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Use of bike trails grows

State’s pathways now considered more than recreation

by Chris Young

When Lynn Miller eases into the seat of his recumbent bike and heads down the Interurban Trail between Springfield and Chatham, he’s putting a lot more than miles behind him.

That’s because getting the thin ribbon of asphalt to stretch 8.71 miles between the two communities took years. Planning started back in the mid-’90s. Then it took a second heroic effort to keep the link from being severed shortly after it opened.

“Thank God it worked out the way it did,” Miller says. “For a while, we thought the trail was going to be a goner.”

The story of the Interurban Trail illustrates just how much effort it can take to build every single mile of recreational trail. It shows how those who are trying to improve the state’s system of bicycle trails need patience and perseverance in trying to get drivers to become more accepting of bicycle traffic.

Twenty-five years ago, bike trails were considered recreational paths that went from point A to point B. But as thinking about trails evolved, they came to be seen as alternatives for transportation that could link communities together.

And that’s where things get more involved, says Dick Westfall, greenways and trails section manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. “Today, they are seen as much more than one-dimensional recreational facilities.”

Miller says a lot goes through his mind when he rides down the Interurban Trail. He often thinks about how he and Bill Donels, a co-member of the Springfield Bicycle Club, attended dozens of meetings concerning its fate. Miller and Donels served as legislative co-chairs of the club.

“When we got to 100 meetings, I stopped counting,” says Donels.

They met with fellow bicycle club members and representatives of city, state and federal governments. “But that was what we had to do to impress upon the bureaucracy that bicycling is here to stay, and we needed that trail,” he says. “And we needed a solution to the impact of cutting it in half.”

It would seem to be fairly easy for bicyclists and cycling issues to be left behind in our hurry-up, fast food culture.

Illinois ranks 21st in the 2010 Bicycle Friendly State Rankings, according to the League of American Bicyclists, down from No. 9 in 2009. The rankings consider efforts related to legislation, education, infrastructure and other benchmarks.

Behind any advances are bicycling advocates who have devoted countless behind-the-scenes hours.

Some work on intensely local projects, as Miller and Donels have. Others labor at the policy level, fighting to ensure that bicycling remains a transportation option — and making sure that cyclists and pedestrians don’t disappear from long-range plans.

Illinois is one of 33 states to have a public safety campaign such as “Share the Road,” says Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists. The state also has passed a law requiring motorists to allow at least 3 feet when passing a bicyclist. Bikes are mentioned in the state driving manual, and Illinois even has a question about bicycles on its driver’s license test, Barsotti says.

A big plus for Illinois is the “Complete Streets” legislation passed in 2007. Complete Streets means bicycle and pedestrian accommodations are part of new construction projects.

“If we are going to spend the money constructing or expanding a roadway, we need to make that roadway useful for people walking and biking along or across the roadway,” Barsotti says. “This is an issue that is rising in importance.”

That’s because towns used to be laid out in a grid system of streets. Bicyclists could avoid busy thoroughfares by sticking to neighborhood routes.

“Now, subdivisions empty into arterial streets,” Barsotti says. “Big box stores, restaurants and other businesses are only accessible from major roads.”

With fewer route choices, it becomes more important for cyclists to be able to travel on main roads. Pedestrians need safe ways to cross, as well.

“If you are going to make an investment, [the beginning of a road construction project] is the cheaper time to make accommodations for people who are walking or biking.”

The Interurban Trail has had its share of challenges, almost since the beginning.

The power utility now known as Ameren CILCO originally donated an abandoned interurban rail corridor to the state for the trail, retaining an easement for utility transmission, Westfall says.

From Springfield, the intended route traveled south before passing under Interstate 72 and continuing on to Lake Springfield and then to the village of Chatham.

“There was some private property involved that led to an eminent domain dispute with a landowner,” Westfall says. “It was kind of like dueling property surveys. We ended up acquiring 1/7th of an acre that was in dispute.”

While the courts sorted things out, the other two-thirds of the trail was constructed in phases.

“We never intended to construct it or operate and maintain it,” Westfall says. “We looked for local partners. The Springfield Park District and Village of Chatham stepped up and divided the project in the middle.”

Once complete, the Interurban Trail had been open barely half a year before cyclists learned in January 2005 that it likely would be closed again.

The new challenge came right out of the blue: the blueprints for a major road extension to connect Springfield’s south-side business district with Interstate 72.

When Miller and Donels looked at the plans for the road extension, they saw the bike trail was now severed at a Norfolk & Southern railroad line near the interstate.

The existing trail crossed the railroad, but in planning for high-speed rail, the Illinois Commerce Commission was closing grade-level crossings. Instead, overpasses were being constructed to separate car and train traffic wherever possible.

But widening the bridge deck to accommodate bicycles was expensive, Westfall says, so in the new plans, the trail stopped before it got to the interstate — from either direction. Bicyclists could still travel a long, circuitous route between Chatham and Springfield, but the trail would no longer be a practical way to commute between the two communities.

The trail faced additional roadblocks where east-west streets would be built to intersect the new road in future years, creating more multilane intersections that would be difficult for families on bikes to cross. And a new commercial development — known as Legacy Pointe — was being planned for the area, so the road extension, originally designed to be four lanes, was to be widened to six.

Westfall says the lesson of the Interurban Trail is the need for partnerships that will look far beyond simply constructing a trail.

“As they became good ways for alternative transportation, and as they are now viewed as connecting communities, then this partnership approach became much more prevalent.

“And finding a way to put a trail through the landscape became much more important,” he says. “We’re not just putting a trail on an old railroad bed or levee and saying, ‘Have fun.’”

