A recent "rush-hour" commute along the Riverfront Trail looked like any other day on the popular pathway, as large numbers of joggers, after-work bicyclists and evening walkers made their way east and west along the Clark Fork River without incident. Hardly anything seemed out of place, except for maybe the still-strong smell of freshly paved asphalt.
The city irked more than a few alternative transportation enthusiasts with the recent paving of the previously gravel trail. Although the decision was made during the 2008 budget process, and signs had warned about the change for weeks, the sudden appearance of paving crews along the south side of the river last Friday caught many by surprise.
That surprise turned immediately into a rash of questions: What about the natural character of the trail? What about the increased speed of bicyclists along the route? What about the impact to the environment? What about using an alternative to asphalt? What about the children? Okay, we made the last one up. But according to chain e-mails, chatter on the government listserv and letters to the editor, critics decried the decision, pointing to the paved trail as some sort of giant stretch mark on our awkwardly growing city.
Of course, Parks and Rec responded immediately to the outcry. The Indy received a detailed Q&A about the lengthy decision-making process and rationale behind the change, addressing each of the questions above. More noticeably, hastily made signs now dot the Riverfront Trail, warning users to, in succession, "Keep Right," "Pass on Left" and "Announce Your Pass." In smaller type, toward the middle of the sign, the bicycle speed limit is posted as 10 mph. Really? Assuming any bicyclist bothers to read the little laminated sheets, who actually clocks their speed while pedaling to and from work? Are speed traps the next step?
Pardon us for finding all of this mildly amusing—the blustery outrage, as well as the city's hyper-sensitive response. It's not that the asphalt isn't a disconcerting eyesore, or that civic responsiveness isn't admirable. None of the sentiment is unjust or misplaced, necessarily, but the situation is entertainingly indicative of just how passionate we take our local trails. Only in Missoula would a bike and pedestrian path generate more interest than an 84-year-old woman speaking—just down the trail, as it were, at the university—about the similarities between our current government and Hitler's Germany. Surprisingly, she didn't even once touch on the topic of unnecessarily paved trails.