Tom Kacich | First step taken toward an urban(a) rail trail

Planning for the 24.5-mile Kickapoo Rail Trail in Champaign and Vermilion counties started around 1994, and the first segment of the trail finally opened in 2017.

Maybe it won’t take that long to build a planned 2.4-mile westward extension of the trail into Urbana.

Local officials signed off this month on a $125,000 study funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation and Carle Foundation Hospital that eventually would expand the existing trail west to Lincoln Avenue.

It would be the first extension of the recreational trail into an urban area. The original KRT — which is only about one-third completed — runs along abandoned railway right of way primarily through rural areas and small towns.

The urban setting wouldn’t be the only difference between the original and the expanded trail. As proposed, most of the new section would run alongside an active railroad, albeit one that isn’t too active.

The Norfolk Southern Railroad branch that cuts on a diagonal through Champaign-Urbana serves only two customers in Urbana: Emulsicoat, an asphalt materials company, and Dart Container, originally Solo Cup.

Trains operate on the line at least once a week, according to the study that was done by the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission.

“Both companies expect to continue using this section of railroad as long as their businesses are located in or adjacent to the study area,” the RPC study said. “The city of Urbana and its partners will have to work with (the railroad), Emulsicoat, and Dart Container to extend the KRT west through Urbana.”

Ornamental fencing and planter boxes could be used to separate the trail from the railroad tracks, the study said.

An active rail line running side by side a recreation trail is not unprecedented, the RPC study said. Norfolk Southern allows a 6.5-mile trail to operate alongside one of its lines in Madison and Macoupin counties in southwestern Illinois. There are similar rails with trails in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin thinks the trail is a natural, although she acknowledges it will take time.

“I was over at the Broadway Food Hall one day and I looked east and looked west and thought, Holy cow, this is a natural way to connect neighborhoods and connect to the (existing) rail trail. And then you can go west through Champaign and all he way to Mahomet and beyond,” she mused. “It has to happen and it’s going to be great but it’s going to be one of those long-term things. You set your sights on it and it takes years to reach the goal.”

Completing the study, which now will be turned over to IDOT, was a big first step.

“Now we have it in hand and we can take it to the railroad and to potential funders and anyone else,” she said.

Building the Urbana extension would cost at least $2 million, according to an estimate that doesn’t include other big-ticket items such as right-of-way acquisition and replacement of an aging railroad bridge over Vine Street, which isn’t wide enough to accommodate trains and recreational users.

“This is not going to be easy,” Marlin said. “Any time you put a rail trail through a city it’s hard. But it’s been done before.”

She and other local officials met with Norfolk Southern representatives about the project earlier this year.

“It was the last week of in-person meetings before everything shut down for COVID,” she said. “We talked about it and then COVID rolled through and that’s where we are.

“One of the things we conveyed to them was that people are already using this (corridor). It’s just a natural. The right of way is so wide and the connection between Carle and downtown Urbana is so obvious. People are using this anyway. So I think from a safety standpoint we’d be better off having an official trail there than having people wandering along the right of way.”

The trail sponsors, which include the city of Urbana, the Urbana Park District and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, soon will begin planning their next steps in the long process.

“You plant a tree today and it’s for the next generation,” she said.

via The News-Gazette

December 21, 2020 at 05:24PM

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