Operations, Maintenance, and Stewardship 101

Operations, maintenance, and stewardship are essential to the safe use, enjoyment, and long-term success of any trail.

It's not as glamorous as building the trail. There is no ribbon cutting for a maintenance program and seldom does upkeep win a national award. Yet, operations, maintenance, and stewardship are essential to the safe use, enjoyment, and long-term success of any trail.

by Robert (Bob) Searns, Owner, Robert Searns and Associates, Inc.

It's not as glamorous as building the trail. There is no ribbon cutting for a maintenance program and seldom does upkeep win a national award. Yet, operations, maintenance, and stewardship are essential to the safe use, enjoyment, and long-term success of any trail. Increasingly, planners and elected officials want to see a workable O & M plan. They want to know the cost and how it will be funded.

Indeed, an excellent project concept may die on the vine if these challenges are not adequately addressed. Here is an outline of the key elements of this vital aspect of trail management:

Operations and maintenance defined

Operations and maintenance refers to the day-to-day upkeep as well as the smooth and safe functioning of a trail, greenway or trail/greenway system.

Stewardship refers to long-term care and oversight of the trail resource. This is essential to assure it will be sustained as a quality component of the community infrastructure and a good neighbor to adjacent properties and surrounding natural environment. Stewardship also includes building community support and advocacy so the integrity of the trail or greenway will not be compromised in the future.

Routine maintenance refers to the day-to-day regimen of litter pick-up, trash and debris removal, weed and dust control; trail sweeping, sign replacement, tree and shrub trimming and other regularly scheduled activities. Routine maintenance also includes minor repairs and replacements such as fixing cracks and potholes or repairing a broken handrail.

Remedial maintenance refers to correcting significant defects as well as repairing, replacing, or restoring major components that have been destroyed, damaged, or significantly deteriorated during the life of the project. Minor repairs such as repainting, seal coating asphalt pavement, or replacing signs may occur on a five to ten-year cycle. Major reconstruction items might occur over a longer period— up to 100 years or more— or after an event such as a flood. Other examples include stabilization of a severely eroded hillside, repaving a trail surface, or replacing a bridge. Remedial maintenance should be a consideration in formulating a long-term capital improvement plan, though budgeting could be on an individual and as-needed or anticipated basis.

Proper handling of water runoff is a key element of trail maintenance.

Proper handling of water runoff is a key element of trail maintenance.

A quality O & M program addresses specific required tasks and begins with sound design, durable components, and a comprehensive management plan. The responsible officials and entities should embrace the plan at the beginning.

Programs and protocols that will endure should be instituted, including training of field and supervisory people. In addition, community groups, residents, business owners, developers and other stakeholders should be engaged in the long-term stewardship effort.

Guiding principles for a successful program

The following guiding principles will help assure preservation of a first class system:

  • Good maintenance begins with sound planning and design
  • Foremost, protect life, property, and the environment
  • Promote and maintain a quality outdoor recreation experience
  • Develop a management plan that is reviewed and updated annually with tasks, operational policies, standards, and routine and remedial maintenance goals
  • Maintain quality control and conduct regular inspection
  • Include field crews, police and fire/rescue personnel in both the design review and on-going management process
  • Maintain an effective, responsive public feedback system and promote public participation
  • Be a good neighbor to adjacent properties

An effective O & M plan should include the following areas:

  • Maintenance: Routine and Remedial
  • User Safety and Risk Management
  • Programming and Events
  • Resource Stewardship and Enhancement
  • Marketing and Promotion
  • Oversight and Coordination

Mile markers can assist with maintenance as well as provide information for trail users

Mile markers can assist with maintenance as well as provide information for trail users

Following are some of the typical O & M Activities for various types of trail amenities:

  • Inspection and Citizen Response
  • Trail Surface Maintenance
  • Repaving and Pavement Overlays
  • Sweeping/Street Sweeping (For On-Street Facilities)
  • Street Surface Upkeep and Repair (On-Street Facilities)
  • Parking Lot Repair at Trailheads
  • Maintain Connecting On-Street and Sidewalk Routes
  • Vegetation and Pest Management (e.g. Trimming Overhanging Branches)
  • Irrigation Systems
  • Litter and Trash Removal
  • Graffiti and Vandalism Control
  • Dust Reduction
  • Address Detours/Disruptions (With Workable Alternative Routes)
  • Remedy "Social Trails" (Such as Shortcuts)
  • Repair Trail Structures and Fixture/Erosion Control
  • Signage (Especially Safety Signage), Striping and Lighting
  • Rest Areas, Shelters and Water Stations (Including Equestrian)
  • Toilet Facility Service
  • Patrol, Security, Enforcement, Safety Hazard Reduction
  • Special Event Policies and Permitting
  • Education and Enforcement
  • Accident and Incident Data Tracking

User safety and risk management

User safety is critical to trail design, operations and management. Trail planners and managers should implement a safety program that includes: systematic risk management assessment, inter-agency design review for all proposed improvements and accident and crime reporting. In addition to department managers, planners, designers and engineers, law enforcement, fire/rescue and field maintenance personnel should be consulted in the design and review process.

