There was some wonderful news for rail-trail advocates and planners in Illinois last week, with Governor Pat Quinn announcing tens of millions of dollars would be invested in trails throughout the state.
The grant funding was provided by the federal Transportation Enhancements (TE) program, now known as Transportation Alternatives (TA), and was part of a package of nearly $50 million for active transportation works throughout Illinois, that is expected to support more than 400 jobs across 54 projects.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Director of Policy Outreach, Dan Persky, who spent many years working on active transportation projects in Illinois, said that the strong focus on trails in this round of grant funding represents a significant shift in the state's transportation focus.
"In recent years, Illinois has often dedicated a majority of TE funds to streetscape projects," Dan said. "To see the governor's office directing such significant support for projects like the Calumet-Sag Trail and the Grand Illinois Trail is recognition that these facilities are vitally important transportation and recreational assets, and that they represent a smart investment in the state."
In addition to the Calumet-Sag Trail (a regional trail southwest of Chicago), and the Grand Illinois Trail (a planned loop of more than 500 miles between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River), other noteworthy projects to receive funding include the Millennium Trail, the North Shore Channel Trail, the DeKalb-Sycamore Bikeways, and the Historic Route 66 Bikeway.
Local groups such as Trails for Illinois and the League of Illinois Bicyclists deserve a lot of credit for many years of advocating for appropriate investment in trails and active transportation infrastructure.
That job is about the get a little easier. A new partnership between RTC and Trails for Illinois will soon produce the first ever comprehensive study of trail usage in that state.
Late last year, I spent a week visiting a wide variety of trails across Illinois, including the Tunnel Hill Trail, the Rock Island Trail and the Old Plank Road Trail, retrieving automated trail counter equipment which had been tracking user activity over the previous months. At the same time, teams of local volunteers were distributing and collecting trail user surveys, which included questions about spending patterns.
It's part of Trails for Illinois' 'Make Trails Count' push. "We want to show Illinois and its communities the triple bottom line benefits-economic growth, improved health and environmental stewardship-that trails are creating," says Executive Director Steve Buchtel. "We want to put a number on those benefits so decision makers take them seriously."
The results of those surveys are now being analyzed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the University of Illinois. In terms of trail development and trail use, so much has happened in Illinois over the past few years, but we really know very little about it. This survey is the first of its kind for the state, and will go a long way to demonstrating the significance of these trails to the people and businesses of Illinois.
That report on trail-usage patterns and the economic impact of trails tourism in Illinois comes out in the spring. Stay tuned.