DANVILLE — A 24.5-mile length of abandoned railroad right-of-way between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park is now entirely in the hands of public agencies, clearing the way for work to begin this year on the Kickapoo Trail project.
The Vermilion County Conservation District received a $582,000 short-term loan earlier this week from The Conservation Fund of Arlington, Va., and immediately wired the money to the CSX Corp., completing the purchase of the Vermilion County portion of the abandoned rail line. The Champaign County portion of the property was purchased from CSX last October.
"We jumped through a bunch of hoops to get all ducks in a row and we had the closing on Wednesday. And so now it's over with," said Ken Konsis, executive director of the Vermilion County Conservation District. "After 20 years of frustration ... it all happened so quick. It's anticlimatic. And now I'm here in the hospital and I can't tell anyone about it."
Konsis was hospitalized with an irregular heartbeat Thursday morning. He was undergoing a series of tests on Friday, he said.
So although he was feeling bad, he also was feeling good.
"This is definitely a big deal. After 20 years of mostly frustration working with the railroad, especially after Conrail was bought out by CSX, everything slowed down for a few years," he said. "But then it really picked up in the last two years. There were a lot of meetings and planning and nothing happening and then all of a sudden we've got it. It's a great feeling."
The rail-to-trail project has been the brainchild of the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation for about 20 years. CCDC, along with the foundations of both the Vermilion County Conservation District and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, are planning major fundraising campaigns for the development of the trail.
Some construction could begin as soon as this year, officials said.
"I would think so. I hope so," Konsis said. "I have to check with the grants and the bid processes and all of that, but the $2.1 million (state) grant is in place for development, so I would say we can begin fairly shortly."
Tim Bartlett, the associate director of the Urbana Park District, who also chaired the multiagency trail committee that negotiated the $1.2 million purchase of the property from CSX, said trail work would begin at the Vermilion County end of the project.
"My understanding is they received the transportation enhancement development grant, so they're going to be able to move forward with the development first," Bartlett said. "Champaign County has made application for a grant, but they don't have it in hand.
"But that really is terrific because one of the biggest costs of the project is going to be dealing with the trestle bridge on the east terminus there. That gives the whole project a tremendous start."
The 100-year-old trestle bridge spans the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Although it now belongs to the VCCD, ownership soon will be transferred to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Work on the bridge should be among the first phases of construction, Bartlett said.
"The conceptual plan in the grant application was that it would be worked on right away, but until they get the engineering team onboard that's going to do the work on what will be bid, they'll have to do cost estimates," he said. "But that's been the vision, that it would start there."
He said the trail project — proposed as a 10-foot-wide, gravel-based path paralleling U.S. 150 from east Urbana through St. Joseph, Ogden, Fithian, Muncie and Oakwood to Kickapoo State Park — would be unique in Illinois.
"If you think about it, I don't believe there are any other state parks in Illinois that have such a long trail system that directly links up a state park. I believe this is the only regional corridor that links up to a state park from a major population center like Urbana-Champaign. I think it is unique in that respect.
"The benefits and the user ability really grows with something like that."
Bartlett said he believes communities all along the trail, including Urbana, will benefit from the project.
"We in Urbana are really excited because this gives us an opportunity to really become a trail town," he said. "The working concept is that it really does bring growth and new development and visitors, and creates whole new levels in terms of recreational pursuits and activities and events."