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Policy

Ohio Senators Steve Wilson and Sean O’Brien on Creating a Statewide Trail System

By: Amy Kapp
May 11, 2018

Left to Right- Senators Sean O’Brien and Steve Wilson | Photo by Brian Housh
Left to Right- Senators Sean O’Brien and Steve Wilson | Photo by Brian Housh

This article is an extended Profile piece from the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of Rails to trails magazine.

In Spring 2017, Ohio launched the Ohio Legislative Trails Caucus, a bipartisan group of state-elected officials committed to connecting Ohioans via a statewide trails network. Formed by Sens. Sean O’Brien (D) and Steve Wilson (R), the unique group of 29 legislators seeks to establish new policies and funding streams that will help turn their vision into reality.

RTC recently chatted with Sens. Wilson and O’Brien about their passion for walking and biking, their goals for the caucus and their vision to improve the quality of life for all Ohioans.

Ohio and Erie Canalway Towpath Trail in downtown Akron | Photo by Bruce S. Ford, courtesy Summit Metro Parks
Ohio and Erie Canalway Towpath Trail in downtown Akron | Photo by Bruce S. Ford, courtesy Summit Metro Parks

What drove you to help lead the formation of the caucus? What do you hope to achieve?

Sen. O’Brien:

As a walker and bicyclist, I appreciate that our trails offer a safe, beautiful environment for individuals and families to [be active], or hike, or camp, [or be outdoors]. The caucus is a great way for legislators to get involved with trails and develop a better collective understanding of their importance [for communities]. We can learn better together.

Sen. Wilson:

I’m an avid trail walker. I’ve walked a lot of trails, including the 272-mile Ohio to Erie Trail [a developing trail network stretching from Cincinnati to Cleveland] in its entirety. Ohio has a beautiful trail network … it’s a wonderful example of what can result from public-private partnerships.

I want to ensure every Ohioan has the opportunity to get out and use these trails.

DON’T MISS: Caucus Helps Kick Off Ohio’s “Year of the Trails”

Why was the timing right?

Sen. Wilson:

I had just arrived at the Senate, and I wanted to do something along these lines, and I found another senator who wanted to do the same. It was really just the realization that we had this tremendous asset—our trail network—and there was this great opportunity to preserve, expand and publicize it.

Sen. O’Brien:

Like Sen. Wilson, I am also a new senator, after having served in the House. I didn’t know Sen. Wilson at first, but his office was next to mine. After talking, we found we shared a common passion, and then we discovered many other colleagues were interested as well. The passion in the legislature was really overwhelming. I didn’t expect it, but I was really happy to see it.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) got involved—they brought in someone who is currently mapping and coordinating all our trails into a single system—and then we started having [discussions with trail groups around the state].

Sen. Wilson:

I was amazed at all the groups that are involved with trails, such as the Ohio Trails Partnership, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the ODNR, the Ohio to Erie Trail group and many others. It wasn’t until we all got together for the first time that I realized what a big group it was. And we were all concerned about the same thing.

How has the caucus has been impactful so far?

Sen. Wilson:

I am new to the Senate. To my great pleasure, I have found that many of my colleagues had a great desire to cooperate at the state level. The Legislative Trails Caucus has allowed us to share our passion and spirit of cooperation.

Sen. O’Brien:

By bringing our passion to our fellow legislators, we’ve discovered that many share this passion and want to participate, not just in the policy aspects, but in walking and visiting water trails and getting involved as trail users. That’s important.

Sen. Wilson:

Now other states are following suit based on what we’ve been able to accomplish here in Ohio. That’s something we’re very proud of.

What is your vision for Ohio’s trail networks?

Sen. Wilson:

Maintain it, grow it and publicize it.

Sen. O’Brien:

Exactly right. Get people to understand it.

I was just out on the trail on Sunday. It was cold, but there were so many people out as well. We have such a valuable asset here in Ohio, and we have to preserve it, protect it and help it grow.

