Funding to design the next phase of the Barnegat Branch Trail, which runs through South Toms River to the southern portions of Ocean County, has been approved by the Ocean County Board of Freeholders.
The funding ordinance, for $600,000, draws on funding the county has budgeted for this year, Freeholder John Bartlett said.
That piece, Phase V, covers 2.4 miles from Oyster Creek to Lacey Road. It is expected to be the most complex part of the trail because of multiple road crossings needed and because of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station.
The trail, expected to be 15.6 miles long and run from South Toms River to Barnegat when all of the phases are completed, has been finished in some areas -- from Waretown to the trail's southern end in Barnegat, and a stretch in Berkeley Township -- but Lacey is the most difficult stretch of the trail, in part because of the battle the rail trail north of Lacey Road.
Some groups have been pushing to turn that section of the trail into a bypass road to ease traffic congestion on Route 9, while others insist it should be used only for the Barnegat Branch Trail. The township has asked the Department of Environmental Protection for a permit to build a road there, state officials have said.
During public comment on the ordinance, just one person spoke, saying he felt safety issues were being ignored, particularly in terms of human predators and animal ones.
"There have been cougar sightings in Manalapan," said Ray Kalanikas, a former Toms River resident and longtime government critic.
Freeholder James Lacey, who has spearheaded the trail effort from its start, said those using the trail are plenty safe, noting that much of the trail passes homes and businesses where someone can get help in an emergency if they don't happen to be carrying a cell phone.
"There are people's homes that are very close to it, and they watch it," Lacey said, adding those designing the trails have spent a great deal of time working on the design and researching other pedestrian and bicycle paths to decide the best options.
"These trails are very popular and are getting a lot of use, and that use is increasing as the trail gets longer," Lacey said.
The county expects to reveal specifics on the design of Phase V at next week's pre-board meeting, officials said.