Downriver Linked Greenways trail system to connect 25 miles, 21 communities

Hannah Mackay
The Detroit News

Friends of the Detroit River are filling in the gaps of a 25-mile greenways system that stretches from Flat Rock to Detroit with a $4 million federal grant.

The group received the grant to connect gaps in the Downriver Linked Greenways trail system. They are partnering with Downriver Linked Greenways and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation to link Flat Rock and Detroit with a continuous trail network.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, helped secure the federal funds, which will be used in addition to $2.1 million from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, bringing the project's total funding to more than $6 million.

The Downriver Linked Greenways trail system connects more than 5,000 acres of parkland and is part of several regional connectivity efforts, including the Iron Belle trail and the Great Lakes Way. The Iron Belle trail will eventually connect the Ironwood community in the western Upper Peninsula to Belle Isle in Detroit and the Great Lakes Way aims to link Lake Huron with Lake Erie. 

“It's not just about walking and biking and the recreational aspects,” said JJ Tighe, Director of Parks & Trails at the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. “Every day that we see these improvements in our public spaces, it improves the quality of life for the residents that live near them.”

The project has been in the works since 2017, when Downriver Linked Greenways received a grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation. 

“There are 25 miles of trails between Flat Rock and Detroit. Of that, there are about 3.5 miles of gaps and it's a 10th of a mile here, a quarter of a mile there,” said Mary Bohling, director of Downriver Linked Greenways. “For the most part, they’re very small gaps but they're difficult gaps, and that's why there's still gaps today because they're very challenging, require a lot of different engineering.”

The previous grant allowed Downriver Linked Greenways to plan and design how all the trails would be connected, Bohling said. In some cases, they had to secure additional easements from private property owners or figure out ways to cross railroad tracks and busy intersections. 

“We're going to fill those gaps. We're going to make intersection improvements at 22 intersections throughout that 25-mile corridor.” Bohling said. “We're going to put in some signage so that people, whether they're in Detroit, or River Rouge, or all the way in Flat Rock, it's clear to them that they're all continuing to be on the same trail.”

The Downriver Linked Greenways trail system combines sidewalks in highly urbanized communities and off-road paths. Most of the trail gaps that they plan to fill are in urbanized areas and will use sidewalks, Bohling said. 

“In most cases, there are sidewalks on both ends of those gaps ... we're just going to continue that along," she said. “Ultimately, would we love to have all off-road facilities ... that's our goal."

Bike lanes follow the trail in Ecorse and River Rouge, and plans include installation of more through Wyandotte, Trenton and Riverview, Bohling said.

The trail system will connect 21 communities with the Detroit River Wildlife Refuge, Huron Clinton Metro Parks and the Joe Louis Greenway, Tighe said. It will provide outdoor recreation for people in those communities, attract visitors to them and provide opportunities for economic development, Tighe said.

Mary Bowling, vice chair of Friends of the Detroit River, along the river walkway at John D. Dingell Park in Ecorse, Michigan on February 24, 2023.

“These opportunities and providing access to them in neighborhoods across the city I think is really important,” Tighe said of Detroit's Joe Louis Greenway.

Communities can promote businesses along the more urban sections of the trail and encourage people to visit their downtown areas, Tighe said.

The Downriver Linked Greenways trail system is one of several outdoor recreational projects in Detroit. Construction on two sections of the Detroit Riverwalk is expected to conclude this year, and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, which is also financially supported by the foundation, is expected to open in 2024.

Michelle and Leonard St. Pierre of Flat Rock cross over a bridge along the Detroit River in Elizabeth Park in Trenton, Michigan, on February 24, 2023.

Bohling expects to get the federal funds this spring and hopes to break ground on the trails by the spring 2024. Construction likely will take from one year to 18 months to complete, she said.