The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline has gotten pretty heated and Kinder Baumgardner has an idea to cool the emotions: a really long bike path.
The creative director for the SWA Group, an Houston-based architectural firm that designed Google Inc.’s corporate campus, says building the lane along Keystone’s path through the country’s mid-section could turn what is now a source of rancor into a tourist attraction.
The firm sent a letter Oct. 17 pitching the plan to the State Department and TransCanada Corp. (TRP), the pipeline’s sponsor. Its illustrations show scenes of smiling bicyclists riding over buried pipe and by a farmer’s market, Native American teepees, cows, sunflower fields -- and a protester in a tree.
“If you’re the average American, you live on the coasts in a city,” he said in an interview. “You’re not going to meet a rancher. You’ll never meet a Native American. You’re not going to meet an oilman. The stuff in the middle of the country gets overlooked.”
While the illustrations are tongue-in-cheek, Baumgardner insists the idea isn’t: making Keystone more palatable by creating a “recreational corridor” along its right of way.
“If it was built, how could you make it better for the population?” he said his creative team asked. “To us, it was ridiculous that you would go through all the effort and it would have only one use.”
Local officials have sought in recent years to turn eyesores into attractions, perhaps most famously in Manhattan where an old freight rail line on the west side was converted into the High Line park.
In Texas, SWA is working to build bike paths underneath power lines owned by CenterPoint Energy Inc. (CNP:US) It already turned a polluted waterway into a scenic promenade called the Buffalo Bayou.
Keystone, which would stretch over 1,300 miles if a southern leg from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast is included, would be on a different scale. TransCanada has asked for permission to build the pipeline to connect the oil sands of Alberta with refineries along the gulf.
Critics of Keystone reacted with a certain amount of incredulity to the idea.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Jane Kleeb, the executive director of Bold Nebraska, which opposes Keystone because it says it could pollute water and farm and ranch land in Nebraska. “Why would anyone who cares about the environment want to ride on top of a pipeline that ruins the environment? The person who developed this is so out of touch with reality.”
“This seems like it should be in The Onion or something,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, a lobbyist with the League of Conservation Voters, said in an e-mail. “Seriously, this can’t be for real.”
Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada, said he had not heard of the idea before being contacted by a reporter. He also wasn’t enthusiastic.
“To make sure we can maintain or access the pipeline, permanent structures couldn’t be built in the easement,” he said. “We do not own the land that the pipeline easement is for.”
Baumgardner said permanent structures typically refer to buildings and not asphalt or leveled soil. Hotels could be built adjacent to the path, he said.
The price tag could reach $400 million, which would pay for the bike lane, “interpretive elements” along the route, and the team of designers, cultural experts, economists and engineers to put the whole thing together, Baumgardner said.
SWA envisions federal, state and counties and townships partnering with TransCanada to pay for the bike lane, which communities often can’t afford on their own. The project could be included in legislation, Baumgardner said in the proposal.
The environmental controversy over the line didn’t escape SWA’s offices. Its employees in Texas, an oil state, tended to have a more favorable view on Keystone, while those in its California offices were “shocked by the thought that it would be built at all,” Baumgardner said.
Eventually all sides warmed to the idea of trying to make the project better, he said.
The State Department, which is reviewing Keystone because it crosses an international border, said it had no comment on the plan.
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