Knoxville's already extensive greenway system is about to grow as the Great Smoky Mountains Regional Greenway Council anticipates completing the first section of a larger greenway initiative that aims to connect Knoxville to the Smoky Mountains.

Ellen Zavisca, senior transportation planner of the Knoxville Regional Transportation Planning Organization, said the greenway system could be a regional draw and help bring environmental, health and economic benefits.

A connection that will run from Neyland Drive and then branch across "Buck" Karnes Bridge and end at Marine Park should be finished by next year, said Zavisca. She added that the county is working on its design for the next segment now and may start construction within the next two years.

The remainder of greenway paths that will connect Knoxville to the Blount County line will be built by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) when Alcoa Highway is widened, but it is unclear when that will begin.

"TDOT is a big highway project and there are a lot of hoops to jump through," said Zavisca.

The council has done some planning on how to connect paths from the Knox and Blount county line to Alcoa's greenway network, and is working on another plan on how to get from Alcoa to Maryville and then east to Townsend, said Zavisca. She said it is harder to say when construction will begin on these connections, however, because, unlike the segments that connect Knoxville to the Blount County line, funding has yet to be found.

When completed, the greenway system will provide an alternative route to the Smoky Mountains from Knoxville that might be attractive to outdoor enthusiasts.

"I think it will draw people from around the region," said Zavisca.

If the paths are a regional attraction, they could have economic benefits as well, added Zavisca. Employers may also find them attractive because employees could live in an area with outdoor space. The trails could encourage people to be more active and spend more time outdoors, which would have health benefits.

Sometimes the trails were built through heavily trashed areas, said Carol Evans, executive director of the Legacy Parks Foundation.

"It's not a trail for a trail's sake. It's a trail for the purpose of making the community a better place," said Zavisca.

Considering the nearly 50 miles of existing greenways in Knoxville, Zavisca could be right. Construction and ongoing maintenance of the paths and trails around Knoxville has helped to clean up messy areas, and even the watershed to an extent.

"(The) Ijams and Ross Marbles trails needed a lot of cleanup when they were put in," said Evans.

The initial construction helped to clean those areas, and the people who now use the trails regularly are generally conscious of removing their waste. Some of this environmental awareness comes from engaging the local community in maintenance projects.

Although the bulk of maintenance responsibility is left to the Knoxville Department of Public Service, and more specifically to the horticulture, construction and facilities divisions, the department has a limited staff and often works with volunteers.

"The more help we can get, the better," said David Brace, deputy director.

The city provides materials and support to the volunteers, and the volunteers help with a variety of projects that can include painting bridges and installing riprap rock, said Brace. Volunteers include church groups, residents, initiatives such as "Keep Knoxville Beautiful," and organizations like AmeriCorps, Legacy Parks Foundation and the Appalachian Mountain Biking Club (AMBC).

The AMBC is one of the most involved volunteer groups. Not only does the club maintain trails, it is often involved in trail-building projects. The club attends trail-building schools and staff personnel rely on the AMBC for expertise, said Evans. The biking club had a major hand in the design and construction of trails along the South Loop.

By volunteering in the natural areas, people in the community may help to further reduce the amount of trash in the creeks and rivers around Knoxville as well. Most of the litter getting into the watershed is not being thrown by people using the greenways, but comes from passing cars, and is usually fast food related, said Brace. Since people are interacting with the water by being on the greenways, it makes them more conscious and they may be motivated to educate others or clean up.

"Why do people like Knoxville?" asked Brace. "You look out your window and you've got green."

In addition to the environmental and health benefits that the greenways promote, there is little crime.

"Our greenways have been amazingly safe," said Brace.

Carol Evans said that "interestingly, crime rates on the greenways and trails are less than at shopping malls."

With the crime rate so low, there is plenty of room for many activities along the trails and greenways, including Knoxville's "Urban Annual Adventure Race," guided hikes at Ijams, trail runs with the Knoxville Track Club and group bike rides with the AMBC. When the weather is good, there could be up to 100 people on the ride, said Evans.

Knoxville's greenways already connect different areas of the city and county that other cities do not necessarily have.

"I think from a greenway connection standpoint we are in great shape compared to Chattanooga or Asheville," said Brace.

Evans added that Chattanooga and Asheville have done a better job of promoting their greenways, but that Knoxville has more, and that they are more accessible. Additionally, she said that people from Chattanooga would say Knoxville has more potential because of its proximity to the Smoky Mountains.

The initiative to connect Knoxville to the Smoky Mountains will extend the local greenway system and connect regional communities. Supporters say it will provide miles of extra space for recreationists and could help local economies while promoting a better quality of life for those who live in the surrounding communities.