Plans Underway for East Peoria Trails

Public interest in expanding the regional trail system is widespread and growing. 

by Mike Rucker, Trail Advocates of Central Illinois
walkers on trail
Members of the Pimiteoui Hiking Association on the East Peoria to Morton River Trail

I believe the time is right to move forward with our plans for developing more recreation trails here in East Peoria,” suggests Ty Livingston, East Peoria director of planning and community development. About 20 years ago, he notes, plans for a trail along the Illinois River with connective links to other trails did not move forward due to a lack of community support and financial resources. Today, however, interest in expanding the regional trail system is widespread. 

One reason for this, Livingston believes, is the increased desire of many people to use trails during the pandemic—a trend that has taken place nationwide. The sale of bicycles has increased to the point that inventories have been depleted. According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, trail usage has more than doubled in the United States over the last 18 months as people sought ways to get outside for recreation: biking, jogging or hiking. This has not gone unnoticed by local planners and community leaders. 

“All communities in this area are doing more planning to build or enhance their trails and bike corridors,” notes Ryan Harms, a planner with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. 

Thus far, the Fon du Lac Park District, Illinois Central College, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Department of Transportation and Bike Peoria/Trail Advocates of Central Illinois have been involved in developing the trail plans in East Peoria. The public will also be engaged in the process. “Enthusiasm by the public is imperative to move a project such as this forward,” Livingston adds. “If all goes well, construction should begin as soon as 2023.” 

Connecting Communities
With the advent of the automobile about a century ago, communities focused on building roads and streets around cars, giving little or no thought to bicycles. This is changing. As more people use bicycles for recreation and transportation, municipalities and other government bodies have awakened to the myriad benefits of recreation trails and safe bicycle connectivity. Good things are in the works for local trail development.

The primary trail under consideration for East Peoria would be constructed along the river between the Bob Michel and McClugage bridges—a beautiful, five-mile link. There is to be a trailhead on the Peoria side of the river, while another is under consideration for the East Peoria end of the new McClugage Bridge. “Trailheads are important for folks to park their vehicles as they start on the trail,” Harms explains.

The new McClugage Bridge and the proposed re-decking of the Bob Michel Bridge provide strong motivation for the proposed East Peoria trails, as there will be an excellent bike/pedestrian corridor on the former and a bike lane on the latter. “The region has a unique opportunity to connect the area’s trail system with these improvements,” Livingston notes. “It makes sense to focus on the connection that can be made along the East Peoria riverfront to connect these projects and provide a lasting benefit to residents and visitors alike.” 

And that is not the only new trail link under consideration. In 2016, East Peoria and other area communities, in concert with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, began developing a master plan for bicycle path connectivity. The resulting Heart of Illinois Regional Bicycle Plan identifies a proposed bicycle network within Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties. It is the first regional plan to connect communities via trails and strengthen bicycle transportation across the region.

Members of the Pimiteoui Hiking Association on the East Peoria to Morton River Trail
Members of the Pimiteoui Hiking Association on the East Peoria to Morton River Trail

Broad Benefits
Harms believes that trail systems linking the three counties will provide a wide range of benefits. Besides the obvious recreational and health benefits, trails bring incremental business to adjacent merchants and nearby businesses from residents and visitors alike. In fact, recreational tourism is a growing industry in which bike and trail enthusiasts travel to other communities and even other states to experience their unique trails. It all adds up to a much broader range of advantages for communities that invest in their trail systems, Livingston explains.

“People tend to focus on the recreational or environmental aspects of trails and greenways, failing to see the big picture—the total package of benefits that a trail or greenway can provide to communities, including public health, economic and transportation benefits, and even the effect on community pride and identity.”

The land along the river is a mix of public land, electric utility right-of-way and private ownership. The first step in moving the riverfront trail forward, according to Livingston, is to engage the property owners who would need to provide an easement for the trail in some areas. He indicates that this process is already underway and is optimistic about the outcome. 

To secure the best guidance and leadership for its trail plans, East Peoria has engaged Jim Klein of Alexandria, Virginia. He is a landscape architect with 39 years of experience in the planning and design of all kinds of “long and skinny places,” including trails, greenways, river corridors, byways, heritage areas and touring routes. Along with Klein’s planning expertise, Farnsworth Group will prepare the engineering plans. “This combination of a national expert and a local engineering firm,” Livingston notes,  “will lend credence to the process and bolster public support for the quality of the planning and eventual construction.”

Future Developments
East Peoria’s riverfront trail is still several years in the future as its route depends on negotiations with private landowners and businesses. Next, the engineering plans must be prepared and approved before construction can begin. Comprehensive trail networks always take years to complete, Harms explains. “The important factor is to have an overall plan of connectivity.” 

One trail connection could be to Centennial Drive, which would link East Peoria to Washington’s trail system. “Centennial is a pretty straight shot and there’s already been some work done to facilitate a trail,” Harms adds. The comprehensive plans also include the possibility of a trail from East Peoria to Pekin and another to Illinois Central College. Look for more details on these plans—and opportunities for public feedback and engagement—in the future. PM

It is with great sadness that we report that Ryan Harms drowned while swimming in Lake Michigan on September 5. As a planner with the Tri-County Planning Commission, Ryan was a key member in the planning and development of recreation trails and other transportation-related projects within our community. His absence will be sorely missed.

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