1,100 miles of trails in the suburbs, but 200 miles of gaps: Project aims to fix that

There are 1,100 miles of trails in the suburbs and Chicago for cyclists to speed on and hikers to meander through. It's a blissful scenario - until you hit one of the 200 miles of gaps where six lanes of traffic, railway tracks and soggy underpasses burst bubbles and tires.

The Active Transportation Alliance aims to fix those shortcomings with a detailed plan that starts by closing 43 miles of trail gaps within four years, including a stretch on the Des Plaines River Trail.

"The regional trail network is one of our greatest assets in northeastern Illinois," Advocacy Director Jim Merrell said. "It enables people to walk or bike to important destinations like employers, schools or transit. But all too often it gets disconnected and stressful."

The Active Transportation Alliance's Trail Connect project unveiled Saturday is not intended to gather dust, Merrell stressed.

"We're focusing our energy on actual projects that will lead to connecting existing networks," he said.

But trails aren't cheap, with the median cost of a paved multiuse path reaching $261,000 per mile. So how can such an ambitious plan succeed at a time of meager infrastructure spending?

The group's leaders are banking on their 33 years of expertise in trail networks, state laws and funding to shepherd projects across the finish line and help communities help themselves, Merrell said.

Aid could range from helping a busy village planner write a federal grant application for a trail to matchmaking among local governments to coalesce around significant projects.

In the case of the Des Plaines River Trail, the North Central Council of Mayors, village of Rosemont and West Central Municipal Council are pooling two federal grants to pay for preliminary engineering work to construct a path between Touhy Avenue in Des Plaines and North Avenue in Melrose Park. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County owns that section of the trail, which stretches between Melrose Park to the county's northern border, where Lake County takes over its extension to the Wisconsin border, making a total path of 55 miles.

The Active Transportation Alliance is working to provide more seamless trails like the Illinois Prairie Path, one of the region's legacy trails, and its Aurora Branch here near Warrenville. Daily Herald File Photo

Long-range goals to be accomplished over five to 10 years include closing other gaps on paths such as the I & M Canal Trail in Will County, the Millennium Trail in Mundelein, McHenry, Lakemoor and Volo, and the Algonquin Road Trail in Carpentersville, Barrington Hills and South Barrington. In addition, Trail Connect aims to upgrade busy crossings where cyclists or pedestrians are at the mercy of speeding drivers not accustomed to yielding.

"Crossings are a huge part of the puzzle," Merrell said. "Our ultimate vision is for a young child of 8 or an older adult in their 80s to feel safe and comfortable. Whether it's a pedestrian island or a traffic signal, all those options are on the table."

The Active Transportation Alliance will also rely on its 20,000-strong membership to convince local leaders there's support for walking and biking paths.

"We'll be trying to get priorities on the agendas of decision-makers," Merrell said.

<h3 class="leadin">One more thing

Savvy cyclist Terry Witt of Bartlett has long advocated for trail improvements in the region. His worst trail gap? "Lake Street between Medinah and Swift roads (near Addison) is the most critical gap in our trail network," Witt said.

"First it is critical to many connections to the places people want to ride. Second, it is dangerous to ride, avoided by almost every bicyclist. Lake Street is a 0.6-mile, six-lane, 45 mph, hair-raising experience."

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<h3 class="leadin">You should know

The Illinois tollway on Thursday took a first step to build a full-access interchange at Route 23 and the Jane Addams Tollway (I-90) in Marengo. Board directors approved an agreement with McHenry County, Marengo and IDOT for $1 million to purchase land for the project. The tollway's share of the bill is $500,000.

<h3 class="leadin">Your voice

Reader John Borginson gives a thumbs-down to the Illinois Department of Transportation's shift to edgy messages on highway digital signs.

IDOT is "so worried about distractions while driving - so what do they do but put up digital signs," wrote Borginson, who lives near Carpentersville. "In my opinion, these are just as much a distraction as what they are trying to deter. While driving with a friend he looked up at the sign, which almost caused an accident."

<h3 class="leadin">Gridlock alert

Improvements to Route 132 in Gurnee and Waukegan won't happen without some pain. IDOT will be closing lanes between the Tri-State Tollway and Route 131 starting Sept. 4 through July 2019 for a resurfacing project.

<h3 class="leadin">Transit deprived

The Active Transportation Alliance estimates that only 24 percent of the jobs in the region can be reached by transit in 90 minutes or less for an average resident. That statistic dips to 12 percent in the suburbs.

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