The saying "anything worthwhile is worth waiting for" may
well have been coined by a rail-trail builder. As America's growing community
of trail supporters, volunteers, planners and managers can attest to, trails
projects often take time. The complex legal, financial and political issues
surrounding land ownership and conversion have seen some trails projects take
20 years or more, from vision to fruition.
About 30 miles south of Chicago, in Cook County, Ill.,
trail advocates are this week celebrating a breakthrough moment in the
long-awaited development of the Old Plank Road Trail.
The initial sections of the Old Plank were built in 1997,
along the out-of-service Michigan Central Rail Road line. It has since become part of
a larger trail known as the Grand Illinois Trail, looping 500 miles through
northern Illinois between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.
Like many longer trails systems, however, the Grand Illinois
Trail has been plagued by a number of missing links--sections of the route
without a dedicated non-motorized pathway, where riders and hikers are forced to
use road or sidewalk. Over the years, these missing links have been filled in
as money and planning allowed.
However, none was more tricky than a short section of less
than a mile through the city of Chicago Heights. For the last decade, a
continual series of efforts failed to bring about a non-motorized trail along a
.8-mile stretch that would have extended the Old Plank Road Trail from where it
abruptly ended at Western Avenue, east to an extensive trail system at Thorn
Creek and, eventually, to Indiana and the Chicago lakefront via the Pennsy
Greenway and Burnham Greenway Trail.
Finally, the end is in sight, with the news this month that
the city of Chicago Heights has signed off on a preliminary engineering report
for a multi-use trail across the missing link, an event that supporters are
describing as an "all systems go" announcement.
As advocates note, it took the terms of four Chicago Height
mayors to reach this point. Current Mayor David Gonzalez's commitment to the project continued
the momentum generated by his predecessor, Alex Lopez, and Alderman Willie
White. Both Lopez and White have since passed away. The completion of the Old
Plank Road Trail will be just part of both men's significant legacy.
A federal Communities Putting Prevention to Work grant paid
for an Active Transportation Plan for the community, creating widespread
acknowledgment of the need for more biking and walking infrastructure in the
area. Design costs and the budget for construction have been secured by a
Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement grant, recognition of trails' tremendous value not only as recreational amenities but also vital transportation
solutions in urban areas.
A community working bee late last year in a park at Thorn
Creek (right), which was attended by Mayor Gonzalez, was seen by locals as a
key moment in galvanizing community energy for the project.
"Connecting communities is where trails meet the 'triple
bottom line' - economic impact, environmental stewardship, and health and
wellness," says Steve Buchtel, executive director of Trails for Illinois.
"Connecting this historic city to the region's trail network enhances nearly
every initiative the city is undertaking, including community wellness
programs, bike and pedestrian planning, and a new downtown transit center."
Despite the project looking decidedly like a "no-brainer,"
Buchtel is conscious that behind every champagne cork moment like this is a
core of dedicated people who kept pushing even when there was barely a light at
the end of the tunnel. He made special mention of the Illinois Department of
Natural Resources, and the National Parks Service Rivers, Trails and
Conservation program for continuing to support the project even as it fell in
and out of political favor.
"They were stalwart advocates to finish this trail, even as
at those times when the city was difficult to work with," he says. "They showed
patience and perseverance, making their case and waiting for the leadership in
Chicago Heights to start connecting the trail's benefits with their residents'
Opposition to the trail came in part from residents who
believed that a pathway through the historically poor neighborhood on the south
side of Chicago Heights would encourage additional criminal activity in the
area. It is a refrain familiar to urban trail proponents. In cities across the
country, countless trail projects have been held up by the unfounded concerns
that opening up depressed, underserved sections of the city will present a
public safety hazard to trail users and neighborhoods nearby.
Yet time and time again, the opposite occurs. Increased foot
traffic and community activity has been shown to decrease crime and delinquency,
and as trail users, local residents and businesses develop "ownership" of the
trail, improvement projects and maintenance transform neglected areas with
gardens, parks, murals, orchards and markets.
As a local resident, Diane Banta, who works for the
National Park Service Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program, has tremendous enthusiasm for what the completed trail will bring to the people of Chicago
Heights, and the broader region.
"It will serve an incredibly important public health
purpose by encouraging walking and biking, and it will provide the
connectivity that all communities these days are striving for," Banta says.
"Not only that, but it makes Chicago Heights the hub of all this trails
activity. It's really very exciting."
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is excited to be a part of this
transformation. This year we will be using funds from our Metropolitan Grants
Program, funded by The Coca-Cola Foundation, to install a number of benches
along the trail and help with the establishment of a trailside garden.
Photo of working bee at Thorn Creek courtesy of Diane Banta.
Photo of Old Plank Road Trail by RTC.
Map courtesy of dnr.state.il.us