Chicago-area bike trails on a roll
BY LORI RACKL Staff Reporterfirstname.lastname@example.org June 20, 2013 11:32PM
The Evanston Bicycle Club rides the Robert McClory Bike Trail. Photo by Lori Rackl / Sun-Times.
Updated: July 24, 2013 6:05AM
Ten years ago, a group of people got together in the south suburbs, ordered pizza and talked about creating a bike trail along the banks of the Cal-Sag Channel.
Many meetings and many pizzas later, that trail is about to be built.
Wending its way along the water for 28 miles from Lemont to Burnham, the Cal-Sag Trail will connect 14 communities, giving cyclists and walkers direct access to half a dozen commuter train stations. Like a long, linear puzzle piece, it will hook up with other regional trails, making it possible for pedalers packing plenty of Power Bars to ride a nearly 100-mile loop on protected pathways in the Southland.
“Usually trails this scale, through an area like this, are 20- and 30-year trails,” said Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois. “This trail breaks ground this October, 10 years after that first meeting. That’s pretty exciting.”
The Cal-Sag Trail is one of several major projects starting construction this year, which is shaping up to be a busy one for bike-trail development.
Work on a couple of Chicago’s big-ticket projects — the Navy Pier Flyover and the Bloomingdale Trail — is slated to begin this summer. Same goes for key safety improvements, such as the bike and pedestrian bridge going up where Busse Woods Trail crosses Higgins Road east of I-290 — the same spot an Elk Grove Village cyclist was killed in May after she was hit by a car.
The Illinois Department of Transportation is developing the state’s first bike plan that, when finished in December, should help identify where route connections and other improvements need to be made. The public is being asked to weigh in with suggestions at a meeting from 6:30 to 8 p.m. July 9 at the Thompson Center.
Cycling advocates point to the bike plan and recent trail-related budget decisions as signs that the state is shifting gears and becoming more bike-friendly. The League of American Bicyclists seems to think so. Illinois cracked the Top 10 this year in the organization’s annual ranking of bike-friendly states, coming in at No. 9.
In January, Gov. Pat Quinn awarded $49.5 million in federal transportation enhancement grants — the state’s largest source of bike-trail funding — for bike paths, walking trails, historic preservation and streetscape beautification throughout Illinois. The League of Illinois Bicyclists estimates that roughly half of that $49.5 million is aimed at bike-related projects. While the league would like to see the percentage skew higher (the national average hovers around 57 percent), executive director Ed Barsotti said it’s a vast improvement.
“When [Gov. Rod] Blagojevich came in, we dropped to 25 percent,” Barsotti said. “They just wanted to spread the dollars around more, so they picked a lot of cheaper projects, beautification projects and so on. We took a big hit.”
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources also took repeated hits, and it shows in the bike trails it manages.
“Our sites really are suffering,” said Amy Madigan, the department’s greenways and trails outreach coordinator.
The 62-mile I&M Canal Trail in the south suburbs and the 92-mile Hennepin Canal Trail in northwest Illinois haven’t recovered after being clobbered by weather damage in recent years.
“The Rock Island Trail [in Peoria] has a ridiculous amount of washouts right now,” Madigan said. “It truly is sad because we just don’t have the funding to fix those.”
The department is a far cry from where it was a little over a decade ago when it debuted the Grand Illinois Trail, a 500-plus mile loop in northern Illinois made up of roads and paths — and some meddlesome gaps. “When we opened the Grand Illinois Trail in 2002, we were really riding a high wave; there was a lot of stuff happening,” she said. “And then the dark period came.”
For several years, the natural resources department hasn’t had the dollars to help local governments build new trails through its long-standing bike path program. “It was swept and used for other things [in the state budget],” Madigan said about the path program, adding that she’s hopeful money raised from a new $2 increase in license plate renewal fees will help the department get back on its feet.
Despite some improvements, it isn’t all good news on the funding front for bike-trail fans. The federal transportation bill passed last year slashed spending on transportation enhancement grants by 30 percent. That means less money for projects applying for a piece of the upcoming pie.
