Now that the new trail bridge across N. Knoxville Ave. is complete, it is no surprise the Journal Star Editorial Board is praising the project.
Our patience has been rewarded. The formal dedication last week of the Rock Island Greenway recreation trail was 17 years in the making, but what has resulted is something Peorians can be proud of, and at a relatively bargain price.
A bargain price? By what standard?
Indeed, the cost as of last week came to $8.1 million — though some bills continue to trickle in — with local taxpayers on the hook for less than $1.1 million of that, about 13 cents on the dollar. For that they purchased the last seven or so miles — the missing link, plus accompanying investments in safety fencing, trailhead facilities, signage, etc. — in a nearly 46-mile trail stretching from Morton to Toulon, with 13 of those paved miles meandering their way through the city of Peoria, including a magnificent bridge over Knoxville Avenue near Junction City.
Cost is $8.1 million so far, yet they say “some bills continue to trickle in.” Like perpetual upkeep and unplanned repairs, such as washouts.
There was a point when we thought we’d never see the day, between critics of converting the Kellar Branch railway into a trail and arcane federal railroad law making the public asset seem like anything but, as for all practical purposes it was under private control despite the taxpayer ownership.
Hence the headline of this post. The City of Peoria and Village of Peoria Heights purchased the Kellar Branch in 1984 for rail service, and contracted with the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway (P&PU) to operated it, not for the Cities to do what they pleased with it. They found out the hard way that federal regulations came into play.
After taking over operations in 1998, locally-based Pioneer Industrial Railway demonstrated that it could operate the line at a profit and bring back business, which it did. As the voices demanding conversion to a trail increased in decibel, truth was thrown out. Pioneer was demonized. Trail proponents actually believed that recreational trails, not rail transportation, would bring economic development.
In 2010, the logjam was finally broken, and then it became a funding and bureaucratic issue given the cooperation that was necessary between local, state and federal governments. The project came to symbolize the difficulty of accomplishing anything in Peoria, which seems to be shedding some of that reputation.
Let’s review this, shall we? There were those who didn’t understand that in order to close the Kellar Branch and remove it for recreational trail use, the owners and railroad operator (Pioneer) had to petition the Surface Transportation Board for a “Discontinuance of Service Exemption.” But Pioneer rightfully insisted that its contract was good until at least July 2004, and had no intention of ending service until then.
Talk of trail conversion in the early years (1997, when the Peoria & Pekin Union’s contract allowed for an “out”) included the reasonable assumption that rail service to existing customers had to be maintained. A proposal to extend the Union Pacific’s Pioneer Industrial Lead 1,800 feet across University Street to the Kellar Branch was the surest way to continue service to Carver Lumber and Gateway Milling. But it soon became clear that the loss of the neutral P&PU connection would result in higher freight rates and slower service as everything would have to be routed via Union Pacific, regardless of its origin or destination.
As a result, Pioneer publicly opposed the plan. Trail proponents closed their ears and demanded it be implemented anyway. Who cares about the railroad, the businesses they serve and the jobs risked with substantially higher transportation costs.
Indeed, we trust some of the more unforgiving will never set foot on the trail, though we see more traffic on it every day. Witnessing the result now — with finishing touches, such as water fountains, benches, bike racks, etc., continuing to be added — we can say, as an opinion page that was on board from the very beginning, that the wait was worth it, though we’d just as soon not have to go through it again.
For those who avail themselves of the trail, it can produce positive returns in physical health. As far as the environment is concerned, biking beats driving. Long-term, both can produce spin-off savings to taxpayers on other fronts. While the economic development gains of projects like these can be exaggerated, we do believe this trail will enhance the value of nearby properties, and that easy access will be coveted by enough people that local entrepreneurs will seek to capitalize on that.
So they finally admit that economic development gains with trails can be exaggerated? They must be referring to Running Central’s recent move from Peoria Heights to Peoria’s Warehouse District. Some of those “gains” can be lost as Running Central was in the Heights just three years.
The saddest consequence of this project is that the potential for industrial development along the former Union Pacific spur (which the City of Peoria purchased in 2001) and west of Allen Road is lost. A connection to the Kellar Branch, not to replace it, but compliment it, would’ve provided economic development agencies an unmatched marketing tool for prospective industry: shovel-ready greenfield and neutral access to multiple railroads. Peoria now has little or no land to attract industry, something we need far more than more shopping centers and restaurants.
So what’s next?
The city has hired a consultant to develop a master bicycle strategy, and the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission is advocating the study of a protected bike/pedestrian lane on the McClugage Bridge, which is in IDOT’s pipeline for maintenance and perhaps more in the coming years. To the degree an expanded trail system in central Illinois can take advantage of the area’s river views, that could be a draw. Ultimately, it would be great if a bicycle network could link Peoria and the bedroom communities surrounding it. Other towns may find the Knoxville pedestrian bridge so impressive that they try to replicate it. One place that comes to mind is Washington, with large residential areas — and the young families that live in them — divided by the Route 24 bypass.
Translation = we’re not done spending money. Oh, but future projects will also be worth it. 😛
We continue to believe that quality-of-life investments are important to communities that people desire to call home, because there’s a lot of competition out there. Fall behind and people with choices may exercise them elsewhere. We have a lot to offer in central Illinois, which is ripe for that discovery.
Quality-of-life begins with a job. Previous generations were content with their surroundings, and would find their own entertainment. Now, taxpayers must foot the bill for costly recreational facilities that will result in miniscule economic growth at best.
How this project is “worth it” I’ll never understand.
– David P. Jordan