By the year 2024, an extension of the Old Railroad Trail will be the first city trail in Fort Smith to carve a path through the middle of town and serve as much as an alternative transportation route as a recreation trail.

The 2.9-mile paved trail will connect Creekmore Park and the Fort Smith Public Library to Martin Luther King Jr. Park and the Greg Smith River Trail, along with the U.S. Marshals Museum and the Riverfront Skate Park.

The Old Railroad Trail, also known as May Branch Trail, may have been completed sooner as part of the Fort Smith Master Trails Plan. But an unexpected loss of government funding for a Fort Smith Utilities Department drainage project shifted focus toward a North P Street sewer project that is on the western edge of plans for the Old Railroad Trail.

Utilities is now by proxy in the trails business. The sewer project is set to begin in May.

Doug Reinert, director of Fort Smith Parks and Recreation, said he was approached by the Utilities Department to delay the trails completion to keep from having to come through and tear up a new trail for the sewer line project.

Although the trail’s completion is being delayed a bit, there will be a significant cost savings to construct Old Railroad Trail because utilities is doing the preliminary work such as title searches, right of way acquisitions and dirt work, Reinert said.

There will also be no need to lay down sod once the Utilities Department is done working. Instead, Parks and Recreation will lay down a 10-foot-wide asphalt trail from Riverfront Drive to MLK Park.

The trail currently has a price tag of about $2.5 million.

“It’s going to take longer because we have to wait on them, but we’re saving each other taxpayer dollars,” Reinert said. “It’s dual purpose. We’re achieving two goals at the same time.”

Drew Linder of the Friends of Recreational Trails (FORT) said with the shift in focus from utilities, the priority ranking of Old Railroad Trail was bumped up two spots, from No. 5 to No. 3 in their fundraising goals. The Greg Smith River Trail and a Chaffee Crossing trail were ranked 1A and 1B. Mill Creek North and Landfill Loop at Ben Geren had been ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in FORT’s fundraising projects.

“It’s going to work out well,” Linder said of the Old Railroad Trail. “The Greg Smith River Trail is about to be completed and planning is about finished with a highway department grant for Chaffee. Phase I will start within a few months … It’s kind of nice that there is this synergy there. This way, Utilities is acquiring all the rights of way to do the sewer project. Funding for Parks pays for the base and for pavement.”

FORT works with Park Partners of Fort Smith to obtain grants that support trails development. Last year the Parks Partners were able to obtain a $150,000 grant from BlueCross BlueShield’s Blue and You Foundation to help complete Phase II of the Greg Smith River Trail. A $40,000 state General Improvement Fund grant and a $224,000 Arkansas Department of Transportation grant through the city of Fort Smith funded paving costs. In all, 72 percent of the project came from grants and donations, Linder said. FORT pledged $550,000 for Phase III and the rest came from corporate and individual donations, as well as proceeds from the Ales for Trails beer festival and the Fort Smith Marathon.

Six bicycle repair stations have been set up around the city with private donations, Linder added. Three are in the Ben Geren Park and Chaffee Crossing area, while two are on the Greg Smith River Trail and one is at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Old Railroad Trail goes right through the “heart of the city” and will also connect the U.S. Marshals Museum and the Riverfront Skate and Bike Park. Construction of the museum is set to begin this spring with an expected opening of September 2019. Construction of the Riverfront Skate and Bike Park has begun with an expected completion around Memorial Day.

“It’s basically a safe route,” Reinert said of Old Railroad Trail. “You can trust that you’re going to have your children get from point A to point B and keep them out of main traffic. Although we have sharrows, I would not feel comfortable letting my 11-year-old on her bike going down Kinkead Avenue and trust traffic. You can put all the safety features you want but a sharrow is still in the road.”