Could Naperville's 'cow tunnel' of the past be bike path of the future?
It looked and sounded like an urban legend to Susan Ahlfeld, a Naperville resident for more than 10 years but a relative newcomer considering the city's 186-year history.
A tunnel built not for people but for cows to pass from the north side of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks to the south. Four decades after its last use, the tunnel is nearly hidden behind piles of brush and overgrowth, and its entrances are chock-full of wood and concrete. Naperville is known for its agricultural roots, and the cow tunnel that aligns with Webster Street between 5th and Spring avenues is a lasting -- though nearly invisible -- reminder of that heritage.
But to Ahlfeld and a group of neighbors who live near the tracks, the rustic connection seems a fitting solution to a modern problem of pedestrian access and safety.
Ahlfeld is leading a community group planning an Aug. 23 meeting to discuss the possibility of reopening and repurposing the walkway she nearly didn't believe existed.
"Then I come to find there's actually this tunnel under the tracks," Ahlfeld said. "It's there, and I think we can build it out and make it a great, safer passageway for bikers and walkers."
Ahlfeld isn't the first to rediscover the cow tunnel since the city closed it in during the 1970s. City council member Paul Hinterlong says the idea of reopening it comes up from time to time, surprises a few folks who don't know the tunnel is there, then fades away -- typically because of cost concerns or logistical challenges.
"It seems like a pretty good push this time," Hinterlong said. "Maybe we can at least get to the bottom of it to see if it's feasible or not."
That's exactly what Ahlfeld and her neighbors aim to do -- draw together the community to determine if residents want to invest the money, time and engineering it would take to make the tunnel available for public use. It's estimated the project could cost $1 million to $2 million.
"It's a good idea for a community conversation because it deals with the quality of life and safety and it brings two neighborhoods together," said Mary Lou Wehrli, a Naperville Parks Foundation member and DuPage County Forest Preserve District commissioner who is involved with talks about the tunnel. "There are so many things that can be tied together more safely."
The tunnel's location is strategic, supporters say, because it's between two busy roads that bikers and walkers might not like to use -- Washington Street on the east and Mill Street on the west. Pedestrian-friendly or not, those roads connect people on both sides of the tracks to transportation, jobs, shopping and schools.
Hinterlong said he's worked on safety improvements to Washington Street, adding a railing where the road travels under the tracks to make bikers and walkers, especially students heading to nearby Washington Junior High, feel more secure.
"The cow tunnel, if it's feasible, would be even better yet," Hinterlong said. "It'd be a more direct route for the kids to use and a safer one."
But the cow tunnel wasn't built to modern standards for bike path width, lighting or security.
"It's very short and narrow," Wehrli said. "But we could ride our bikes through it as kids."
To reuse it, the city would need to pay for a structural assessment and follow the construction process of the BNSF Railway, said Bill Novack, director of transportation, engineering and development.
The group could seek grants to cover the cost or ask the city and the Naperville Park District to chip in.
Park District Executive Director Ray McGury said the agency could help residents apply for grants, using the expertise of a grant writer on staff.
But he and Mike Reilly, park board president, said the panel hasn't yet discussed the cow tunnel idea and has no plans at the moment to help pay for it. The city similarly has not discussed funding for the project.
The residents who want to examine the possibility will present their thoughts at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, in the municipal center, 400 S. Eagle St.
"If we were to reopen it," Ahlfeld said about the tunnel she hope can exist anew, "let's make it more beautiful and enlarge it."