The future of Decatur’s Bill Sims Bike Trail could include connecting to other parts of north Alabama and providing recreation to college students, but the trail is currently hindered by a need for upkeep, limited access citywide and insufficient route information, its namesake and cycling enthusiasts say.
Dr. Bill Sims, a retired orthopedic doctor and advocate for the trail since its first sections opened 20 years ago, said Decatur is poised to be a part of the Singing River Trail in north Alabama. He said this combined with the planned Alabama Center for the Arts residence hall in downtown Decatur could increase the usefulness of the trail named for him — if it’s given more attention.
“We’re hoping we can get a cantilevered path off the (Steamboat Bill Memorial) Bridge … or (lanes on) a completely new bridge,” Sims said of how the Singing River Trail might link up to the city. “I would hope someday we get across the river so that Calhoun students could ride to Decatur.”
The Sims trail’s main path runs from Point Mallard Park to Rhodes Ferry Park and then to Wilson Morgan Park using dedicated walking/biking paths and side streets. That route is 10 to 12 miles, depending on where the trail is accessed at Point Mallard, and includes scenic views of the Tennessee River. Sims said he envisions the main section of the trail with “spokes that would come into it from communities.”
There are currently trail sections on Spring Avenue Southwest and Modaus Road that don’t connect with the main route.
“Spring Avenue is a nice trail,” Sims said. “It goes almost all the way to Flint” from Spring’s intersection at Cedar Lake Road/Way Thru the Woods. “But if you want to ride into town, how do you get there? There are a lot of things we need to do to connect this thing. It’s being underutilized now. If it were more connected, it would be utilized more.”
Riders can go to Ingalls Harbor from downtown or Point Mallard on the trail, but Sims would like to see it extended from Ingalls all the way to industries along the river and eventually connect to Muscle Shoals. That would provide cyclists a route tracing the train journey the Cherokee took to Tuscumbia on the Trail of Tears after arriving at Rhodes Ferry by boat during their forced removal in the early 1800s.
The Singing River Trail is a greenway trail planned to span 150 miles and connect Decatur to Huntsville and Athens, passing through Madison and other north Alabama communities like Mooresville and Triana along the way.
If the Sims trail could be linked to the Singing River Trail on the east and to Muscle Shoals on the west, “we’re going to be a destination for bikers,” Sims said.
Bumps in the road
Decatur residents Lewis White, 56, and Andy Keith, 35, are frequent riders of the Bill Sims Bike Trail as part of a group that meets at Cross-Eyed Owl Brewing Company each Wednesday evening. They said they appreciate the path through Decatur’s metro area during their weekly meetups, but they feel the city could do more regarding trail upkeep to increase the number of regular riders.
“That ride has been fairly successful for the last two or three years,” Keith said. “We’ve had quite a few that have come out that want to be active, that want to get off the couch and do something.”
White said there are troublesome stretches where heavy truck traffic has caused wear and tear to the pavement, making it difficult for riders inexperienced with the trail. One stretch is the riverfront industrial area on Market Street, east of U.S. 31, where tractor-trailers frequently drive over the trail.
“Part of the bike trail that (truck drivers) use as their entry and exit to the scales is right there, but no one actually rides that. We actually ride the other side of the road just to get out of the traffic,” White said.
White’s suggestion for that stretch is for the city to reroute it for a few blocks to Wilson Street.
“If they would make that the bike trail and take it up and over one block, you’d actually come over on a nice groovy sidewalk and wouldn’t go through that industrialized area,” he said.
Cars at housing by Rhodes Ferry Park often park on the trail, causing obstructions to people on bikes, according to White.
“That’s actually become a hazard,” he said of the cars. “It’s downhill (for riders going east) and if you’re not a real skilled rider, you catch your handlebar on the mirror of a car poking out in that bike trail and it’s going to send you for a little trip.”
