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The funding game: After decades of work, the Bob Jones Trail needs a little more money to get it ready for construction

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To really understand the Bob Jones Trail, you need to start with the man who had the vision: Bob Jones.

Jones, who passed away in the mid-1990s, was a champion of San Luis Obispo Creek habitat restoration in the 1980s, according to Brian Stark, who’s followed and worked on the trail for more than two decades. What Jones saw was an opportunity to restore the creek and put people in touch with the nature that surrounds them at the same time—to build a pathway next to the creek that ran from San Luis Obispo to the sea.

And that pathway would, hopefully, get people to realize the value of conservation. As a board member, Jones pushed the Land Conservancy of SLO County into starting that work.

“Historically, the creek was seen as a blight, something to put underground, but Bob was one of the early proponents of that vision for the creek,” Stark said. “It is a big vision. … I don’t think anybody thought that it was going to happen really fast.”

In 1994, when Stark started working with the Land Conservancy (he was executive director from 2004 to 2009), the first 2.5 miles of the trail were already under construction. It’s taken the intervening 23 years to get the trail to where it is right now—almost ready to begin the 4.4 miles of construction that will complete the path from Avila Beach to San Luis Obispo’s city limits.

But the project still needs to finish construction documents and negotiate easements with property owners along San Luis Creek. What’s needed to bridge the gap between stagnation and completing those two things is about $380,000.

Trail advocates who spoke at the April 11 Board of Supervisors meeting said that if the county doesn’t commit to providing that money soon, it will miss the opportunity to apply (and be competitive) for state grants available at the beginning of 2018 that could pay out millions for construction costs.

SLO County Parks Commissioner Bruce Hilton spoke during public comment at the meeting, urging the board to agendize the issue and allocate the money.

“We can’t wait,” Hilton said. “I believe the money is there.”

According to data New Times requested from the county, about $4.6 million in state, federal, and county money has been allocated or granted to the trail (but not necessarily spent) since 2002—$3 million of that funding came out of the county’s parks Public Facility Fees, which developers pay for park projects in the county.

The developer of San Luis Bay Estates paid for construction of the first 2.5-mile segment of the trail in 1993. About $850,000 was spent to design and finish that trail into Avila Beach. Money was also spent on planning and environmental documents to build a parking/staging area at the Octagon Barn and for path slated to run between it and Ontario Road.

What hasn’t been spent is already earmarked for construction of the Octagon Barn staging area and a left-hand turn lane on Higuera, which is slated to begin in the fall.

Senior Planner Shaun Cooper, who works for the county Parks and Recreation Department, said the planning work that’s left for the project—construction documents and negotiating trail easements with property owners—is estimated to cost about $1.16 million.

“It’s kind of the last soft cost that we’ll need to invest before we’re ready to make something,” Cooper said. “It’s easier to get money for construction than it is for the planning phase.”

About $770,000 will come out of what’s already been allocated to the project. But before a request for proposal can be released to the public for contractors to bid on, the county needs to figure out where the rest of that funding will come from. Nick Franco, who heads up the parks department, said they have zeroed in on other projects they could potentially pull about $317,000 from, which should give them enough to put out the request for proposal. But the Board of Supervisors has to approve the allocation, otherwise it could take six months or longer to find another source of funding, Franco said. On April 11, the board voted to tentatively agendize the issue for May 9.

For people like Helene Finger, who’s worked on the project for years, there’s no need to basically stall forward momentum on the trail for half a year.

She said the state’s recently passed transportation funding bill could help fund the estimated $10 million it will cost to build the trail with Active Transportation Projects (ATP) grants. Project applications will be due at the beginning of 2018. Finger said SLO County has a hard time securing ATP money because it’s typically allocated to disadvantaged regions. But she added that having all the planning done for the Bob Jones Trail, which could take more than a year, would make it more competitive.

Finger said every day the project is delayed makes it more expensive—and they’ve come too far to stop moving forward.

“This is our best shot, and if we miss it, who knows when the next time is going to come around to get state money to build the trail,” she said.

Editor Camillia Lanham can be reached at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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