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Closing gaps in bike trail network focus of spending

'Missing Link' and CEMAR Trails are top priorities

A cyclist rides on the bike path along Dubuque St. in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
A cyclist rides on the bike path along Dubuque St. in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — A short but vital link in an expanding bike trail network in the Corridor is set to open adjacent to Dubuque Street on Friday.

Until now, cyclists had to take a meandering, hilly side trail through wetlands and neighborhoods or battle traffic at a busy interchange to cross Interstate 80.

The new trail segment offers a straight shot complete with its own bike/pedestrian bridge over I-80. It connects with the existing Iowa River Trail, which goes six miles to North Liberty.

“You have to think about the pinch points,” said Sarah Walz, a transportation planner for the Johnson County Metropolitan Planning Organization. “A lot of people want to bike up that direction because of everything off N. Dubuque Street in terms of recreation and commuting. You'll get a lot more people using the trail if the connection is there.”

The project highlights a dilemma. The most critical links, like overpasses and underpasses which avoid traffic and improve safety, can make or break a trail system for some riders. They also tend to be most expensive.

The price tag in Iowa City was $2.1 million for 1.1 miles.

Miles of trails built in Cedar Rapids per year

* This chart shows how many miles of trails have been built in Cedar Rapids for every year since 1975. After going decades without building any trails, the city has built several miles worth of trails every year since 1999.

Trails in the Corridor, including the improved Iowa River Trail, remain short or fragmented, which can inhibit use. The 73-mile north-to-south Cedar Valley Nature Trail is the backbone of the trail system, but is the only long distance connection.

That should change over the next four years.

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Key trail systems, such as CEMAR, Hoover and Clear Creek, are budgeted to fill in, stitching together miles of recreational trails. Gaps between Cedar Rapids and Marion, Coralville and F.W. Kent Park, and Ely and Solon, among others, will be addressed.

“Slowly but surely we are chipping away at connections of the networks,” said Mark Wyatt, executive director of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition. “Rather than just build trails, funders are look at that ... trying to use those dollars to make regional connections.”

Cities, such as Cedar Rapids, Marion and Coralville, are rolling out bike amenities to meet demand from residents and employers. Smaller communities, such as Ely, or Madrid and Grimes near Des Moines, prosper from spots on robust trail networks.

“They want to be the trail capital of the world,” Don Brazelton, chief executive of Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards, said of Des Moines. “You have spider-like development (of trails) going out from urban areas to smaller communities. They are booming with dollars being spent in those communities.”

Wheeling down to Ely

The Corridor lacks the population density of Des Moines, but Ely has embraced the spandex culture of being on the trail.

“The Hoover Trail has become the most obvious and prominent draw of new people into town for tourism,” said Aaron Anderson, the Ely city clerk and administrator.

The Hoover Trail connected Ely to the Cedar Valley Trail in Cedar Rapids in 2011. The bedroom community of about 2,000 saw more bikers wheeling in from Cedar Rapids and Hiawatha, out to La Porte City, Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

Odies Bar and Grill and The Retreat, a bakery that opened in 2013, among others, have seen a boost in business, Anderson said. Ely has devoting $70,000 to build trails through town, which also get used by locals, he said.

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A 2012 Iowa Bicycle Coalition/University of Northern Iowa study estimated $364.8 million a year is generated from bike tourism in Iowa, which has 2,500 miles of trails.

Missing Link

The Hoover Trail will eventually connect into Johnson County, opening Ely's borders to another population of cyclists, and vice versa for Johnson County communities.

The Corridor MPO has budgeted the last stretch of the Hoover Trail in Linn County, $950,000 in 2016, going from Ely south to the county line. The so called “missing link” now sits in Johnson County.

Johnson County Conservation has $4.3 million budgeted to bring the Hoover Trail 5.9 miles from the county line to the edge of Solon by 2018.

The county connects trails between communities, while cities are responsible to route riders within city limits, another key component of connectivity, said Brad Friedhof, Johnson County Conservation program manager.

Solon, which is a biking destination already, intends to build a trail head and is developing a bike system to get riders around the city, said Solon City Administrator Cami Rasmussen.

