News

Finish line finally in view for CeMar Trail

Link envisioned from downtown Cedar Rapids to Uptown Marion

Pedestrians and bicyclists on March 24 use the Grand Avenue spur of the CeMar Trail in Marion. One phase of the project
Pedestrians and bicyclists on March 24 use the Grand Avenue spur of the CeMar Trail in Marion. One phase of the project to complete the trail includes construction of paved trail from the Grand Avenue spur to the city limits near Mount Cavalry Cemetery. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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MARION — The finish line for the CeMar Trail is in sight for a long-planned, slowly progressing paved recreation trail connecting Uptown Marion and downtown Cedar Rapids.

Kevin Kirchner, president of the Linn County Trails Association, said completion of the project has been anticipated for decades. Connecting Cedar Rapids with Marion by trail is going to not only benefit recreation cyclists and other trail users but also businesses, Kirchner said.

“I go to Marion frequently as a biker, and there is no direct, easy route,” Kirchner said. “Riding on the road is not a preferred method, so this trail would be perfect to get more people active and on the trail system.”

After years on the drawing board and stops and starts in planning with limited progress, funding plans are in place to complete the 7-mile CeMar Trail potentially in 2022 or 2023.

The CeMar will be an inviting addition to the bike trail network with underpasses for the busiest roads — Highway 100 in Marion and First Avenue N in Cedar Rapids — making a convenient connection with little overlap with vehicle traffic, Kirchner said. For bike commuters, it potentially could become as fast or faster than taking a car, he said.

“It is completely separated from vehicle traffic,” said Kesha Billings, an associate planner for Marion. “From a safety standpoint, that’s awesome, and from a user standpoint, that’s a great asset to have.”

There’s still a long way to go, though. Few sections exist so far.

The first known plans for the CeMar Trail were created in 1992. It was named CeMar for connecting Cedar Rapids and Marion. Funding for recreational trails at that time was more controversial than it is today.

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The plan was to link from Cedar Lake, which is part of the Cedar Lake and Cedar River Trail systems in downtown Cedar Rapids, to the Uptown Marion commercial district. Abandoned railroad beds would serve as the backbone, along with segments through neighborhoods and parks.

But plans were pushed back time and again.

Environmental reviews, private property acquisitions and funding constraints slowed progress, said Brenna Fall, a capital improvement program manager for Cedar Rapids.

Gary Peterson, Cedar Rapids capital improvement project manager, noted one trail segment required 65 property easements, and a needed railroad right of way was complicated by the property’s ownership changing hands multiple times.

This was overcome when Mount Mercy University acquired the grounds and agreed to a trail along the perimeter of the property, he said. Trail construction was incorporated into the building of a new athletic complex, he said.

“It is time consuming,” Peterson said.

The first leg of CeMar was completed between 20th and 29th Street NE in Cedar Rapids about a decade ago. Only recently did momentum begin building again.

A 2012 decision by the board of the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization to allocate 80 percent of federal transportation funding to trails — about $4 million a year — for a four-year period opened up a new funding stream. Roads had long received the vast majority of the federal funds.

In the next four-year cycle, trails received 50 percent. The CeMar Trail was made the top priority in the new funding plan, said Brandon Whyte, Corridor MPO multimodal transportation planner.

“CeMar was the first to receive funding,” Whyte said.

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This year, Cedar Rapids plans to begin a two-year effort that will knock out its largest hurdle — an underpass of the 29,000-vehicle-per-day First Avenue E at 31st Street near the Raining Rose manufacturer. In addition, a paved trail will connect between 29th Street near B Avenue NE to the city limits near Mount Calvary Cemetery.

Earlier this year, the Cedar Rapids City Council approved an $9.3 million budget for a project also including surrounding road work, traffic signal improvements and pedestrian upgrades along First Avenue between 27th and 34th Street E. The road work is the final piece of a complete overhaul of First Avenue E from 27th Street to 40th Street that began in 2014.

The project is an example of multilayered funding that has been sought to bring the trail to life. In this case, the Corridor MPO approved $5.1 million of federal-aid and $500,000 came from Iowa Department of Transportation grants. The trail portion of the project is estimated to cost $3.5 million.

A segment from Cedar Lake to the Mount Mercy campus is expected to be completed this year, according to Corridor MPO maps.

By the end of 2021, Cedar Rapids is expected to be finished with its 3-mile section of the CeMar Trail. The Marion section is 4 miles.

Construction of the trail in Marion is broken up into five phases.

Demolishing an existing railroad bridge over Marion Boulevard is phase one and will be open for bids Aug. 20.

In 2018, a national call for artists led to a committee selecting Cara Briggs Farmer, of Marion, to create a design for the bridge over Marion Boulevard. Billings said the design needs to be presented to the Marion City Council for approval before being widely unveiled to the public.

A bridge over Indian Creek Road and construction of the trail to the bridge is phase three, which Billings said “will get the most hype.”

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The bridge, which was constructed in the early 1900s, is viewed by many residents as historic. But Billings said it’s not safe. It will be replaced by a pedestrian bridge using some of the original architecture to evoke a sense of history.

“We’ve had some pushback ... but unfortunately, it can’t be used in the condition it’s in. The bridge in some places is literally falling apart. We’re trying to save the significant pieces to still get that tie back to the railroad,” Billings said.

Phase four will tie together the bridge over Indian Creek Road and a paved trail to Seventh Street.

The last phase is the construction from Grand Avenue Spur south and west to the Marion city limits near Mount Calvary Cemetery.

The Marion portion of the CeMar Trail project is estimated at about $6.3 million, 20 percent of which comes from city bonding.

One of the roadblocks to completion of the project is improvements to the sewer treatment plant off Highway 13, which serves Cedar Rapids, Marion, Hiawatha and Robins.

Those improvements need to be made at the plant before that segment of the trail can be completed,

Comments: (319) 368-8664; grace.king@thegazette.com

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