Bicycle and walking trails can serve to shape and buffer development, Westfall says. And they can provide unbroken wildlife corridors that connect habitats.

“I think you have to be more creative and opportunistic, but I think the value of these trails is much greater,” he says.

Natural Resources cannot take on a lot of new costs for infrastructure, he says. So the agency is looking for local partners to take on maintenance in perpetuity.

Communities can reap benefits from bicycling, Barsotti says, because most urban car trips are three miles or less — a reasonable distance for bike travel.

“Short [automobile] trips are disproportionate polluters,” he says. “They provide a lot of opportunity to divert them to nonmotorized trips that result in healthier people and cleaner air.”

Bicycling to run errands, for example, is an easy way to fit moderate exercise into the daily routine.

“Bicycling provides public health benefits available to anyone well into their senior years. People who get some activity every day are generally healthier and more trim,” Barsotti says.

“We see charts of obesity becoming epidemic. Public health agencies see the benefit of partnering with bike advocacy groups.”

Barsotti says regular exercise on the seat of a bicycle can produce a level of fitness equivalent to someone 10 years younger and a life expectancy two years longer than average.

Across Illinois, there are plenty of opportunities to get on a bike and ride.

“I would estimate there are more than 2,000 miles of bike trail in the state,” Westfall says. “But it grows every year.

“Then we have big projects like the Route 66 Trail that goes from Chicago to St. Louis that is mostly on road but is in little pieces. If you included that, you could add another 300 miles.

“Very little [of the Route 66 Trail] today is what you would call a bike trail.”

But there is no free ride.

Even though bike trails are fairly small potatoes compared with big highway projects, they still cost money. And with budgets under stress, competition is fierce for dollars that might be allocated to trails.

Roughly 2.5 percent of federal transportation funds go to “enhancements” such as trails, decorative lighting, sidewalks and other amenities. Nationally, bike trails get just more than half of those enhancement dollars. But Barsotti says Illinois has lagged behind the last eight years.

“In our opinion, there have been some real problems getting all the dollars out of that source that we could,” he says.

Appropriations often turn out to be more like speed limits: You can go under the limit but not over. Sometimes, fewer federal dollars are available than were approved for a project. State transportation departments may have to give back the discrepancy — a process known as rescission.

“From October 2003 to September 2009, Illinois received $164 million for transportation enhancements,” Barsotti says. “With stimulus funds, that total went up to $192 million.

“Out of that, only 107 grant awards were announced,” he says. “The remaining $82 million was returned.

“However, of that [$110 million that Illinois retained], there were a lot of projects like sidewalks in downtowns, for example, that are not useful to bikes,” he says. In the 107 grant awards, roughly $34 million went to the bicycle and pedestrian category.

There are other funding sources. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources has a state bike path grant program. And the state’s Vehicle Title Transfer Fee generates $3 million a year.

“It was a very reliable source,” Barsotti says. But state budget problems have made specially created state funds a target of “sweeps.” The Illinois General Assembly sometimes passes legislation that allows balances to be scooped out and deposited in the general fund to pay the state’s bills.

In March 2008, the General Assembly approved a sweep of the fund used for bicycle trails, Barsotti says. “In 2009, the fund was not swept, but because of the state’s cash flow issues, the grant awards have not been announced.”

Westfall says money spent on bike trails is an infinitesimal fraction of all transportation expenditures.

“You could take all the money spent on bike trails, and you wouldn’t solve the school funding problem,” he says. “And you would have less opportunity in your community than you do now.”

Building bike trails is complicated. Long trails cross multiple jurisdictions. Cities, counties, park districts, natural resources departments, transportation departments and politicians at all levels often are involved in trying to find common ground — even if that common ground only has to be a few feet wide.

Westfall says that creating bike trails today requires those partners to come together.

“Bike trails represent good examples of partnerships that provide multiple benefits,” he says. The trails are so popular that “people are out using them before the asphalt cools.”

Donels and Miller say help for the Interurban Trail came from the developer of Legacy Pointe.

Both men say Stephen Luker, a managing partner of the development, came through with a plan and donated the right-of-way to make the trail a reality.

“It’s not mentioned very often — and it should be — but the developer of Legacy Pointe was very good to work with us to reach a solution.

“It would have cost a lot more to buy right of way.”

The trail jogs to the west and actually goes around the development, and thus keeps bikes away from the main road. It then passes underneath the roadway via a concrete box culvert and then up a hill to its own railroad overpass built next to — but separated from — the one for cars.

Westfall says U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office became involved, as well, to help find a way to build the bicycle bridge over the railroad tracks.

On Memorial Day weekend, the framework of a new building stood in the middle of a large fallow field on the Legacy Pointe site. Culverts were stacked not far from the trail. Some earth-moving and drainage work is visible at the site.

“We said when [the new road] went in, the character of the Interurban would change,” says Westfall. “Before, it was kind of a sleepy trail between Springfield and Chatham.

“With all the development going in the area, it was going to be passing through more of a commercially developed area. So we said, let’s make it as safe and user friendly as possible.”

Once past Legacy Pointe and south of Interstate 72, the trail picks up its old route.

“It makes for a pleasant ride,” Donels says. “It has more trees than it did before, and people are always wanting trees.

“I think it will work out very well,” he says. “Especially for bicyclists that can go all the way to Chatham without being cut off.”

Miller has already racked up 1,500 miles on his bike in the first half of 2010. Still, those few miles of the Interurban Trail have to be especially sweet.

“We lucked into that one.”

Chris Young is the outdoors editor for the Springfield State Journal-Register.

Illinois Issues, July/August 2010

 

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