Leery about Iowa Bike plan

State or federal grants cover the bulk of trail projects, but demand is up and funding streams have shrunk prompting strategic planning to connect trails.

The Iowa recreational trails program received 43 grant applications seeking $23.4 million in 2015. Six grants worth $3.4 million are recommended for funded, including part of the Hoover Trail. The state allocated $6 million for trails in 2014, which was higher than normal.

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At the federal level, bike and pedestrian money through the Federal Highway Administration tightened to about $820 million in 2014, down from $1.2 billion in 2009.

The Iowa Department of Transportation postponed a statewide bicycle and pedestrian long-range plan, which was due this summer, and trail accommodations aren't part of the $200 million Highway 100 extension, a local planner said.

Craig Markley, systems planning director at the Iowa DOT, said federal dollars for cycling, including 90 percent of the Transportation Alternatives Program and a portion of Surface Transportation Program, are given to the discretion of local planning organization, such as the Johnson County and Corridor MPOs.

The bike plan was slowed to coordinate with an overall long-range transportation plan, due in 2017, and to await spending guidance from the Federal Highway Administration, Markley said.

Wyatt, who served on an advisory committee for the plan, said the delay in approving the “strong” plan sets back progress on bike connections. It will be harder to add amenities, such as wide shoulders, bike lanes or trails, after road projects are complete.

Filling the Pipeline

The Corridor MPO will direct 80 percent of its Surface Transportation Program money to trails from 2016-20. Typically, the majority goes to roads.

Participating communities, including Cedar Rapids, Marion, Robins, Hiawatha and Linn County, can take on more projects. Having local money in hand makes bids for grants more competitive.

Cedar Rapids is sponsoring $58 million worth of projects in which bicycle or pedestrian elements are a featured component in 2016-19, according to the Statewide Transportation Improvement Plan, which is a registry of projects with federal transportation dollars.

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Trail miles in Cedar Rapids have doubled to 50 since 2009 with 7.5 miles more planned for 2016. Marion, Robins and Hiawatha are sponsoring another $11 million in projects with bike and pedestrian facilities.

Old and new trail spurs are budgeted for CEMAR, Edgewood, Bowling Street, Indian Creek, and Cherokee Trails. Trail footprints spider through Cedar Rapids and Marion, foreshadowing a day you will be able to get just about anywhere by trail.

CEMAR is Priority No. 1

In 2016, plans call to loop Daniels Park, Garfield Elementary and Lindale Mall into CEMAR. Money is budgeted to fully link Cedar Rapids and Marion via CEMAR within five years, according to Cedar Rapids bike maps.

The Cherokee Trail from Morgan Park to the Ellis Trail along the Cedar River, and an Edgewood Trail spanning the Cedar River are funded over the next four years. East-west legs are planned along 42nd Street and O Avenue, connecting multiple north-south trails.

“There's a lot in the pipeline,” Wyatt said. “Seeing some of the projects come on line and show success, it's been a great opportunity in the Corridor. It makes those communities more livable by having bike and pedestrian trails.”

Fewer projects in Johnson County

Johnson County communities have fewer projects.

The Johnson County MPO district has $6.3 million allocated to projects with bike or pedestrian as a main element, according to the 2016-19 statewide improvement plan.

A 20-year, $20 million conservation bond approved in 2008 is used to acquire land for trails and wetlands, such as the Hoover Trail. Requiring developers to include trails has helped extending trail networks in Iowa City and Coralville.

Coralville allocates $80,000 a year to secure state and federal grants, said Coralville Parks Director Sherri Proud. This allowed investments in trails, including costly underpasses on business strips along Highway 965 and 6.

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The Clear Creek Trail from Coralville to Tiffin in 2017, and connecting the Highway 1 Trail from Sunset to Mormon Trek Boulevard in 2018 are on deck.

Friedhof said Johnson County Conservation has options to buy for some but not all of the land to carry the Clear Creek Trail from Tiffin to F.W. Kent Park, which could be complete in 2018 or 2019, he said. Eventually, it will reach Oxford creating a 15-mile trail.

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