Another big source of federal funding, especially for projects in the Chicago area, comes from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program, or CMAQ, which is footing the bill for much of the Navy Pier Flyover and the Bloomingdale Trail.
A Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman said groundbreaking will begin in July on the flyover, designed to make it easier for Lakefront Trail users to navigate an often treacherous stretch between the Chicago River north to Jane Addams Memorial Park.
In August, shovels will start swinging on the Bloomingdale, an elevated park and trail built on nearly 3 miles of old rail line between Ashland and Ridgeway on the Northwest Side. The project is being renamed The 606 as a tie-in to the start of all the city’s ZIP codes, but the trail will be called the Bloomingdale.
Buchtel is banking on CMAQ dollars to come through in the fall for the eastern half of the Cal-Sag Trail, which would put it on track to be finished by the end of next year.
Demand far outweighs supply when it comes to those funds and the federal transportation enhancement grants that typically cover 80 percent of a project’s cost. Local governments are on the hook for the rest. A few north suburbs have tried and failed in recent years to get CMAQ funding to extend the Skokie Valley Trail south to Chicago — a link many say would be a boon for people in Lake and northern Cook counties who want to bike to and from work.
Andrew Kass, an attorney whose clientele includes injured cyclists, commutes daily on his bike from his Highland Park home to Northbrook. Kass rides the Skokie Valley Trail until it ends at Lake Cook Road, where he has to hop onto the street for that final mile or so to his office. “I’m now actually forced to go on the sidewalk just to avoid the danger of being on the road,” Kass said. “I’d be much in favor of having an extended bike path.”
Work is underway or soon will be to plug more holes in the state’s trail network, moving the cycling community closer to that holy grail of an interconnected web of paths instead of a collection of self-contained segments that go nowhere.
“These little-bitty routes in one community don’t get you very much,” Evanston Bicycle Club President Suzie LaBelle said. “It’s when you connect things up, and we’re making progress with that. ... There are a lot of places where you just need a mile or 2 miles and you’d have a great network.”
The Cook County Forest Preserve District is putting the wheels in motion to extend the nearly 20-mile North Branch Trail that runs from Devon and Caldwell on the Northwest Side to the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Plans call for tacking on 3 miles on the south to Irene Hernandez Woods at Foster and Kostner, linking to the city’s Lakefront Trail via on-street bike lanes. On the north end, the trail will shoot an extra mile east to meet up with the Green Bay Trail and the Robert McClory, which reaches into Wisconsin.
The forest preserve district also is tying up three pieces of the Thorn Creek Trail system, linking it with Old Plank Road Trail and Burnham Greenway for an additional 5 miles of new path in Thornton, Lansing, Glenwood, Chicago Heights and Park Forest.
“A lot of these gaps, people have been working to fill them in for 10, 15 years,” said Leslie Phemister, suburban outreach manager for Active Transportation Alliance. “Now construction is starting and all that hard work is finally starting to pay off.”
In October, Illinois and Indiana officials will meet at the state line between Lansing and Munster to celebrate the long-awaited opening of the Pennsy Trail, a 15-mile route from Calumet City to Crown Point.
Work is supposed to begin later this year in Hammond to create a trail around Wolf Lake that will cut over to Chicago on 112th Street and link to Burnham Greenway, which feeds into the Lakefront Trail via on-street connections.
“It’s exciting times right now,” said Mitch Barloga, who’s in charge of bike and pedestrian trails for Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
“We had about 13 miles that were rideable back in 1990,” Barloga said about the Indiana region that covers Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. “We’re up to 130 miles at this point, and we’ll probably add another 10 this year.”
Grander plans include the Marquette Greenway, a 50-plus mile tri-state trail that would run from Chicago’s Calumet Park through Indiana and up to New Buffalo, Mich., hugging the lakeshore as much as possible.
“It’s a work in progress but it’s definitely coming along,” Barloga said, adding that he doesn’t see the recent cut in federal funding as an insurmountable roadblock to bike trail construction.
“It isn’t the money that matters; it’s the will. If the will is there, people find a way to get it done. And the will is there.”