The Towpath Trail includes a floating bridge over Summit Lake. | Photo by Bruce Ford, courtesy Summit Metro Parks
The Towpath Trail includes a floating bridge over Summit Lake. | Photo by Bruce Ford, courtesy Summit Metro Parks

What impact can Ohio’s trails have for communities in the long term?

Sen. O’Brien:

Out on the trail, people can put their cell phones down and get exercise and bond better with their families. They [also] bring an economic benefit and an environmental benefit. It’s important that we preserve this resource for future generations.  

Sen. Wilson:

Trails preserve green space, promote good health and draw people together—families and friends. They allow us to go out and understand the beauty of the state—taking us back to how things were before the concrete. They are beautiful places.

DON’T MISS: Seven Wonders of the Ohio to Erie Trail

What role can trails play in improving Ohio’s transportation system?

Sen. Wilson:

I think trails have a big impact on transportation, particularly in urban areas. For example, in Columbus, both the Olentangy Trail and Scioto Trail head into downtown, providing people with opportunities to walk and bike to work. There’s the Little Miami Scenic Trail that stretches through communities between Cincinnati and Springfield, and Cleveland has the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, which connects its downtown area to the outer suburbs, and the Emerald Necklace that takes people into suburban areas.

Transportation is one of the things we are looking at moving forward, after ODNR finishes its trail map. That map will help us plan for the future.

Sen. O’Brien:

Look at traffic, for example. In my district, the Western Reserve Greenway Trail extends from Warren north through Ashtabula. You can bike to work along that trail because of how it’s situated, going through the city. If people can bike to work, this helps us assuage traffic congestion as well as improve quality of life and increase access to exercise.

Western Reserve Greenway | Photo by TrailLink user orangedoug
Western Reserve Greenway | Photo by TrailLink user orangedoug

What’s your favorite trail?

Sen. O’Brien:

I enjoy the Western Reserve Greenway Trail, which I pick up in Champion. I love riding my bike up into Ashtabula. It’s an absolutely gorgeous trail, especially in the fall when the leaves change.

I just bought a fat bike—which has big tires so you can ride in the snow. It’s a heck of a workout, but it’s pretty cool!

Sen. Wilson:

Three of my favorites help make up the Ohio to Erie Trail. The Little Miami River was the first to be designated a National and State Scenic River. Along the river is the Little Miami Scenic Trail—a beautiful pathway that runs from the Ohio River up to Springfield. Two other favorites are the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, [which connects Cleveland to Bolivar], and the Genoa Trail, which spans 4 miles from Westerville to south of Galena along the Hoover Reservoir.

Sen. O’Brien, when did trails first start to impact you on a personal level?

Sen. O’Brien:

When I was training for a triathlon five to eight years ago—I discovered my local trails, which I biked as part of my training route. Prior to that time, I didn’t really know about them.

It was helpful to be able to take a straight 22-mile route one way; I got a pretty good workout! I’m actually more of a runner than a bicyclist, and this was the impetus for my using them for [running].

When I found out about the trails, it made it so much easier to get myself out there for an extended period of time. They’re beautiful trails, and I wanted to be on them. 

DON’T MISS: It’s Ohio’s “Year of the Trails”—and Big Things Are Happening

Sen. Wilson, how did your trek along the Ohio to Erie Trail impact you personally?

Sen. Wilson:

That experience greatly exceeded my expectations—the beauty of the trails and how well they are maintained and marked, and the people I met along the way in the small towns.

It was an incredible experience that made me feel so good about the state of Ohio and my fellow citizens. It’s an experience I’ll always carry with me.

Read more about the Ohio Legislative Trails Caucus.

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Amy Kapp | Photo courtesy Amy Kapp
Amy Kapp

Amy Kapp serves as Editorial Director and Editor-in-Chief of Rails to Trails magazine. Kapp frequently writes about the impact of, and vast historical and cultural connections made by, America's rail-trails, parks and public lands.

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