Best of the Midwest: Five Major Trail Developments in America’s Heartland

Posted 11/14/16 by Brian K. Housh in Policy, Building Trails

Fallasburg Covered Bridge (Lowell, Michigan) along the North Country Trail/Iron Belle Trail | Photo by Tom Pidgeon Photography

Today, I am joining representatives of 22 bike/ped organizations and government agencies from six states who are convening in Illinois for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s (RTC’s) 2016 Midwest Policy Summit. Individuals from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin are gathering at the Active Transportation Alliance offices in Chicago to exchange ideas and best practices, and seek opportunities for collaboration as the Midwest embarks on one of its most exciting periods in the history of trail development.

Such a convening has not happened for several years, but with so much going on, the group—many of whom have been partnering for years on active transportation policy issues—knew it was time to strike while the iron is hot (literally).

The bike/ped landscape in the region has changed dramatically in recent years, and there are many major projects in the works, driven by important policy developments. Here are five big happenings in the Heartland that are changing the face of active transportation (in no particular order).

1A 1,400-mile-plus trail network project is in progress to connect many of the major centers of America’s Rust Belt and industrial Appalachia.  

Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath in Ohio | Photo courtesy Tom Bower | CC by 2.0

Driven by the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition, a regional coalition of trail groups, government agencies, funders and land managers, the trail network will span 48 counties across four states, running through western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio, and reaching into the southwest corner of New York.

Pittsburgh serves as the hub, with trails radiating out of the metro area and connecting to Cleveland and Ashtabula in Ohio, Morgantown and Parkersburg in West Virginia, and Erie in northern Pennsylvania. Here’s more on this ambitious project and how it’s going to revitalize America’s industrial heartland.

2Cleveland just got a $7.95 million grant to complete a regional trail network that will traverse part of Northeast Ohio.

The Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway passes major attractions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame | Photo courtesy Traillink.com/roddo

More specifically, this TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant—awarded to Cleveland Metroparks for its $16.45 million “Reconnecting Cleveland” project—will help create critical biking and walking links between many currently isolated neighborhoods, the Lake Erie Shoreline and the Cuyahoga River. It is proof positive that local communities are recognizing how critical trails are to healthy, balanced transportation systems. Sara Maier, senior strategic park planner at Cleveland Metroparks and a key contributor to the TIGER grant, will be with us during the summit to discuss the future plans and implications of this exciting project.

Interestingly, Cleveland was one of 53 communities RTC worked with beginning in 2007 on our Campaign for Active Transportation. This successful TIGER application includes some major projects that were part of the vision Cleveland put forward in that campaign. We were also happy to see later developments evolve from that original plan—now a part of the TIGER projectincluding the Red Line Greenway, which will link the developing Cleveland Foundation Centennial Trail to the famed Ohio & Erie Canalway Towpath Trail stretching to Bolivar. Cleveland Metroparks estimates that the regional trail network will serve 66,000 area residents upon completion in just five years.

3A 500-mile-plus trail network is beginning to take form in Southeast Wisconsin.

Cedarburg Bridge on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail | Photo courtesy C Hanchey | CC by 2.0

Formally launched by RTC and a slew of local partners in 2014, the Route of the Badger could have a huge effect on the tourism potential of Southeast Wisconsin. When complete, the 500-mile-plus network is expected to stretch west from Milwaukee to Madison, and possibly Minneapolis, Minnesota, and south from Sheboygan to Kenosha—and even Chicago—traversing urban, suburban and rural communities. It includes some already well-used trails such as the Hank Aaron State Trail in Milwaukee, Glacial Drumlin State Trail from Waukesha to Madison, and Oak Leaf Trail, which forms a loose figure 8 throughout Milwaukee County.

RELATED: 1,450-Mile Developing Trail Network to Revitalize America’s Industrial Heartland

4TIFIA is a new breakthrough financing tool for communities to accelerate the completion of their active transportation networks.

Chicago Riverwalk | Photo courtesy Traci Hall | CC by 2.0

Okay, so not technically a project, I had to mention TIFIA (stands for Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) because it’s going to be a big focus of our summit and—I suspect—a tool for many Midwest communities going forward as they build out their active transportation networks. TIFIA is a tool that can help communities obtain low-interest financing for these projects, and recently some reforms have made this financing way more accessible to communities than in years past. Local governments with projects costing about $10 million or more (and that means bundled projects, too) can now qualify.

The Chicago Riverwalk—funded before the reforms—is a fantastic example of TIFIA in action, and Chicago is paying back the loan over 35 years in an innovative way—with funds raised from rent and fees from tour boats, private boat docking, leases, sponsorships, etc. At the summit, we’ll hear from Michelle Woods, assistant project director at Chicago’s Bureau of Asset Management, about how TIFIA could help shape the future of bike/ped infrastructure development.

5A 2,000-mile-plus dual hiking and biking trail is being connected in the Great Lakes State.

North Country Trail near Lowell, Michigan | Photo by Tom Pidgeon Photography

Named in a 2015 Michigan Department of Natural Resources contest after the beauty and strength of the state’s natural and cultural resources, the developing Iron Belle Trail comprises two routes—a 791-mile multiuse/biking path and a separate 1,273-mile backcountry hiking trail—which run from Detroit’s Belle Isle Park to the city of Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula. One of the most ambitious trail network projects in history—the Iron Belle, to quote my colleague Eric Oberg, is “all about taking what’s already great about Michigan trails and making them incredible.” Rails to Trails magazine’s Winter 2017 Cover Story will talk about this mega project in more detail—so check out the magazine's web page in mid-January for more.

Really amazing stuff happening—and the summit is going to bring many of the players of these projects together so that we can help enhance each other’s work moving forward. The participation of Mark Polston of the U.S. Department of Transportation Build America Bureau is another exciting aspect of this gathering.

I think it’s safe to say that a decade or two from now, America’s Heartland will host a series of trail networks that will serve millions of community members and create new avenues for commerce, tourism and economic development. 

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