree roots from massive city trees. Less open ground to absorb storm water is going to lead to even more problems.” (A comment by a local neighbour who signed our petition)
Removing any space that can help alleviate some of the rain water from entering the storm water system could cause increased flooding and potential damage to the surrounding properties. In the cities project details for this trail, they do state they will be doing minor drainage improvements and installing culverts, however, do not indicate how extensive that will be and where the water will run off to.
We also need to consider the weather. Both cold and hot. There is no question that asphalt retains heat. Each year it is proven as trails such as the canal parkway trail are unusable in the hot summer afternoons as the heat that is emitted off of the asphalt is unbearable to experience. The question on how this is planned to be resolved has been asked twice, and not yet answered.
Given the fact that we live in Canada, we can experience long winters with lots of snow. At this point, according to an Instagram comment on Councillor Karrie Porters Instagram, the city does not yet have a plan (or the budget) for plowing and salting (don’t even get me started on the harms of salt) this almost 4 km pathway, which realistically, would be the only way this path would be safe to use in the winter. Given how project management works, one would hope that all of these concerns are ironed out before a single piece of dirt is removed from this space, as this could make or break the actual use of this property.
Next let’s talk about the term commonly being used – An Active Transportation Trail (ATT). In a conversation with Councillor Kevin Townsend over the phone, he stated that the city had deemed this trail an ATT as it connects water, parks, schools, and shopping. Which sounds great in retrospect, but when you take a look at the map, we see a few items to make note of:
- There is not a single connection to water without having to cross a busy street onto a non-ATT.
- There are only two shops (located in the same plaza) on the trail. One is a laundry mat, the other an auto repair shop. IF the city is stating that the shops located on Welland Ave. are along this trail, you actually have to cross a number of streets in order to get into this plaza.
Along the Northern side of this trail, there are quite a few access points, however, the further down you walk, the less you are able to get off the trail without cutting through someone’s lawn, or going through a school. Most access points are only where the trail meets a busy road.
The definition for ATT’s is missing one crucial point, this trail should have sufficient public access. If there was ever a situation on this trail, where something had gone wrong, or an emergency happened, those involved would have to run to the nearest exit, which in some cases could be 500 or more metres away. Not to mention the lack of lighting that will exits on this trail when being used at night and in the winter.
Finally, let’s talk accessibility.
To restate, the SEA is in favour of having a more accessible and walkable community in St. Catharines. We see the value in having people of any ability be able to complete their daily lives without any issues, and in doing so, live independently.
There are quite a few trail systems, like the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority4, all the way to more local trails like Malcolmson Park, that have used accessible stone dust trails to allow visitors to walk through their greenspaces.
“If built properly crushed stone trails can meet the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accessibility Guidelines. Accessible trails often service an incredibly diverse range of visitors including: hikers, bikers, runners, strollers, mobility impaired, visually impaired, and wheelchairs.” 3
With the inability to meet face to face, it could very well be that the idea of a stone dust trail has gone misunderstood. The intent is not to dump 5 inches of loose gravel onto the grass and allow the rain to wash it all away, but hopefully put in research to show how different preparation methods can be done to allow this material to be a compact and accessible surface. 5 Due to this trail being an old rail way, the ground must be excavated of all toxic ground prior to any trail being resurfaced, so preparing the trail to allow for a firmer surface.
Overall, the SEA believes that The City should revisit this project. Through further research, and communication, The City could take great strides, and be a leading city in providing an accessible trail that both allows for an active lifestyle for all community members, but also takes the Climate Change Emergency Declaration into consideration and allows for the environment in this greenspace to continue to thrive alongside the neighbourhood.