For years, Anniston leaders talked about extending the Chief Ladiga Trail deeper into the city and building bicycle lanes downtown.

They're not just talking anymore.

The Anniston City Council on Monday approved preliminary engineering work for bicycle lanes downtown and the extension of the trail Baltzell Gate Road. Paid for with hundreds of thousands of dollars of state and federal grant money, the engineering signifies the first actual work on the long-awaited projects and is the precursor to construction later next year. Combined with other trail projects underway, completion of the Ladiga and bicycle lane work will help improve the area's quality of life and encourage economic development, city officials say.

"Our vision, our goal to be Bike city Alabama -- we said at the outset two years ago that it would be a journey," said Mayor Vaughn Stewart. "But now we're moving at a better pace than I expected."

City planner Toby Bennington said both projects were still on schedule, based on the city's plans. Bennington said that once the preliminary engineering begins in January, work will move quickly and then actual construction on both projects will start sometime next year.

"The last piece was to secure funding and get ALDOT approval," Bennington said, referring to the Alabama Department of Transportation.

Earlier this year, the city received more than $200,000 in state grants for engineering work on the current planned Ladiga extension and the rest of the 7.2 miles needed to bring the trail into downtown. The engineering work includes preliminary designs that show where the trail will be placed.

At present, the 33-mile Chief Ladiga Trail, created from abandoned rail lines, ends at Mike Tucker Park, just inside the Anniston city limits.

The city's plan for next year is to extend the trail from the park south, then east to Alabama 21 at Baltzell Gate Road — bringing the trail further into Anniston.

Also in January, the city will start similar engineering work on its year-old bicycle and pedestrian plan. The plan includes adding bicycle lanes and signs on four miles of road through downtown. The engineering work will be paid for with around $200,000 from the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission. The planning organization is a federally funded agency responsible for handling transportation projects throughout the county.

Bennington said it is still unknown when both projects will be completed.

"That schedule will be worked out during the preliminary engineering process," Bennington said.

Already underway is construction on the city's four-block-long Wellness Park and Trail in west Anniston. The city broke ground in November on the $437,000 federally-funded park and trail, which is set to one day connect to the Chief Ladiga. The park will extend from 13th Street to 17th Street and feature exercise equipment and a wide trail to accommodate runners, walkers and cyclists.

Meanwhile, construction is underway on approximately 20 miles-worth of mountain biking trails at Coldwater Mountain. Coldwater currently has about 25 miles of trails. Also, the city received a $100,000 state grant in October to build 6 miles of trail eastward toward Anniston.

Stewart said the ultimate idea is to bring the trail systems into downtown and connect with the bicycle lanes, turning the city into a cycling hub.

"That's our goal, to be bike-friendly and encourage economic development and better quality of life," Stewart said. "Study after study shows you reap benefits from investing in quality of life ... it attracts jobs and industry."

Brandy Ezelle, traffic engineer and bicycle coordinator for the city of Auburn, said the city's bicycle initiative has helped it develop a better quality of life over the years.

"Definitely around our downtown core ... you definitely see a lot of cyclists," Ezelle said. "We have a very active cycling community here in Auburn."

Auburn began its bicycle inititative in the late 1990s and has been adding cycling lanes and trails ever since. Those plans are similar to Anniston's. Also, like Anniston, Auburn got much of the funding for its bicycle initiative from grant money, Ezelle said.

Ezelle said the growth of cycling has helped stimulate Auburn's downtown businesses.

"Cyclists tend to be loyal to the same establishments," Ezelle said.

Ezelle noted that as the bicycling initiative has grown, the city has placed more emphasis on safety. For instance, every fourth grader in Auburn is required to take a bicycle safety course.

Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, said developing a better quality of life in Anniston will make his job of recruiting industry easier.

"A company's decision to locate is never based on one thing, but quality of life is always a component when they're making decisions," Hopper said. "Quality of life needs to be there, especially when you're trying to get people to move to the community and keep talented people there."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.