Sheboygan County is rural, small-town America—no doubt about it. This is Wisconsin dairyland, situated halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, where the county seat is the Bratwurst Capital of the World. It's not the type of place that one would expect a thriving walking and biking culture, which made it the perfect candidate for a grand, national experiment that began in 2005. And in Sheboygan, the county's largest city, the Shoreland 400 Rail Trail was a little trail designed to have a big impact on changing modes and minds on transportation.
"We're not like larger cities," says Chad Pelishek, the City of Sheboygan's director of planning and development. "We don't have traffic jams or difficulty finding parking. Walking to downtown is something new because it's so easy for us to get in our cars and go."
The Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP) has a long name but a simple premise: What happens to a community when people-powered transportation is made a priority? To find out, the federal government gave four communities across the country, including Sheboygan County, $25 million to invest in walking and biking infrastructure. A report detailing the results of the NTPP is expected to arrive by the end of this month.
"Sheboygan County is 500 square miles in size, so our municipalities are fairly spread out," says Emily Vetting, associate planner for Sheboygan County's planning and conservation department. "Because it's so spread out, there are a lot of barriers to biking and walking, so we directed the focus of the NTPP in Sheboygan County on short trips within those communities that could be made by biking and walking."
The Shoreland 400 Rail Trail is short—less than two miles—but according to the county's website, within one mile of the corridor lies approximately 31 percent of the county's population, 10 of the 16 Sheboygan public schools, 53 churches and approximately 80 manufacturing/production employers.
Not only does the trail thus provide a prime opportunity for walking and biking to work and school, less than a mile away lies the grand jewel of the city, sparkling Lake Michigan. Perhaps surprisingly, blue-collar Sheboygan—where nearly half the jobs are in the manufacturing sector—is known as the "Malibu of the Midwest" for its exceptional freshwater surfing. With the rail-trail so close to the shoreline, the city's well-loved beaches are only a short stroll or ride away. Topping it off, less than three miles in the other direction, a connection can be made to the Old Plank Road Trail, which offers a 17-mile journey west through tranquil countryside.
This is quite a comeback story for what was once an eyesore for the city. "The rail corridor was a blighted area," says Pelishek. "People were dumping junk there, and it was overgrown with brush. It's really a night-and-day difference with what it looks like now."
And it will just keep getting better. A new landscaping plan will add greenery all along the trail's winding black path. "We really dreamed big with it," says Vetting. "We're aware that logistically we may not be able to fund everything at once, so we'll do it in phases." This summer will see the completion of the plan's first phase, and future phases will roll out as funds become available.
Photo of portion of completed trail courtesy Sheboygan County Planning and Conservation Department
"The chosen plants will tie into the neighborhood's identity," says Vetting. "For example, there's a bar along the trail that brews its own beer, so hops will be planted there, and next to an Asian food market there will be trees native to that area that are also sustainable in a Midwestern climate. An area near a pizzeria will get shrubs and flowers with Italian feeling."
Says Vetting, "Once you have these landscaping facets in place, it helps to ensure the trail's longevity. People take ownership of it. Success is more guaranteed when neighborhoods take pride in it."
Although rail-trails have been around since the 1960s, including Wisconsin's famed Elroy-Sparta State Trail, this was the city's first, and the NTPP funding was essential to it being built. Vetting estimates that about $1.3 million for the trail came from the program. The first shovel was turned at the trail's groundbreaking ceremony last summer, attended by Congressman Tom Petri (R-WI), who campaigned the NTPP through Congress, and Marianne Fowler, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's senior vice present of federal policy.
Photo of Congressman Petri speaking at our groundbreaking ceremony for the trail courtesy Sheboygan County Planning and Conservation Department
"At all levels of government—local, county, state and federal—everybody was really interested in this project," Fowler recalls. "There was more public engagement in Sheboygan than in any of the other pilot program communities."
By the fall of 2013, the trail was complete, but being that Wisconsin was itself on the cusp of winter, the trail's usage is just getting off the ground this spring. In fact, the trail's official dedication will take place this coming June 2.
"The trail opened in the fall, and just a day or two after it was finished, it snowed," says Bob Esler, a retired high school teacher who has lived in Sheboygan since 1967.
Photo of portion of completed trail courtesy Sheboygan County
Planning and Conservation Department
Esler, a railroad buff, was so enthused about the project that he wrote a small book—160 pages—on the area's railroad history and designed historical signage that will be placed along the trail this summer. The trail will also sport a new logo he designed, inspired by the logo of the Chicago and North Western Railway, which once utilized the rail bed. The trail's name itself comes from the bright yellow trains that once whistled down the tracks from Chicago to Minneapolis, a trip that was 400 miles and took 400 minutes.
"The 400 was a streamliner," says Esler. "Its first car was a tavern lunch-counter car with a soda fountain and a short order cook. They used them from 1942 to 1971 when the trains stopped running."
Esler himself was once a passenger. "As a kid, I grew up in Milwaukee, so when I went to college in Chicago, I rode the 400 to visit home," says Esler. "It was a nice way to go. I'd sit in the parlor car and, after I turned 21, I'd get a drink!"
When RTC spoke to Esler last week, the weather had finally taken a turn for the better. It was 70 degrees after a long, cold winter, and he was airing up his tires for his first ride down the rail-trail. Perhaps an echo of the community's sentiment, he enthusiastically exclaimed, "I haven't been on the trail yet, but I plan to go on it soon!"
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