Trail Caucus Kicks Off to Connect Wisconsin as New Projects Build Momentum

Posted 10/10/18 by Willie Karidis in America's Trails, Building Trails, Policy

Dave Schlabowske, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed, discusses the value of building a Trails Caucus | Photo by Brian Housh, courtesy RTC

Last week, an active and enthusiastic crowd of public officials, trail advocates, business owners and avid cyclists in Wisconsin gathered at the Wisconsin Bike Fed offices and Velobahn Coffee & Cycle to kick off the state’s newly formed Legislative Trails Caucus. 

Championed by Rep. Evan Goyke of the 18th District, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and the Wisconsin Bike Fed, we are working to build a bipartisan group of state-elected officials to connect people, places and opportunities across the Badger State in new and impactful ways.

As highlighted by Rep. Goyke in his keynote speech from the event—trails have the potential to break down walls and create significant recreational, health, economic and other quality-of-life benefits for all communities. This couldn’t be truer than in Wisconsin, which has many trail projects on the horizon that have trail advocates ramping up efforts ten-fold.

Building Momentum in the Badger State

Willie Karidis speaks at Wisconsin Legislative Trails Caucus meeting | Photo by Brian Housh, courtesy RTC
Willie Karidis speaks at Wisconsin Legislative Trails Caucus meeting | Photo by Brian Housh, courtesy RTC

In the southeast part of the state, for example, there is a diverse and gritty coalition working to transform rural, suburban and urban areas throughout the region as part of the Route of the Badger, a Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) TrailNation™ project. The vision is to build a powerful 500-mile inclusive trail network with new opportunities for physical activity, tourism, recreation and stronger businesses along this route that will connect seven counties.

Currently, there exists approximately 340 miles of trail infrastructure, and project leaders—including RTC and Wisconsin Bike Fed—are in the early stages of developing the additional 160 miles to create a seamless system. When complete, these projects will change the way hundreds of thousands of residents and visitors to the state get around, stay active and recreate. Here are just a few of the projects building momentum in the Badger State right now through this ambitious project.

Improving Mobility in Milwaukee: 30th Street Corridor and Kinnickinnic River Trail

Hank Aaron State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user lixunz
Hank Aaron State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user lixunz

The 30th Street Corridor trail project has been in the planning phase for over 20 years. Running from Havenwoods State Forest south to the 15.2-mile Hank Aaron State Trail, this is a transformative project that, when complete, will add a 5.2-mile trail connection in a long-underserved part of Milwaukee along a former industrial area, providing a safe alternative-transportation corridor, opportunities for economic development and trail access to thousands of people who have never had access to a safe trail before.

Nearby, an extension of the Kinnickinnic River Trail—which currently stretches a little over 2 miles from W. Washington Street in the Harbor View neighborhood to S. Sixth St. and W. Rosedale Avenue—provides a game-changing opportunity to connect the south side of Milwaukee to the downtown area. Currently, there are short portions of the trail built with on-road connections. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District is in the process of rebuilding a concrete channel system along the Kinnickinnic River—a popular destination for kayaking and fishing—that will accommodate more than 2 miles of new trail heading west when complete. Longer-term plans could add more than 4.5 miles of trail, creating an east-west connection through the entirety of the south side of the city. 

Hank Aaron State Trail| Photo by David Schlabowske, courtesy Wisconsin Bike Fed
Hank Aaron State Trail| Photo by David Schlabowske, courtesy Wisconsin Bike Fed

The importance of these projects is underscored by a recent BikeAble™ study— produced by RTC with support from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation—that shows that those who live in both the north-central and south-central parts of the city are disconnected from Milwaukee’s current trail systems, which include the 120-mile Oak Leaf Trail as well as the Hank Aaron State Trail. Connectivity scores show that only 3 percent have walking access to trails, and only 8 percent have biking access. As covered in an August 2017 TrailBlog article on the study, these projects jointly have the potential to increase citywide walking access to 14 percent and biking access to 59 percent. Calculated in real people numbers, this means that resident access increases from 25,000 to 200,000 people! 

Boosting Regional Connectivity: Eisenbahn State Trail and Ozaukee Interurban Trail

Eisenbahn State Trail | Photo by Traillink user jfjbjl
Eisenbahn State Trail | Photo by TrailLink user jfjbjl

Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is part of a dedicated team working to develop a 14.2-mile east-west trail along State Route 60 that would safely connect two outstanding trail corridors—the 25-mile Eisenbahn State Trail, a rail-trail that runs through Fond du Lac and Washington counties and provides opportunities for both summer and winter use, and the Ozaukee Interurban Trail, a 30-mile rail-trail linking to other trails both north and south. 

The completion of this project could result for the first time in a long-distance safe walking and biking route between Washington, Ozaukee and Fond du Lac counties. It’s important to note that the connection of these two trails is driven by the individual counties involved and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, and is ultimately aided by strong support from state-elected officials who are on the new Legislative Trails Caucus and who will speak on behalf of future funding of trails.

Moving Forward in Wisconsin

Each trail project has its own story! Some are more complex than others, but all require detailed planning, community outreach and political will.

Route of the Badger | Photo by Ben Carter

Rep. Goyke suggests that in the short term, policies to streamline red tape and create a “one-stop-shop agency” to facilitate the planning and building of trail networks could help to restore Wisconsin’s former position as a trail leader in the Midwest. Additionally, coordination at the state and local levels can help unlock substantial federal funds reserved for Wisconsin trail and walking and biking projects!

RTC continues to lobby for additional state funds with the goal of connecting Southeast Wisconsin by trail, and we are prioritizing the partnerships necessary to make each individual project a reality. We will continue to work closely with the caucus, and we encourage everyone across the country to keep an eye on this important trail network, which will serve as a national model of an urban regional trail system for America. 

Are you from Wisconsin?

You can help keep the momentum going in the Badger State by letting your state-elected officials know that trails are important to you. Share your stories about why trails are an essential part of your lives, and tell them to join the Wisconsin Legislative Trails Caucus to improve the people of all of Wisconsin!

Tell Your Legislators to Be a Voice for Wisconsin Trails!
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