Momentum builds for a north-south DuPage County trail corridor

  • From left are Libby A'Hearn, Steve Johnson, Tim Elliott and Ginger Wheeler, advocates of a long-planned East Branch DuPage River Trail.

      From left are Libby A'Hearn, Steve Johnson, Tim Elliott and Ginger Wheeler, advocates of a long-planned East Branch DuPage River Trail. John Starks | Staff Photographer

  • A group of community members is trying to persuade officials to link the planned East Branch DuPage River Trail to another nearby trail. Ginger Wheeler, president of the nonprofit Friends of the East Branch River Trail, says this gated roadway could be used. It currently serves a wastewater treatment site.

      A group of community members is trying to persuade officials to link the planned East Branch DuPage River Trail to another nearby trail. Ginger Wheeler, president of the nonprofit Friends of the East Branch River Trail, says this gated roadway could be used. It currently serves a wastewater treatment site. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted5/9/2022 5:30 AM

Imagine starting a morning bike ride on the Great Western Trail, fueling up with coffee in downtown Glen Ellyn or Lombard, and then taking a two-wheeled trip to the Morton Arboretum.

That's the vision of a volunteer group of avid cyclists who have been advocating for a seamless, regional trail through central DuPage County for the better part of five years.

 

The county has been developing and planning for the ambitious project even longer -- since at least the 1990s. Though some bits and pieces of the trail have been built, supporters are working to get crucial stretches off the drawing board.

Their efforts focus on the environmental, recreational and economic development benefits of creating a north-south corridor that would follow the east branch of the DuPage River, tying together other major trails and linking residential areas to shopping destinations. Miles of new bikeways also would connect forest preserves from Churchill Woods near Glen Ellyn on the north end to Hidden Lake near Downers Grove at the south.

"Part of our job as community volunteers is to see this through -- to keep the pressure on," said Steve Johnson, vice president of the nonprofit Friends of the East Branch DuPage River Trail.

As they continue to rally support for the project, trail enthusiasts will give guided biking and walking tours of potential corridor routes south of 22nd Street next month. The June 4 event also will feature food trucks and live music near a Butterfield Park District pavilion at Route 53 and Butterfield Road.

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"We were making really great progress in the late 2010s," said Ginger Wheeler, who has been championing the trail since 2014. "And then we had the COVID pandemic. We lost a whole year because of the COVID pandemic. Hopefully, with this group in place, the Friends of the East Branch DuPage River Trail, we can keep the voice amplified to make this thing happen."

After years of facing inertia, trail advocates have been steadily gaining momentum.

The county is funding a preliminary, $206,509 engineering study of a segment of the East Branch DuPage River Trail from St. Charles Road to the Illinois Prairie Path.

"That's farther than we've ever come with this," Johnson said.

Expected to take a year, the study will primarily focus on determining where to build a potential crossing of the Union Pacific Railroad before advancing to a future engineering phase. County board members in March approved a contract with Christopher B. Burke Engineering to do the study.

"That short connection is huge," Johnson said. "That will make a great big difference connecting the Great Western Trail and the Prairie Path at that point. That will go a long way to making the rest of the trail viable."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

No route has been set in stone. The intricacies of how to piece together financing and land acquisition for the project also are unknown.

"It's a matter of the decisions you make and how you accommodate the construction," said Wheeler, president of Friends of the East Branch DuPage River Trail. "A bridge, a really nice, beautiful sky bridge with all kinds of ornamental iron railings, is going to be way more expensive than a push button, where the biker or walker has to push a stoplight and wait for it to turn."

Trail supporters also are optimistic about opportunities for federal funding.

"That's why the planning is so important to make sure it is a regional trail that would allow people to bike to work, to bike to places they need to get to for their family or for events, and connect communities," DuPage Forest Preserve President Daniel Hebreard said. "And certainly, that's why it's important to make sure we all are at the table and working well together."

Hebreard said the forest preserve district remains a "very willing partner" on the project. An earlier, county-led alignment study spanned only about four miles of potential trail but involved forest preserve land, ComEd property and Illinois Tollway right of way within the villages of Glen Ellyn and Lombard and unincorporated areas of DuPage west of I-355.

"What's a little bit different about this one maybe versus like the West Branch DuPage River Trail is we just don't own as much property," Hebreard said.

Friends of the East Branch DuPage River Trail hope the corridor eventually provides car-free access to the Morton Arboretum.

"I ride my bicycle to the arboretum, but it's a harrowing experience because there's no way to make the last connection except to ride on Route 53 or Park Boulevard," Johnson said.

In Glen Ellyn, south of Roosevelt Road, cyclists also run into a "connection desert," Johnson said.

"In DuPage County, there's a lot of east-west connections," Johnson said, but "there is no north-south active transportation or alternative transportation corridor through the center of the county," he said.

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