Important steps in this process include:

  • Use sound design and engineering principals in the planning and design phase. For instance, trail designs should conform to currently established standards such as the Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities available from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Safety and regulatory signage should conform to the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices available at http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/ from the Federal Highway Administration. For good references that address accessibility standards, design of primitive trails, mountain bike facilities, bridges, boardwalks, and other facilities, visit the American Trails website: www.americantrails.org.
  • Consult experts in bicycle facility engineering for difficult situations such as at-grade street crossings, trails built next to roads, mid-block crossings and other challengers. It may be advisable to have an engineer review the entire plan set. Remember, bikes are vehicles and should be treated as such.
  • Include all points of view. Involve members of both genders, a variety of age groups, and law enforcement and fire/rescue people in reviewing plans. Concerns with respect to safety and security will vary depending on the perspective.
  • Implement an emergency response protocol with law enforcement, EMS agencies, and fire and rescue department that includes mapping of trail and open space access points, design of trails and access roads (to accommodate up to 6.5 tons), an "address/location positioning system" such mile markers to identify locations and, where appropriate, 911 emergency phones in remote areas.
  • Implement a data base management system with law enforcement and fire/rescue to track specific location and circumstances of all accidents, reported incidents and crime and create a safety follow-up task force to address any problems that develop.
  • Routinely inspect for safety hazards, defective structures, missing safety signs, etc.
  • Promote user courtesy and trail etiquette and post and enforce safe user behavior and bicycle speed limits (in congested and risk areas).
  • Have a user feedback plan and problem hotline. Develop a procedure for timely and effective response.

Administering an O & M porgram

Several steps can be effective on organizing leadership and effective administration of an O & M program including:

  • Preparing and distributing an O & M manual with a specific listing of all functions, frequency of tasks, quality standards, and estimated unit costs and/or staffing requirements. This should be translated into an annual budget that anticipates build-out in five-year increments.
  • The program should be goal-oriented and mission-focused based on the written and agreed to policies and guidelines.
  • A lead individual or committee should be identified to serve as liaison/advocate for the system. This lead person should also work cooperatively with the respective department and agency heads and staff to assure a coordinated effort amongst all of the participants.
  • Allocate discrete and adequate funding based on the written O & M program manual and annual budget.
  • The program must be cost-effective with sustainable funding sources identified.
  • Key participants in the O & M program should meet at least twice a year to assess performance for the past season and set direction, priorities, and funding needs for the upcoming season.
  • Several agencies or jurisdictions may be involved in the management. Greenway systems often including neighboring communities or infrastructure partners such as a stormwater management agency or a highway department. An interagency maintenance agreement may be based on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) or other agreement that covers responsibilities, sharing of equipment, standards of performance, and cost sharing if applicable.

O & M costs and revenue

O & M costs can vary substantially depending on the facility, climate, and complexity of the system. For urban trail systems an annual per-mile cost might run from $2500 to $10,000.

Different sources of revenue may be identified including:

  • General fund allocations;
  • Revenue from right-of-way leases such as cable use;
  • Participation and partnering with the stakeholders such as a flood control agency, streets department, or a homeowners association;
  • Creation of an endowment from philanthropic or other sources to generate on-going revenue;
  • Recruiting volunteers, youth and adopt-a-trail participants and sponsors.

While the annual O & M costs may seem intimidating, it is important to note that the return to the community in terms of recreational benefits, health and fitness. and economic development have been shown through a number of studies nationwide to be multi-fold.

A proper O & M program will reduce long-term costs by extending the life of trails and trail components, and it will win the support of the residents, homeowners, and businesses. A community with trails and greenways needs to invest over the long term in a quality O & M program. Indeed, a community, state or nation cannot afford to not make that investment.

About the Author

Robert Searns has a four-decade history of visualizing, planning, and getting trails and greenway projects built. He was Project Director of Denver’s Platte River and Mary Carter Greenways—both national-award-wining projects. He helped plan the Grand Canyon National Park Greenway, played a key role on the Memphis Wolf River Greenway, and authored the Commerce City, CO Walk, Bike, Fit plan. He has written for Planning, Landscape Architecture, LA China, and American Trails Magazines and has served as Editor-in-Chief of Trails and Beyond Magazine. He chaired American Trails and was a founder of The World Trails Network as well as being a delegate to the America’s Great Outdoors White House conclave. His current book is Beyond Greenways: The Next Step For City Trails and Walking Routes, published in 2023 by Island Press. He resides, writes, hikes, and bikes near Denver, Colorado.

Contact: [email protected]

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