Rail Trail Coming To East Central Illinois
Sometime later this summer the first part of the Kickapoo Rail Trail is expected to open. The bike- and running path along an old rail bed east of Urbana has been years in the making.
Right now the loudest noise you’ll hear along the new Kickapoo Rail Trail is the mechanical growl of construction equipment.
But soon the people in charge of the trail hope that the sounds of construction will give way to the sounds of footsteps and bicycle tires.
The Champaign County Forest Preserve expects the trail to open in late August. When it does, riders — and runners — will have a smooth, crushed-limestone path from Urbana to St. Joseph. The six-point-seven mile first segment is expected to be followed later by a longer link from St. Joseph to Kickapoo State Park, near Danville.
But besides the promise of a flat path free of cars, the trail also offers something else: a reason to ride through the half-dozen communities between its eventual end points, and perhaps the prospect of a few new businesses along the way.
The trail has been talked about for years. It follows the old Indianapolis, Bloomington and Western Railway line that dates to the 1800s and ran all the way to Ohio.
The Forest Preserve District oversees the trail. Planning Director Jon Hasselbring says the project started as a conversation among members of the private Champaign County Design and Conservation Group.
That was long ago. And St. Joseph Mayor Tami Fruhling-Voges says that for years it sounded like little more than a pipe dream.
“Matter of fact, I think a lot of people speculated that maybe it would never happen just because it seemed like a lot of obstacles in the way", said Fruhling-
Hasselbring acknowledges it was a slow process.
“They worked for many years, contacting the railroad company and working to actually acquire the property", said
But now the opening date, at least for that first segment, is in sight.
So what will people see and hear?
Hasselbring says if you start on the trail in St. Joseph, you won’t travel more than few hundred yards before you hit one of the high points.
“The first highlight would be the Salt Fork River crossing," said Hasselbring. "There’s an existing bridge that the railroad used to use to cross the river, a pretty neat pedestrian bridge, pedestrian truss bridge.”
Heading west, he says, you’ll soon be out in the open, gliding by farm fields. Hasselbring says the park district is paying attention to what grows along this corridor, and what once grew here.
“It also brings an opportunity for us to take a look at this existing rail corridor, look at some of the prairie species that existed here even pre-settlement and do what we can to tell that story and help to restore some of those prairie plants," said Hasselbring.
Hasselbring says they include Columbine and dwarf larkspur.
But the trail’s backers say its potential isn’t just in providing a new place to ride, run or walk.
Other rail trails in Missouri, Wisconsin and elsewhere have funneled customers to existing businesses and even inspired some new ones. Fruhling-Voges says businesses around the eastern trailhead in downtown St. Joseph should benefit.
“Within the same block of the trail, we have a little coffee shop that also has ice cream, and we have two other restaurants that are right there, a very unique winery", said Fruhling-
One restaurant is new. Abbie Layden-Rogiers and her husband, chef Ryan Rogiers, opened The Wheelhouse this year and decorated its interior with the trail in mind.
“Yeah, there’s bikes all over the place. It’s all bicycles," said Ms. Layden-Rogiers.
Abbie says they hope people who live at the other end of the trail become a big part of their customer base.
“You know, it’s only about six and a half, seven miles on the trail," said Mr. Layden-Rogiers. "We thought we could serve our community but also be kind of a destination restaurant for Urbana and Champaign folks.”
The day when customers can pedal from Urbana to the Wheelhouse appears to be less than two months away.
When building starts on the rest of the trail is harder to say. Money is still being raised for the remainder of the Champaign County portion. Money for the Vermilion County portion is being held up the state’s budget impasse.
Fruhling-Voges says most people she hears from are excited about the trail. But she acknowledges there are skeptics.
For one, some say, given the state’s financial difficulties, does the area really need a miles-long bike path?
The mayor, who calls herself a fiscal conservative, points out a couple of things.
Only about 3 percent of the trail’s costs come from state money. And both those grants and the federal grants that cover the bulk of costs are dedicated funding.
They can’t be used to pay for, say, pension costs. Or highways. Or social services.
And Fruhling-Voges says that if that money wasn’t helping build a trail in eastern Illinois, it would be building one somewhere else.
“So I guess I feel fortunate that we’re getting it here in our community," said Fruhling-Voges.