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URBANA – A plan to develop a 24.5-mile recreation trail between Urbana and western Vermilion County is moving along, including two public hearings scheduled for this month.

But the main stumbling block – acquiring the property from the CSX Corp., which controls most of it – remains unresolved.

"The railroad still remains the key," said Jerry Pagac, executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. "I think we're further along and we're getting to the point where it's either a go or a no-go."

CSX is negotiating with a Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation committee about acquiring the property, said Tim Bartlett, a member of the committee and also the superintendent of planning and operations for the Urbana Park District.

"We had a joint appraisal done this year," he said, "and the figure is about half of what the previous appraisal was. We've come up a bit from what we were offering many years ago, and they've come down. I can't disclose the appraisal figure because it was done with CCDC, a private group."

But the groups are still talking, and negotiations are "very cordial," he said.

"I think we're at a point now where if we called them up now, they'd be willing to have a conference call with us," he said. "Before, we weren't that high on their agenda."

Bartlett said he believes CSX has negotiations ongoing with "about 14" similar rails-to-trail groups around the country.

The local group hopes to develop a 10-foot-wide limestone bike trail along the rail corridor that parallels U.S. 150 from Smith Road in Urbana to the entrance to the Vermilion County Fairgrounds west of Danville. The trail would be similar to the 9.5-mile-long Constitution Trail through Bloomington-Normal, developed along an abandoned railroad right of way, and used by runners, walkers, bicyclists and in-line skaters.

Sodemann and Associates, a Champaign engineering firm, is completing a preliminary study of the corridor. The report, along with preliminary construction plans and other planning documents, will be available for public inspection at meetings this month. The $92,000 study was funded with a $400,000 grant from U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

The first public hearing this month will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Salt Fork center at Homer Lake, north of Homer.

The second will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 24, at the Oakwood Library in Oakwood.

Representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, the Vermilion County Conservation District, the Illinois Department of Transportation and CCDC will be at the meetings to answer questions.

"It's not like we're saying, 'Come out and see what kind of exciting plans we have,' with all kinds of details," Bartlett said. "We're really not that far along yet. But this is something we're required to do as part of the process, and the state has encouraged us to do it now.

"We think (the trail) is going to happen. We want it to happen. We're kind of at an awkward phase right now because we just don't have a signed transfer of property."

Bartlett said he hopes that an advocacy group could result from the public meetings.

"We're trying to think of ways that we can create interest in the project, something like 'A Friends of the Kickapoo Trail' group."

CSX has voiced concerns both about the cost to acquire the property and the possibility that it may someday want to use it as an active rail line.

"But I think it's more about the money," Bartlett said. "The thing they continue to refer to is 'making us whole,' which we take to mean getting the best value for their stockholders.

"If they think they can get a gazillion dollars off of it, then they should go ahead."

CCDC has "a finite ability to pay for it," he said. "If they take a good, hard look at it they'll know that we don't have deep pockets. We don't have wealthy donors behind us who are willing to put up the money for this. We're at the point where we can walk away from this if we don't get it done.

"There are other local trail projects that we can focus on."

Columnist

Tom Kacich is a columnist and the author of Tom's Mailbag at The News-Gazette. His column appears Sundays. His email is tkacich@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@tkacich).

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