White’s other suggestions for physical improvement of the trail are restriping of areas such as where the trail along Fifth Avenue Southwest crosses Betty Street and having a ramp or pavement instead of a step between both ends of the trail and the Collis Stevenson Pedestrian Bridge near the Old Decatur Depot. White said the bridge is about 8 inches higher than the trail, creating a bump for riders getting onto or off the bridge.
“You’ve got to pop a wheelie to get up onto the bridge, so if you’re not skilled a lot of people crash right there,” he said. “If you get a novice out there who doesn’t ride very often (then) one good crash right there and they’re writing that trail off.”
Keith said his main concern with the trail is that while signage is present, some stretches are not clearly marked. He added that because there is no definitive, accurate map of the bike trail, newcomers could stray from the route.
“I definitely think something like that is needed because I have people all the time that tell me they see the signs for it, but they’ve never seen it physically laid out,” he said.
The Decatur Parks and Recreation website features a map of the Bill Sims Bike Trail, but Keith and White both said the route shown is not accurate. The website map directs bicyclists down Oak Street Northeast, including to cross Wilson Street. The correct route uses two bike/pedestrian bridges to cross the railroad on each side of Wilson Street as well as a dedicated bike/pedestrian path underneath the Wilson Street bridge.
“I think the Parks and Recreation folks do a great job … but when you go to their website (the map) has been wrong since the day they put it on there,” White said.
White said he feels the inaccurate map makes the trail less safe for those relying on it since it indicates crossing busy Alabama 20/Wilson Street rather than using the underpass.
Sims says he’s working on a phone app that would provide directions on the trail, but it’s not ready.
The trail’s impact
Mayor Tab Bowling said the city has a master plan for multi-use trails that extend the Sims bike trail. He said most of the plans are being funded with Transportation Alternatives Program grants administered by the Alabama Department of Transportation.
City Grants Administrator Allen Stover said the city recently used a TAP grant for a multi-use trail along Modaus Road Southwest. The next leg of the trail will run along Fairground Road to Sims Road/Sims Street to Spring Avenue.
“This connects the trail to Decatur Heritage (Christian Academy),” Stover said.
They will then work on a leg to Cedar Lake Road and then to Central Parkway, and it will complete the loop to Wilson Morgan Park once it crosses Beltline Road, Stover said.
“We would like to do a small leg on Bunny Lane (near Austin High),” Stover said.
Councilman Kyle Pike, whose District 2 contains much of the Bill Sims trail in Southeast and Northeast Decatur, said while the city hasn’t marketed the trail much recently, he’s found it to be something most Decatur residents are familiar with as an attractive quality-of-life feature.
“The thought of being able to bike to work for some — a lot of people would like that,” Pike said. “With the Bill Sims (Trail) there’s a lot of places that you can do that, but I don’t know if people are.”
Pike said he grew up in Decatur riding the trail and now rides it with his daughter and feels it’s a good draw for families to the city. He said homebuilders agree.
“I’ve spoken with a lot of developers over the last few months that have come in, and the bike trail’s one of the things they bring up,” he said.
Crystal Brown, president and CEO of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, said she understands the draw of the Bill Sims Bike Trail having toured Savannah, Georgia, where she sees a lot of residents go bicycling because of the footprint of the Savannah College of Art and Design. She hopes the Alabama Center for the Arts dormitory could have a similar effect in Decatur.
“One of the first things we noticed (in Savannah) was that everyone was on a bicycle,” Brown said. “If you didn’t have one, it was kind of strange if you were a student.”
Brown said the ACA dormitory is “the big piece we’ve been missing” and could lead to a rebirth of the trail given the younger age demographic.
“The bike trail will be an integral part of growing the area and the connectivity with the Singing River Trail,” Brown said. “There are economic development opportunities along those trails, so that’s very exciting to us.”
Despite some of the hurdles, Lewis White said he is grateful for the trail’s presence in Decatur, for the recreational value it adds to the city as well as its convenient connections.
“It literally goes to the front door of my house — you can’t beat that,” White said. “They just should have taken one person who rode a bike with them who planned the trail.”