For around fifteen years, an ardent group of supporters has worked to realize a 24.5 mile multi-use rail trail between Urbana-Champaign and Kickapoo State Park. The group of supporters is spearheaded by a committee of the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation (CCDC). The CCDC is working with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, and the Vermillion County Conservation District to make this all happen.
The trail would start at East of Prairie School at Smith Road in Urbana and then largely parallel Route 150 until you get to 1180 East, at the Vermillion County fairgrounds just to the West of Danville. The end of the trail is also right next to Kickapoo State Park, a popular destination for C-U residents looking for outdoor activities. The unused rail line, formerly the Pekin Secondary Track, is owned by CSX. The property has been "rail banked," which means that it is limited to railroad or trail uses.
Agreeing with CSX on a price for the unused rail line seems to be the sticky part of this effort. Sources say that CSX is looking for roughly $3 million, but that may be beyond what the trail advocates are able to make happen. Absent a clear purchase price from CSX, a $92,000 preliminary study is being completed by the firm of Sodemann and Associates to flush out the rough planning and costs associated with the trail.
The $92,000 was paid from $530,000 in earmarked federal transportation funds secured by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Because the earmarked funds are federal transportation dollars, the Illinois DOT is administering the funds distribution. It's the IL DOT that requires the preliminary study and public info sessions (thank you IL DOT). In addition to the public funds, CCDC has been able to raise approximately $100,000 in private donations over the last 12 years. Dirk Mol of the CCDC estimates that the total cost of buying and building the trail will be between $5–10 million. The source for the balance of the funding required to complete the project — assuming the property can be purchased from CSX — is still to be determined, and the trail may end up getting completed in phases as money becomes available. It's also unclear at this time whether the path would be paved or unpaved, although most mentions of the proposed trail describe it as having a crushed limestone surface.
For those that crave more data, on September 22nd and 24th between 4 and 7 p.m. there will be public info sessions (pdf) presenting the preliminary study completed by Sodemann and Associates. Unfortunately for Urbana-Champaign residents, the sessions are being held in the Homer Lake Forest Preserve and the Oakwood library, respectively. This is a bit of a haul, especially for those vehicularly-challenged folks. For those that want to send in their comments, you can contact Ellen Hedrick at Sodemann and Associates at 352-7688 or email her at the address on the info sessions flier. If any of the presentation material makes it online, I'll post a link in the comments following this article.
Hearing about these info sessions got me thinking about my past experiences with multi-use paths. The previous two cities I lived in had had some sort of off-road trail system, either along highway right-of-ways or vacant rail beds. In Tallahassee, Fla., during my days as an undergraduate I often rode the St. Marks Trail. The trail bumps right into the South side of downtown Tallahassee and heads out into nothingness (not that different from CU except that instead of corn, there are rows of planted pine trees).
For those intrepid enough to bike the entire 40-plus mile round trip, the trail eventually gets to the coast and a beautiful state park. I personally used the trail to access some mountain biking south of town. For my road biking, I usually stuck to the roads as they were pretty vacant south of Tallahassee. I called up some Tallahassee friends, and they attest that the St. Marks Trail still gets lots of recreational users of the park-and-ride variety.
My next experience with off road multi-use paths was in Connecticut. My home was less than one-half mile from a paved path that ran parallel to I-84. This path connected lots of residential areas to several industrial and employment centers. Someone from Urbana-Champaign might expect the path would be clogged with commuters and recreational users, but unfortunately the path was largely devoid of traffic. This may have something to do with Connecticut (and the Hartford area) being close to the national average for non-vehicular trips (less than one percent).
While I lived in Connecticut, I would generally use the trail for running and walking. Many parts of the trail were too damaged by tree roots to make road biking enjoyable, but I would occasionally ride the path if I was out late (and forgot lights) or riding with an inexperienced friend. During the harsh New England winters, the path was a boon to snowmobilers who found my presence as a walker or jogger quite surprising.
Now I'll lay out a bulleted list of pros and cons that I've come up with relative to the Kickapoo Bike Trail. It would be great if readers can offer their own multi-use / rail trail experiences in the comments and complement the list of pros and cons.
