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Bridge Upgrades Revive Idea Of Trail Loop Around Lower Peoria Lake

Ryan Harms, a planner with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission; and Ty Livingston, East Peoria's Planning and Development Director, stand on a trail outlook along the Illinois River near Spindler Marina in East Peoria.
Tri-County Regional Planning Commission
Ryan Harms, a planner with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission; and Ty Livingston, East Peoria's Planning and Development Director, stand on a trail outlook along the Illinois River near Spindler Marina in East Peoria.

There's new life breathing into an old idea: linking the trail systems on both sides of the Illinois River together.

The city of East Peoria is using $50,000 from the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission's Peoria-Pekin Urbanized Area Transportation System's (PPUATS, for short) Special Transportation Planning Studies program to study the possibility of linking up its existing eight miles of riverfront trails to the McClugage and Bob Michel bridges.

Those, in turn, would link up to Peoria's trail systems.

Ty Livingston, East Peoria's planning and development director, said the concept and groundwork for a regional trail loop was first laid more than 20 years ago by predecessors like former East Peoria City Administrator Tom Brimberry and former Planning and Development Director Matt Fick.

"We have pieces of it right now," said Livingston. "We've got a component that runs between the two marinas. We also have a piece that runs behind Bass Pro. There's no connection there in the middle that we've been looking for. And they had worked on it quite a bit. It required a lot of private property access and that sort of thing. And, unfortunately, due to the lack of interest (and) funds, that kind of fell by the wayside."

But the idea has recently become more attractive again for a couple reasons: new infrastructure and public demand.

"We've had some tremendous changes that have happened kind of regionally," Livingston said. "Both sides of the river spoke out very clearly in the initial design of the new McClugage Bridge span and requested a hiking/biking component to that bridge. And that was really kind of the the emphasis here that really got things going."

The addition of a 14-foot-wide, multi-use pathway across the Illinois River is one of the features incorporated into the ongoing $167 million McClugage Bridge project. The 70-year-old eastbound span of the bridge will be demolished to make way for a wider, modernized structure. That project is slated to wrap up in 2023.

Combined with expected improvements to the existing pedestrian walkways on the Bob Michel Bridge, and the expansion of Peoria's Rock Island Greenway into the city core later this year, the right ingredients seemed to be coming together.

"We saw the potential for a shakeout to be about a 12-mile loop around lower Peoria Lake," said Ryan Harms, a planner with the regional planning commission. "When you know, just a few years ago, we were talking about a lack of interest in bicycle infrastructure and trails, it really seems like a lot of pieces just happened to be falling into place."

Livingston said completing the trail loop also opens up possibilities to expand the network to other communities on the east side of the river.

"We've got connectivity over to the Morton trail system. We have the River Trail of Illinois that runs through the entire entirety of East Peoria," he said. "And then the other component to this study is to take a look at opportunities to connect to the Washington trail system via Centennial Drive. Obviously, we've got a big challenge with the bluffs right there as you come across the bridge. But it certainly starts bringing pieces together."

But what kind of funding actually exists for the land acquisition and other work needed to bring a trail loop off the drawing board and onto turf?

"That's a great question. And it always comes up. This is always a question. You know, when it comes to essentially non- motorized infrastructures, why are you going to pay for it?" said Harms.

Funds earmarked for biking and trail improvements are available through the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission and the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program, he said. Harms said the study also puts East Peoria in a better position to potentially land federal dollars for the project.

"The study will put the city of East Peoria in a prime position in terms of knowing what to build. So were they to go after a state or federal grant, it makes a strong case," he said.

That includes showing there's strong public support for the proposal through gathered input in the study process, Livingston said.

"This is kind of the first step in that process. And then when there's opportunities to pursue it, you've already got this step taken, because that's really a key component of any application for funding," said Livingston of the study.

Livingston said he expects the study process to take most of the rest of this year.

East Peoria is tapping the expertise of Alexandria, Va.'s Lardner/Klein Landscape Architects in successfully bringing about similar riverfront trail projects around the country, as well as the engineering services of Bloomington-based Farnsworth Group.

The study also provides an opportunity to look at other factors, such as river flooding and trail maintenance.

Livingston said the overall hope is to create a new tourism draw not just for East Peoria, but the region as a whole.

"One of the things we continue to surprise visitors with when they come to this area is they expect corn fields and bean fields for miles around. And they get into the Illinois River Valley here. And it has a lot of beauty to it. And so, you know, this is a great opportunity to really take advantage of that," he said. "And if you can provide these recreational opportunities for folks to take advantage of, it's definitely a good thing."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.