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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).

rail trail

The entrance to the Kickapoo Rail Trail near the Vermilion County Fairgrounds on Monday, June 21, 2021.

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The Kickapoo Rail Trail is being built not like a Tour de France racer but like a weekend cruiser — slow and steady.

Last month, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District announced it had been awarded more than $1.2 million in Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program funds to build a 1.5-mile segment of the rail trail in the Ogden area — from a half-mile west of the village to the Champaign-Vermilion county line on the east.

The Ogden segment likely will open to recreational use sometime in 2023, said Mary Ellen Wuellner, who retired Friday as executive director of the forest preserve district.

Once it opens, that means that only a 4-mile segment of the trail between St. Joseph and Ogden will need to be completed in Champaign County. In Vermilion County, about 9 miles of the trail — from Oakwood west to the county line — remains to be developed.

To this point, about 10 miles of the rail trail has been built on what for decades was an active railroad line but which is now envisioned as a 24.5-mile path connecting Urbana with the Possum Trot area west of Danville. Eventually, supporters say, the trail could reach the Danville riverfront area, sparking greater recreational opportunities and retail development along the route.

“It’s not yet a recreational destination,” acknowledged Wuellner, who led the forest preserve district when the first segment of the trail opened in 2017. “The segments aren’t long enough for people to think about coming over and spending the night and riding 12 miles one day and six the next, but it won’t be long before that is the case.

“When all these little segments get pieced together, that’s when you’ll see people coming over and spending Friday night and Saturday in town. That’s when all those other services will start cropping up.”

Work on the Ogden segment should begin next year, Wuellner said.

“The bids won’t be let until spring at the earliest, and then construction may start in the fall,” she said. “It’s a fairly short section, and it shouldn’t take that long to complete.”

There’s enthusiasm in Ogden for the project, she said.

“The nice thing about this is that the folks in Ogden see how this has worked in St. Joe, and they’re anxious for the trail to be in their town as well,” Wuellner said. “They’ve developed a beautification committee and they’ve met with our staff, and they’re excited to be involved in the process.”

The state grant will pay about 90 percent of the cost of the Ogden segment. The forest preserve district’s foundation will have to raise the $136,000 local match, she said.

Meanwhile, engineering work is underway on the last remaining segment in Champaign County — the section between St. Joseph and Ogden that includes a busy crossing with the Union Pacific Railroad’s Chicago-to-St. Louis line.

“Our design engineering firm just completed the design of that crossing,” Wuellner said. “We now have to submit that design for approval to the Union Pacific. Fingers crossed, that approval process goes smoothly.”

The design calls for the trail to cross the tracks at grade.

“There isn’t sufficient room below the U.S. 150 overpass to do another overpass over the railroad,” she explained. “You can’t do that, and there are a lot of reasons why you can’t go under (the railroad tracks), the water table being the major one. The only way to cross it is at grade.

“But there are very specific (Illinois Department of Transportation) guidelines as to how to design a safe crossing there with crossing arms and plenty of signalization on both sides,” she added. “That’s the stance that we will take with the railroad if there is any opposition to us building that crossing.

“Actually, what we’re proposing is a lot more safe because we know that people are using that (crossing) now. What we’re proposing will very much increase the safety in that area.”

In Vermilion County, work is almost done on the delayed parking lot project along the rail trail close to the scenic Possum Trot bridge, said Tim Edison, site superintendent at the Kickapoo State Recreation Area.

“Things are still under construction, but hopefully it will be completed in about a month,” Edison explained. “There were some back-ordered items that experienced delays due to COVID.”

Tom Kacich’s column appears on Sundays in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at kacich@news-gazette.com.

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