In October 2014, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) formally launched an initiative in Southeast Wisconsin that could have an enormous transformative effect on the region and America’s rail-trail future. The goal of the project, appropriately dubbed the Route of the Badger, is to connect completed trails in seven counties—Kenosha, Milwaukee, Ozaukee, Racine, Walworth, Washington and Waukesha—into a world-class destination trail system.
Here’s a closer look at this game-changing project and its potential impact.
What’s in a Name?
“It’s not a route, but a network,” says Eric Oberg, RTC’s Midwest director of trail development. “That’s the point of the project—to demonstrate the outsized returns for communities of small investments in trail network connectivity.”
According to Oberg, RTC began to take a closer look at metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the U.S. several years ago to determine how many had achieved 90 percent of the population living within 3 miles of a trail. (Research shows that nearly half of all trips in urban areas have a distance of 3 miles or less.) Seven MSAs met the criteria, including two within what is now the Badger project footprint—Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, and Racine—together home to 340 miles of open multi-use trails.
Oberg credits RTC President Keith Laughlin with posing a thesis that by connecting the completed trails and greenways into a “whole network,” you could create benefits much greater than the sum of their parts—related to health, economic development and tourism, bikeability and walkability, and conservation.
“Milwaukee and Racine have amazing trail assets already, but they’re not all connected,” says Oberg. “Keith asked, ‘What if you leverage an already big investment in trail infrastructure? What if you made small, smart investments to connect those resources?’ It was thought that the benefits of trails would be exponentially higher if they’re working together.”
Wisconsin’s Railroad to Rail-Trail Past
The rise of the U.S. railroad industry coincided with Wisconsin’s statehood in 1848 and, therefore, has had a central role in its history. By 1857, railroad tracks stretched from Milwaukee to the Mississippi River, and soon thereafter, the rail line, known as “The Milwaukee Road,” had made it south to Chicago and west to St. Paul, Minnesota—eventually extending across the entire northern tier of the U.S. The Milwaukee Road ceased operations in 1985, and pieces of the former rail line were slowly converted into rail-trails.
Wisconsin’s history also claims another important place in the rail-trail movement—being home to the 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Trail, which opened in 1965 and is widely acknowledged as the country’s oldest rail-trail. Through the Badger project, RTC is hopeful that Wisconsin will again serve as a leader in the movement by demonstrating the transformative power of connected trail networks.
Route(s) of the Badger
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.
The well-used 13-mile Hank Aaron State Trail, which runs through the heart of Milwaukee, could unite in Waukesha to the 51.6-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail (via the New Berlin Recreation Trail), which extends to Greater Madison, creating a long-distance connection of 70-miles-plus. This route connects to the 116.7-mile Oak Leaf Trail, which forms two connected loops throughout Milwaukee County. RTC is also exploring how to fill gaps in trails between Racine and small towns to the west—and Milwaukee to the north—to create a 75-mile destination bicycling trail in Racine County.
Via the Sheboygan Interurban and Ozaukee Interurban rail-trails, the project route already connects Sheboygan to Milwaukee; completing gaps in the trails running south along Lake Michigan in areas such as Kenosha and Racine could expand the Badger’s reach as far south as Chicago—a north-south distance of almost a hundred miles.
To Oberg, the potential connection to Chicago is particularly poignant, as the area is home to another one of the earliest rail-trails in America: the Illinois Prairie Path. In 1963, naturalist May Theilgaard Watts wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune imploring the transformation of the unused Chicago, Aurora & Elgin Railway into a trail. The letter generated an influx of public support, and by 1967, the first trail signs had been posted. Five decades later, the Route of the Badger will unite the two birthplaces of the rail-trail movement—Wisconsin and Illinois—while shifting the trail-building paradigm from single trails to connected systems.
Building the Badger
According to John Siegert, RTC’s on-the-ground manager for the Route of the Badger, the current focuses of the project are on identifying where the gaps are in the system, determining which gaps would add the highest value if filled and developing gap-filling strategies that make the most of local resources. RTC is also developing relationships with many different stakeholders, including local governments, trail managers, biking groups, friends groups, nonprofits and the public, to build regional momentum for the Badger.
“RTC is facilitating collaboration of all these different parties, agencies and organizations in the footprint to look at the Badger project holistically instead of just in their own backyards,” says Siegert.
Impact of the Badger
If project partners have their way, the immense impact of the Route of the Badger will be realized in a variety of benefits: more bikeable and walkable communities; improved public health; the sparking of economic development and local investment near the trails; and enhanced competitiveness of the region with regard to quality of life and attracting a young, educated workforce.
But a huge vision shared by everyone involved is to make the region a major bicycling destination—particularly given its close proximity to Chicago—thereby bringing in large amounts of tourists who will spend money at local businesses, as well as inspiring exploration and active transportation among the local populace.
“Everyone who lives there will reap the benefits of outside tourism dollars—and they’ll have a world-class destination trail network at their front door and reap those benefits too,” says Oberg. “The project will be a game-changer for Southeast Wisconsin and for America.”
RTC would like to thank the Racine Community Foundation for their support of the Route of the Badger.