The economics of trail building

While it is entirely possible to build a trail with no budget – by building some afternoons, weekends and relying on volunteers, most big projects completed today are done as contracts and with budgets writes AmaRider’s Meurant Botha.

How much will it cost?

This is certainly not an easy question when it comes to trail building, as you are not dealing with exact volumes and quantities as you would when constructing a house off plans. Is it wet, steep, sandy, inaccessible or far from the closest contractor? Would you need bridges or other interventions to make the route passable? Would you need new fences and gates to manage animals or people?

We are currently building extensive sections of bench cut singletrack to access large tracts of forest made up of invasive species and the vegetation type plays a major role in the cost per kilometre. In pine stands you are dealing with a soft wood that cuts easily, while in a dense wattle plantation you can really get held up with hard, dry material that needs serious chainsaw intervention.

Due to these wide ranging cost influences, I have long advocated that contractors and clients rather revert to a day rate instead of trying to come to a ‘per kilometre’ rate. Experienced trail crews will be able to gauge the time frame involved with a project and therefor the client can budget and plan for a build accordingly. The day rate covers the expenses like labour, vehicles, tools, team management as well as profit margin for the contractor.

Singletrack construction is currently costing anything from R12 000 to R25 000 per kay depending on terrain. If you are brush-cutting a few existing cattle paths you can probably go as low as R5 000/km, but if you need to bring in clay, it could be as high as R50 000/km.

A quick look at the budgets of big trail systems like Karkloof, Jonkershoek and Tygerberg will show annual investments upwards from R200 000 per annum. Being involved in the new Knorhoek Valley trail system has given us a very accurate handle on costs as we are building with an in-house crew. Over the past seven months we have invested more than 110 trail build days with a team of eight to ten. This gives us roughly 1 000 man-days at R140 – R150 per day! Then there are vehicle costs, supervision, chainsaws, brush-cutters etc. Trail building is certainly not cheap!

How do I bring the cost down?

The easiest way to keep the cost down is to design the route to first incorporate sections where the construction costs will not go through the roof. Perhaps a good rule is to first test the popularity of the trail system before investing in expensive trail zones.

Hybrid-contracting is another way to keep costs down by supplying additional labour to the contractor. On a farm this could be during a quiet time in between harvests or a club could look at volunteer projects. On many schemes, we have done skill development projects where we teach local labourers to build and maintain the trail. This is by far the most cost-effective and sustainable long term solution.

While a contractor might sound like an expensive option, nothing is more expensive than building it wrong! A reputable trail builder with an experienced team will cut trail at a rate that you cannot believe. Work with your contractor to keep a handle on the costs, determine which components can be done in-house and leave the contractor to do the expensive and expert components like design and the initial cut.

A word on maintenance

A good rule of thumb is that your trail system will require maintenance of between 10-20% of construction cost per annum. Contour singletracks in clay soil with good water management can be maintained for half that, but a heavily used downhill track though sandy fynbos could easily be double the cost to maintain.

Revenue

Considering the cost of trail construction it should not require a mathematician to realise that a R30 – R50 permit is a difficult way to recoup some of your investment, unless you are close to a major centre and can attract over 500 riders a weekend. And not many trail system are drawing these numbers.

Tourism initiatives should see the trail as an asset to supplement existing guest-house or restaurant infrastructure or as an enabler that could facilitate the hosting of events. The expense of establishing and operating a trail system is one of the reasons why one sees quite a few mountain bike clubs stepping up as trail owners and developers as they can do so without the profit monster guiding all decisions. Most large US and Canadian trail systems are operated by non-profits and it is nice to see local clubs stepping up and operating some of our best riding sites.

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