Bike path along Wichita river decays, but fixes won't come cheap

Officer Steve Jerrell was walking along the bike path next to the Little Arkansas River when he came to an abrupt halt.

"Look at that view," he said, pointing.

The golden leaves of a tree branch stretching over the water provided an artistic frame for the blue water stretching toward the horizon, the colors vibrant in the autumn afternoon sunshine.

"It's just beautiful, isn't it?" Jerrell said.

But it's a view seen by few people these days, because the path between Central and Murdock next to the Little Arkansas River is closed to the public.

Lighting along the trail is virtually nonexistent and the asphalt path heaves in many spots like a stormy sea. Bushes and trees are so overgrown in places they crowd the trail.

They also offer ample cover for someone attempting to hide — or simply take a nap, as many homeless people have been doing, Jerrell said.

The city closed the trail at the request of police more than a year ago "because it was unsafe," said Doug Kupper, director of the Park and Recreation Department. "There were too many people that do not have permanent residences that were living in the trees."

Jerrell said robberies have occurred along the bike path even during the day. During one this summer, a homeless man jumped out of the bushes and tried to steal a can of beer from a woman walking past.

A second homeless man came to her aid, throwing the attacker into the river.

"We could have had a death out of that" if the attacker had drowned, Jerrell said.

An uneasy feeling

Such incidents have left residents of three apartment complexes next to the path and people who work in office buildings near Murdock uneasy.

"They feel totally unsafe down there," said Capt. Jeff Easter, commander of the Patrol North Bureau.

A police survey of residents and workers in that area showed nearly 70 percent "are either extremely afraid to be down there or somewhat afraid to be down there," Jerrell said.

A group of apartment residents at Barclay Square, 550 West Central, plan to conduct a cleanup day along the path on Dec. 4, Jerrell said.

"It's citizen involvement," he said. "I think it's great."

Infrastructure issues

But it will take much more than a one-day cleaning to make the path usable, police and city officials said. The few light fixtures left standing look like survivors of an aerial bombing.

"The fixtures are a disaster," Kupper said. "All the underground wiring has to be completely replaced and brought up to codes."

Wiring protrudes from the ground in some places along the path.

"They tell me these lines are dead," Jerrell said, grabbing a couple on a recent trek along the path to demonstrate his point.

Fresh asphalt would have to be laid. Trees, bushes and other vegetation would need to be trimmed or removed.

Holes in wooden decks would need to be repaired. Uneven wooden-plank staircases would need to be replaced or leveled.

Costly fixes

An estimate prepared about six years ago indicated that work could cost $1 million or more, Kupper said.

Then there's the cost of replacing the walking bridge over the boat marina at Barclay Square. Because it would need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, it would likely cost another $1.25 million or more, Kupper said.

The existing bridge was built so that sailboats moored in the marina could access the Little Arkansas River.

"I have only been here 11 years, and I haven't seen any in there," Kupper said.

A lower bridge, offering clearance for such water vessels as canoes, kayaks and boats, would cost less to build, he said.

"It's a matter of setting a priority and then going after it," Kupper said.

Given the economic climate and other issues the city is facing, City Council member Janet Miller said, she is not inclined to make refurbishing the path a priority.

"I'm probably one of the biggest pathway proponents there is," said Miller, who represents the district in which the path is located. "This particular one is difficult. While it's nice, it's not particularly necessary. ...

"If we're going to spend a million on a recreational improvement or a public safety improvement, where would we make that investment? I haven't gotten a single phone call complaining about that path being closed."

Police officials concede the renovation project faces significant hurdles because of how much needs to be done.

But improvements need to be made, they say, for people who live or work nearby to feel safe — or even to protect the homeless who are often preyed upon by criminals.

The homeless would likely look elsewhere for places to nap or spend the night if the bushes and trees are trimmed, Jerrell said. Most of them just want someplace where they can hide or get some rest.

Miller said she applauded the vision of police officials trying to clean up the path to "protect the vulnerable among us."

"I think they make some good arguments," she said. Yet, "if we had a million to spend to address homelessness, we'd probably do it differently."

Jerrell said he has come to view the path as a hidden gem in the heart of the city.

"It would be very, very easy to put a Band-Aid over it," Jerrell said. "But if we Band-Aid it, the Band-Aid's going to come off.

"I'd like to see us come up with a solution that will last 15 to 20 years."