- A geographic feature of interest — This alone will increase Urbana-Champaign's livability ranking in national polls. Not having rivers and hills significantly debits U-C in the minds of outsiders and media conglomerates. This trail could ever so slightly even the score. (credit to Cynthia Hoyle for this positive attribute)
- Rail trail kudos — People like these in other places, they'll like it here too. It will be well used!
- A large (long?) local park — The trail will be a park local to U-C that doesn't take 10 minutes to traverse from end to end. Those that are burnt out on Busey Woods can expand their routine.
- A gateway drug for soon-to-be active transportation converts — Tentative cyclists and walkers will get comfortable on the rail trail and before you know it, they're riding to Schnucks for groceries and walking to the downtown restaurants. Rejoice!
- Healthy Recreation Opportunities — The entire premise of the park requires athletic activity. You go to the park to walk, bike, or roller blade, not to sit next to your car and grill fatty burgers.
- Rail Corridor Preservation — Multi-use paths tend to preserve the right of way along the rail corridor, better than the railroad itself. If ever a train between CU and Danville made economic sense, the corridor would still exist in whole. Unfortunately, they would have to pry it from the cold dead hands of the fanatical trail users. Per Tim Barlett of the CCDC, "Railbanking law allows for interim use by others for limited purposes including multiuse trails. There are limited situations where the rail company can acquire the corridor for rail purposes — this is regulated by the Surface Transportation Board."
- Nature Corridor — A multi-use path reserves a nature corridor between Kickapoo and the natural areas and parks in northeast Urbana. The corridor has been fallow for a while now and has a healthy helping of small trees and underbrush. Natural corridors that connect larger wildlife friendly areas are all the rage now in environmental circles. Its time that Urbana-Champaign gets one!
- Connections between Cities — The multi-use path would connect Urbana-Champaign to other smaller cities strung along the unused rail line on the way to Kickapoo State Park. Development and economic prosperity at the trail nodes would theoretically be increased. These cities include St. Joseph, Ogden, Fithian, Oakwood, and almost Danville — but not quite.
- But it's not that interesting — The scenery along the proposed trail is nothing to write home about. It's pretty flat and there is not much to see until you get to Kickapoo State Park. You would get more trees than you would see along rural country roads, but that's about it.
- Underused? — Maybe not that many people will use it. What's going to draw them out there? If the trail is unpaved, will cyclists use it at all? If the trail is under used, do the bicycling advocates look like supporters of a wasteful pork barrel project?
- About those Connections — The "connections" to smaller cities aren't that significant. The number of people riding the full length will be small, and more likely the trail will be used by recreational walkers and cyclists that won't go more than a few miles from the parking lot.
- There is a Good Alternative — There is a nearly vacant paved road just north of I-74 (1700 N, highlighted above) that parallels this planned path and goes all the way to Kickapoo. Why spend money on a multi-use path when there is something already serving some of the same purpose?
- The Money Could Go Somewhere Better — The money and advocacy capital spent on this project could be put towards projects that affect more cyclists and tax payers. Urban and near-urban Complete Streets projects actually have an impact on transportation infrastructure. For example a focused advocacy effort could push IDOT to build more bike / ped accomodations into the I-74 and I-57 highway crossings.
- Using Transportation Funding for a Park — Realistically, this linear path won't be used much at all for transportation. The majority of the usage will be recreational. When transportation funding is spent on a recreational project it makes a lot of fiscal conservatives steaming mad. It is also likely to create political enemies that oppose funding for Complete Streets improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians, because they lump all bike / ped projects together. Is it a good idea to provide more ammunition for this line of thinking?
- Increased single occupancy vehicle trips — Most of the walkers and many of the riders on the trail will drive to the trail heads in order to utilize the path. This will increase vehicular trips, but may in the long term win a few active transportation converts — fingers crossed.
After considering these pros and cons, I'm still on the fence about supporting the Kickapoo Bike Trail. Due to my hopeless waffling I'm counting on the Smile Politely readers to help sway me one way or another. This is a hot issue out there for multi-use trail advocates, walkers, bicycle commuters, bird watchers, transportation planners, internet trolls, and parks department folks. I'd like to know what you think. Start your commenting ... now!