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Long-Awaited Improvements To Des Plaines River Trail Will Make Connections To Northwest Side And Lake County More Accessible

Trail improvements are still at least a year away — but advocates have big hopes of making the trail safer and more accessible for cyclists and pedestrians.

Part of the Des Plaines River Trail in the Forest Preserves of Cook County.
Active Transportation Alliance
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DUNNING — Improvements to the Des Plaines River Trail are inching forward as officials aim to increase safety and accessibility for city dwellers to enjoy the nature of Lake County and Wisconsin.

The trail, which runs 55 miles from the Wisconsin border down through Lake County and into northern and central Cook County, is one of Chicagoland’s most popular routes. Over the past decade, the Forest Preserves of Cook County worked to identify parts of the trail that are in need of improvement, including parts of the southern route that runs through the Far Northwest Side and nearby suburbs.

The plan is to rebuild, reroute and revitalize portions of the trail from Touhy to North avenues and to later add an extension of the trail that goes through River Forest and Forest Park to at least Madison Street.

Plans includes standardizing the width and texture of the trail, improving street crossings at several locations with tunnels and overpasses and adding bike trails from east to west that connect the city to the trail.

Since 2012, the forest preserves have worked with local groups and municipalities to organize funding, plan the design improvements and get public input on the 12.5-mile project. It is estimated to cost $70 million — the most expensive undertaking the preserves have worked on, said Carl Vogel, director of communications for the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

“That figure is beyond our budget, and we are working with local municipalities and other funding partners to bring in the resources that will be necessary for engineering and construction,” Vogel said.

So far, the project has raised more than $2 million from various groups. The money funded Phase I engineering and planning, which was completed last year.

Credit: Provided
Improvements to the popular Des Plaines River Trail will add new routes, fix flooding and make crossing streets and tunnels safer for users.

Now, the project needs funding to complete Phase 2 of engineering and construction. Plans are in the hands of the Illinois Department of Transportation, one of the groups that manages portions of the trail.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County expects to get approval for the latest rounds of funding this summer, Vogel said.

From Bryn Mawr to Lawrence Avenues, the Forest Preserves of Cook County plans to relocate the trail above the 100-year floodplain and construct a pedestrian overpass at Lawrence. The plan for Lawrence to Irving Park Road is to move the trail away from the river and out of the areas prone to flooding.

Rudy Repa, a planner for Franklin Park’s Department of Community Development and Zoning, said these improvements will increase safety and reduce accidents seen near the trail in recent years, as well as fix the flooding problem.

“You have families and kids that can’t go through tunnels because they are flooded 60 percent of the year, so people have to make paths to roadways and cross at un-signaled intersections,” Repa said. “We’re making sure we have signalized intersections to connect to the neighborhoods of Chicago and these suburban communities to get people from 10 to 20 minutes away into the trail.”

Franklin Park Mayor Barrett Pederson said he uses the trail often and began to push local departments for improvements in 2011. He said the updates will connect parts of the state to Wisconsin and encourage a healthier lifestyle for residents.

“We know that when people move and exercise, they are healthier and also adds to the quality of life for our residents,” Pederson said. “You see all of these people that flock to the Lakefront Trail and other trails. One of the things that been keeping more people from enjoying this path has been the quality of it and the accessibility.”

Credit: Active Transportation Alliance
The reconstruction of the 12.5 miles of the Des Plaines River Trail from Touhy to North Avenues is estimated to be the most expensive trail project the Forest Preserves of Cook County and will fix eroded areas of the trail.

Active Transportation Alliance, one of the local transportation agencies working on the advocacy side of the project, conducted a plan for the southern segment of the trail in 2019. It highlighted why the trail needs improvement and included a survey of what people want to see: better safety for cyclists and pedestrians, connectivity to other trails and better accessibility to the trail with upgrades and bridges.

Jim Merrell, managing director of advocacy at Active Trans, said the group also connected municipalities to local groups and supporters to spread awareness and gain feedback about the improvements.

Merrell said the advocacy group wants to highlight the trail’s regional significance. He hopes the updates will bring more people to visit the forest preserves and connect other trails in the county.

They’re “an important destination but currently not accessible for people if you are not driving,” Merrell said. “As the [Des Plaines River Trail] trail improvements continue to wind their way through the glacial pace of these public works project, we want to make sure we are also talking about how are people are going to ride safely from Portage Park or Dunning up to the forest preserve with their family and not have to be a super-confident cyclist to be able to do that.” 

The long-awaited trail improvements to the Des Plaines River Trail have several hoops to jump through before construction can begin, since the four sections of the trail need funding and design approval from different agencies.

In the meantime, the forest preserve is pursuing federal Congestion Mitigation Air Quality funds for Bryn Mawr to Lawrence, which should be announced this fall. If approved, the funds would cover Phases 2 and 3 of construction engineering work and the costs for the start of construction in late 2022.

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