By Kirk Ticknor, P.E., CFM, F.SAME, and Col. Frederick Wolf III, PMP, M.SAME, USA (Ret.)
Home of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, Fort Benning, Ga., is rich in history and heritage, and its recreational trail system provides an accessible and high-quality way to explore that history. Encompassing over 30-mi, the trail system directly connects the Main Post and housing areas with thousands of soldiers, civilians, and families. A historic walking/biking tour on the trail system contains more than 40 sites from Fort Benning’s 100-year history.
Additionally, the Fort Benning trail system connects with the greater trail system of the City of Columbus. Hikers can depart from Post Headquarters and travel uninterrupted across the installation to the Chattahoochee Riverwalk trail, a 22-mi linear park on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, and the 11-mi Fall Line Trace activity trail. Notable sites along the Riverwalk include the National Infantry Museum, Historic Westville Museum of Southern History, Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center, National Civil War Naval Museum, Columbus State University Campus, and the Lake Oliver Marina. In total, the city’s network of recreational trails stretches over 34-mi.
The trail and sidewalk networks on Fort Benning provide safe avenues for recreation and physical fitness training, as well as access to popular recreational attractions. The trails also facilitate travel to schools, work, shopping, and restaurants. Since many soldiers do not have cars, the trails (along with available bike rentals) are especially useful for getting around. Maintaining such an extensive trail system is not without challenges—but the reward is a world-class system that promotes connectedness, individual health, quality of life, and alternative commuting methods.
BLAZING A TRAIL
In the 1990s, Columbus Water Works built a maintenance road along the Chattahoochee River to provide access to new sewage and stormwater system upgrades. Civic leaders, however, saw an opportunity to connect attractions across the city with an urban recreational trail, and so it was eventually expanded to more than 20-mi in length, stretching from North Columbus to the Fort Benning boundary.
Synchronized with this expansion, Fort Benning extended the trail within its borders to service its Main Post. Later, when Dixie Road (a primary avenue on Fort Benning) was widened, planners included a 3-mi recreation trail that would run parallel to the new road. Civic leaders also expanded the Columbus network an additional 10-mi as part of stimulus projects funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
In 2014, installation planners collaborated with four engineering students at the University of Georgia to study and prepare a master plan for improving the trail system as part of their senior capstone project. Fort Benning’s garrison commander, a biking enthusiast, provided input and approved funding to expand the trail system. The master plan guides improvements and is incorporated into the Area Development Plans.
As the installation executes roadway projects, the trail system continues to expand. As a result, soldiers and personnel can now walk out of most major buildings on base and seamlessly travel to Columbus attractions and recreational areas. The network also has greatly improved accessibility for people with disabilities.
Fort Benning used several sources of funding to create the trail system. Operations and Maintenance funds were used to build signs, create curb cuts, repair sidewalks, and so on. Recycling funds were used to build segments of trails, since trails improve safety as well as provide energy savings and pollution prevention as alternative means of commuting.
Cost savings also were achieved through innovative approaches. Trail signage was built by Fort Benning’s operations and maintenance contractor rather than using an outside vendor. And instead of displaying maps on the signs, they display a website address and a QR code for access to trail maps. Displaying a website address allows trail maps to be updated without having to replace signs. Trail rules and regulations are also displayed on the signs.
Old trail lights were replaced with LED lights. These replacements, which are brighter and make the trails well-lit and safer at night, paid for themselves with energy savings.
New trails have been built as part of major construction projects as well, including a new trail that will connect the remainder of Fort Benning’s 4,000 housing units being built as part of a future repair of Custer Road. When feasible, bicycle lanes and “sharrows” have been painted on some roads as they were repaved. This is an inexpensive way to create more safe paths.
Potential measures under consideration for the future include installing additional signage that would include universal symbols to communicate which trails and sidewalks are allowable for bicycles and pedestrians, as well as providing directions to destinations. Another still-to-come measure includes installing signage with QR codes to link users to the historic stories and videos for each landmark on the trail tour.
RELIEF DURING COVID
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, in March 2020 a general order was issued to military personnel assigned to Fort Benning that restricted travel except for health care and essential services. All other travel was prohibited. While outdoor physical activities for personnel living both on- and off-post such as running, biking, and walking were encouraged, they were limited to groups of five or less. Also, personnel were required to maintain social distancing by a minimum distance of 6-ft.
Fort Benning’s trail system would prove a valuable asset to the base during this period. A marked increase in the usage of the trails for recreation and fitness was noticed after the order. The width of the trails (typically 10-ft at Fort Benning and Columbus) helped maintain social distance in passing. And compliance with the group limitation of five personnel on the trails worked well.
For additional projects off-post, Fort Benning has collaborated with local partnerships to voice advocacy to the mayor and city council. A major key to success was helping leaders understand the benefits of recreation trails and gaining their support for funding. Another key was to “take it a bite at a time.” Even small improvements are appreciated by users, and over time they add up to create an impressive and well-used trail system.
In 2017, a group of leaders from across the Columbus region launched Columbus 2025, a comprehensive strategic plan to increase prosperity, reduce poverty, and enhance the quality of life for all citizens. The Fort Benning Garrison Command asked several of its own personnel to serve on the Columbus 2025 committees, including the Vibrant & Connected Spaces Committee.
One of the committee’s objectives was to connect people and places by expanding opportunities for walking, biking, and transit. Fort Benning and regional experts shared best practices and collaborated to improve the entire regional trail system. Fort Benning’s representative submitted work orders to build trails, sidewalks, curb cuts, and signage that improved connectivity and accessibility to most major destinations on Post.
The committee also created an avenue for sharing geographic information system maps between Fort Benning and the City of Columbus. As a result, the installation was able to share maps of the entire regional system on its own website for Morale Recreation and Welfare. The map of Fort Benning’s system also describes destinations and restroom facilities. Additionally, the Dragonfly Foundation (a nonprofit advocate for more trails) is working with a graduate student intern to create a more visible website and a smartphone application to promote all the trails in the region.
Founded in 1919, Fort Benning supports over 120,000 military members and their families, civilians, and retirees. A continued commitment to develop and maintain an extensive natural and recreational trail network enhances quality of life on the base.
By building collaborative relationships with local stakeholders to leverage interest and resources, accessing motivated volunteers, and finding creative funding sources, other installations can build vibrant recreational trail systems and increase connectivity to their community.
Kirk Ticknor, P.E., CFM, F.SAME, is Chief, Environmental Division, and Col. Frederick Wolf III, PMP, M.SAME, USA (Ret.), is Chief, Engineering Division, Directorate of Public Works, Fort Benning, Ga. They can be reached at email@example.com; and firstname.lastname@example.org.
[This article first published in the Sept-Oct 2020 issue of The Military Engineer.]