URBANA — After some 20 years of planning, negotiating, grant writing and fundraising, an abandoned railroad line finally is under local ownership and available for development as a recreation trail.
The Champaign County Forest Preserve District last week paid the CSX Corp. about $600,000 for the Champaign County segment of what eventually will be a 24.5-mile trail between east Urbana and Kickapoo State Park near Danville. The Vermilion County Conservation District hopes to complete the purchase of its part of the abandoned rail line from CSX — also for about $600,000 — by the end of this year.
"I think this is a very big step in what's going to be a pretty lengthy process to get the entire trail done," said Dan Olson, executive director of the forest preserve district. "But I feel very positive and very good about it."
The next step, organizers say, is to apply for federal and state grants and to begin private fundraising to cover the estimated $10 million to $11 million cost of building what probably will be a 10-foot-wide, gravel-based path through St. Joseph, Ogden, Fithian and Oakwood, paralleling U.S. 150.
"We have a grant out for the first 6 miles of the trail from High Cross Road (in Urbana) to Main Street in St. Joseph," Olson said. "All of these trails are pieced together segment by segment and done as you go. I think the average is a few miles at a time. We're looking to do that first 6 miles. The plan is to frequently apply for grants."
State and federal grants covered the $600,000 acquisition cost for the Champaign County portion of the rail line, Olson said.
George Bellovics, Grand Illinois Trail coordinator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said government grants may be available to cover 80 percent of the construction costs of the project.
"But there are opportunities for individual citizens, or benefactors for that matter, to help out along the way in many different regards. The federal dollars don't care where the match comes from, as long as it's not other federal dollars," said Bellovics.
The long-discussed project would be the first long-distance recreation trail in East Central Illinois, filling what Bellovics called "a sort of dead zone. There's sort of a chasm there from the aspect of a long-distance trail."
Most other areas of Illinois — including Bloomington-Normal, Charleston-Mattoon, Decatur, Peoria, Springfield, Belleville, Rockford and Chicago areas, plus deep southern Illinois — already have long-distance recreation trails.
"I've heard a lot of good comments about this. Even my board is tired of talking about it and telling me that they want to get this thing going," said Ken Konsis, executive director of the Vermilion County Conservation District. "There's nothing around here like this. And hopefully Danville city trails can eventually add onto this."
Bellovics said he has been following what is now known as the Kickapoo Trail since 1994.
"Sometimes projects are just complicated because of all the elements that have to come together for them to work," he said. "But what was good about the Kickapoo Trail project is that you had a very good idea linking Champaign-Urbana to Kickapoo State Park, and you had some very committed folks along the way with the resolve to carry this forward. Those are the common elements that make these successful."
It's not uncommon to have rail-to-trail projects drag on for 20 years or more, he said.
"There's a Hanna City Trail from Peoria west to Fulton County that has been going on for more than 20 years and still is not as far along as this one," Bellovics said. "And the Pecatonica Prairie Path from Rockford to Freeport, they finally completed the Winnebago County portion of that trail and it's been going on since the mid-1980s."
Bellovics said the Champaign County Design & Conservation Foundation, a private group begun almost 50 years ago to conserve natural areas and beautify the county, deserves much of the credit for promoting the trail.
"I cannot say enough about CCDC and the critical advocacy they provided, as well as the tremendous partnership between the two counties," he said.
Olson said the cooperation between Champaign and Vermilion counties makes for "a very good granting opportunity since this goes through a lot of communities in both Champaign and Vermilion counties. Grant administrators really like to see that kind of partnership and that kind of impact."
There's no timetable for how long construction will take — it depends how successful grant writing and fundraising is, Olson said. And it's at least a year from beginning.
"At the absolute earliest we're looking at a year out," he said.
The first construction likely will be in Vermilion County, which already has a $2.1 million grant to build part of a trail but mostly to rehabilitate a spectacular, 100-year-old trestle over the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.
"That's a great part to start it," said Tim Bartlett of CCDC and chair of the multiagency committee that has been working on the project for years. "Not only is that bridge going to be expensive but awesome, but it gets you into Kickapoo State Park, which is a critical connection. That's money well spent."
The $1.2 million paid for the abandoned rail line is below the appraised value of the property, according to Steve Rugg, chair of the CCDC Foundation.
"We appreciate CSX's willingness to complete the deal at this level," he said. "They've recognized the public benefit of a project like this while still receiving a measure of compensation for their asset. Everyone's a winner."