Local leaders on bikes and in wagons got a firsthand look Thursday at a short but crucial link in Lake County's regional trail system.
The extension of what is known as the Casey Trail and Greenway has been open since late May, but representatives of the various entities that advanced the project toured the trail and underpass to "celebrate the partnership" and note its importance in the big picture.
A key element was an underpass beneath busy Milwaukee Avenue that allowed for the connection of the Libertyville Township trail and the Lake County Forest Preserve District's 31-mile Des Plaines River Trail.
"It's only 3.3 miles but what an important connection it is," said Randy Seebach, the district's director of planning, conservation and development.
"Without the tunnel, we wouldn't have done this because it wasn't a safe crossing," he added. "That was a key component -- trying to figure out a way to safely cross (Route) 21."
The underpass was part of the $23 million widening of Milwaukee Avenue (Route 21) and Route 137 and a variety of related work, including sidewalks along Milwaukee Avenue from Libertyville to Gurnee that connect to the trail.
Lake County paid for the overall project, which was overseen by the Illinois Department of Transporation.
It was the first use of pre-cast concrete sections for an underpass by the forest district -- 14 sections each 20 feet wide and 7 feet long. The facade is concrete formed to look like natural stone.
The connection allows travelers from the Prairie Crossing community in Grayslake to pick up the township trail at Route 45. The trail runs through the Oak Openings and Liberty Prairie nature preserves before connecting with the forest preserve section west of Milwaukee Avenue. It continues through Independence Grove Forest Preserve to the Des Plaines River Trail.
Eventually, the Prairie Crossing trail will connect with the forest preserve's Millennium Trail via the Fort Hill Trail, Seebach said.
The project involved the cooperation of the township, forest district, Lake County Division of Transportation, IDOT and Conserve Lake County.
"It connects so much of our community. The other great thing about this project is our partnerships," said forest board President Ann Maine. "It's just what Lake County is about, working together, making connections and improving the lives of people in Lake County."
The Casey Road Greenway is one of five regional trail systems in Lake County that in total ultimately will span 91 miles and connect 26 forest preserves, 24 communities and 14 schools, Seebach said.
"What we're wanting to do is put the trunk (trail) system in place and encourage communities to connect to the trunk system," he said. "It's really an exciting time."