Concrete, Asphalt, Gravel

Ranging from large, multi-use trails that offer a wide variety of recreation and transportation uses to nature trails that create opportunities to enjoy the natural environments within a city, most people would agree that trails help contribute to the overall quality of life.

As more cities embrace the popularity of trails and add to their inventory, officials end up dealing with some difficult issues regarding costs. Balancing the initial cost of development with long-term maintenance costs becomes increasingly important as budgets are stretched thin. Good judgment and sound design become even more important if cities are to meet the goal of providing good service in the most cost-effective manner possible.

Columbia, Mo., has experienced a growth in trail popularity over the past 30 years, and has learned by experience the importance of making sound judgments when it comes to trail design. In 1978, the city began its commitment to build a network of trails by choosing to convert the abandoned MKT Railroad spur line to a recreation trail.

Breaking It Down

After years of public support, the city now offers over 40 miles of trails with several being designed for construction in the near future.

Design and material selection will often be the most important decisions, and can have a major impact on annual maintenance costs. Columbia officials decided to explore the cost of maintaining the larger recreation trails with a cost comparison of concrete, asphalt and gravel surfaces:

Columbia’s topography is well-suited for trail planning, and provides many miles of ideal trail alignments along its 10 major creeks. This bottomland is becoming one of Columbia’s most valuable natural landscapes, and is targeted for preservation throughout the city. It also serves as an ideal setting for many of the large multi-use recreation trails identified in the city’s trails master plan.

The cost comparison of the three trail-surface options has provided planners with an accurate analysis for future maintenance costs. The larger and more heavily used trails will have the greatest impact on budgets.

Making Choices

In general, trails in larger parks generate heavier use, and will require a trail design that appeals to a more diverse user group. Heavier use will also result in a new set of expectations for trail quality, and dictates the need to make some tough decisions on how best to stretch the dollars. These choices are generally focused on two options:

• Design the project to achieve the higher-quality standards, and reduce long-term maintenance costs

• Reduce the quality to build the project within budget.

The large multi-use recreation trails have become quite popular among residents. Heavier use levels and higher quality expectations have resulted in the need to improve both trail quality and year-round usability. The early days of trail development were based on lower expectations for trail quality, and the use of gravel was the accepted norm.

As the trail system has grown, it is now apparent that the annual maintenance budget to repair gravel trails is not keeping up with the growth of the trail system. The end result has been the development of a new standard that incorporates the benefits of concrete for durability and year-round use with a gravel side path for runners. This new standard is more costly to build, but its benefits far outweigh the cost difference over time.

Choosing the high standard to add quality and reduce maintenance costs sounds like an easy decision, but it’s obvious that sacrifices are generally required to make this change. Sometimes the change to a higher standard will not be possible, but it’s still important to recognize the real costs associated with each design decision. This information will help establish more accurate budget figures for maintenance, and also shed light on the long-term costs associated with each project.

The popularity and continued growth of municipal trail systems has required cities to carefully evaluate how they choose to meet this demand. The result of this decision-making process will have a lasting impact--not only the quality of the experience for users--but also the future costs associated with each trail. Assuring that the maintenance costs are reasonable will provide lasting benefits to municipalities as they struggle to be cost-effective in meeting demand.

Steve Saitta is the planning and development superintendent for the city of Columbia, Missouri’s parks and recreation department. He can be reached via e-mail at