Trails have played an important role in connecting communities — in a physical sense, through use of the trails, but also in an economic sense, attracting people who are looking to grab a bite to eat or just check out a new area.

The nonprofit Friends of the Riverfront group is hoping to make those connections for towns in the Turtle Creek Valley, by providing them with not just a trail, but one that links them to the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) on the west, and the Westmoreland Heritage Trail to the east.

“There’s been a push from both the GAP Trail and Westmoreland Heritage Trail groups to formalize a connection between the two,” said Courtney Mahronich Vita, director of trail development for the Friends group, which currently manages more than 33 miles of the Three Rivers Heritage and Three Rivers Water trails.

A feasibility study found three potential routes traversing Rankin, Braddock, North Braddock, East Pittsburgh, Wilkins, North Versailles, Turtle Creek, Wilmerding, East McKeesport, Wall and Pitcairn. The trail would run from the Rankin Bridge to the Westmoreland Heritage Trail’s western terminus in Trafford.

“We partnered with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) and received $2.5 million to do the design and engineering for the entire corridor, which is about nine miles,” Vita said. “We’ve been doing outreach in those communities to take the three alternatives, hone in on each community and pick which route works the best in each.”

PEC is another group working to make connections, according to program manager Chris Corbran.

“There’s a really diverse group of stakeholders who want to see this project advance,” Corbran said. “Westmoreland’s parks department, and the county overall, have been pushing for this connection toward the GAP for a while.”

If completed, the connector would allow a trail user to travel, uninterrupted, from Burrell Township in Indiana County to Washington, D.C. by way of the West Penn Trail to Saltsburg; the Westmoreland Heritage Trail to Trafford (minus the final, yet-to-be-built section of that trail connecting Export and Delmont); the future Turtle Creek Connector Trail to Rankin; the GAP Trail to Cumberland, Md.; and the C&O Canal Towpath the final 185 miles into D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.

But more important than the interstate connection is the local connection through communities that have yet to realize the potential economic benefits of a major trail system.

“Right now, this would be the largest trail folks in those Turtle Creek Valley communities can access,” Vita said. “We’ve been going to community events to get some feedback, and starting in March we’ll be hosting a series of community meetings to get more input.”

Preliminary engineering work is likely to continue through April, with a final design coming into focus between May and October. Vita said Friends of the Riverfront are in the early stages of conversation with Norfolk Southern regarding roughly four miles of rail bed that would connect with the Westmoreland Heritage Trail.

It’s not the only connection the Friends group is working on.

“We’re excited to be working more with the county’s redevelopment authority on the Carrie Furnace trail, and we’re also working on a connection between the furnace and the trails at Hazelwood Green. These communities were once all connected by a road that ran to the old steel facilities, and it’ll be awesome if we can reestablish those old connections with a trail.”

Corbran agreed.

“I think most communities trying to undertake these projects look at the trails as a cog in the economic engine,” he said. “The return on that recreation and transportation investment is pretty solid, and it creates more continuity between neighboring communities.”

Vita said future community meeting dates will be announced at and on its social media pages.

Patrick Varine is a TribLive reporter covering Delmont, Export and Murrysville. He is a Western Pennsylvania native and joined the Trib in 2010 after working as a reporter and editor with the former Dover Post Co. in Delaware. He can be reached at