Construction now could begin in mid-2012 on Hall County's first two sections of the nearly 14-mile Central Hall Multiuse Trail.
Right-of-way and environmental plans are approved and "we're beginning acquisitions on the first phase of the trail," said Jody Woodall, a Hall civil engineer overseeing the project.
Approval of plans for a tunnel under Atlanta Highway at the state Department of Labor and the project's second phase "could come pretty much anytime," he said.
The much-anticipated project had been pegged for a December construction start, but "the environmental document took a little longer than expected to approve," Woodall said.
The work now could begin in May or June, with completion in another six to nine months, he said.
The first leg of the project will run along Atlanta Highway between Palmour Drive and near Frontage Road, including through the historic Chicopee Village. The second phase will run from the Department of Labor to near Lanier Technical and Gainesville State colleges, where a trail system is already in place.
Despite delays, "the layout and design are still the same," Woodall said. "It's just that because it's a federal aid project, we need to make sure we are following all the required guidelines to make sure we get the (federal) reimbursement."
The project's first two phases, as well as the tunnel, are expected to cost about $3 million, with $2.4 million from the federal government. Other funding is coming from the state's Transportation Enhancement program and Hall's special purpose local option sales taxes.
When completed, the trail will be 12 feet wide, which officials think should accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists traveling in both directions.
The tunnel under Atlanta Highway will basically be a box culvert that is about 10 feet tall by 10 feet wide. The distance from the road surface to the bottom of the culvert should be 12-13 feet.
The trail's designer, The Jaeger Co. in Gainesville, has worked on several similar projects across Georgia, including one completed near North Point Mall in Alpharetta that also features a tunnel.
Tunnels "first came into common use at Central Park (in New York)," said Dale Jaeger, the company's principal landscape architect and preservation planner. "It's wonderful to let the pedestrian have free rein and be safe when they are using a trail.
"We explored a bridge (as an option) and the tunnel ended up being the most feasible (structure), economically," she said.
The trail also will feature park benches and bike racks, said Todd Miller, senior landscape architect with the firm.
The Central Hall system has other proposed routes, including a "greenway connector" traveling north on McEver Road and 4.47-mile Flat Creek route.
Gainesville is developing the Midtown Greenway, a 1-mile trail that extends through midtown to Industrial Boulevard, featuring a proposed outdoor venue, benches and playground.
Urban trails have become a popular project for governments statewide, Jaeger said.
"In the last 15 years or so, there's been a lot more emphasis on communities wanting to have other options than just automobiles to get around," she said.
Officials have talked about the potential for other multiuse trails in the county, including one running through South Hall using a newly widened Spout Springs Road and Sterling on the Lake, a 1,000-acre residential development.
"What's going to be so exciting is that once a county system like Hall's links with Gwinnett County, pretty soon you'd be able to go on a bicycle ride through the whole state of Georgia," Jaeger said.
Lloyd Unnold of Chicken City Cyclists said he can foresee casual cyclists taking advantage of the trails, but serious pedalers still will use established roads to get around.
"Bicycles are legally defined vehicles and we're allowed to use the road as long as we play by the same rules as cars do," he said. "What I'd really like to see is decent (road) shoulders."
Still, he appreciates the multiuse system.
"There are a lot of folks that would be really great for," Unnold said.
Beginning cyclists can use it to build their abilities and confidence.
And "it's going to be helpful to the college, maybe get some of the students to ride their bikes and commute that way," he said.