Last night’s meeting in Willow Springs about the Centennial Trails’ impending closure May 13 went as well as you expected/can imagine: Agency staff out of their element standing in front of a room of angry, distrustful people. Near the end, the district engaged a little too much in us-against-all-of-you, it got loud, and police poked their heads into the room just to check on things, which settled down. Then meeting adjourned.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago turned out key staff engaged in the McCook Reservoir expansion project, Commissioner Debra Shore, and supporting display boards and project map hand outs (above display board photo courtesy of League of Illinois Bicyclists’ Gina Kenny, more at the link). The district’s engineering chief, Catherine O’Connor, led the presentation and public input. The initial audience of maybe 75 was closer to 100 by the meeting’s end an hour later. The district captured all comments on videotape.
The district committed to clear and informative detour signs, to hiring a landscape architect to design the Centennial Trail’s replacement, and to giving serious consideration to all comments and ideas offered about the project.
Six months ago, the MWRD’s level of consideration for this meeting would probably have been much more appreciated by some. But the audience was still too stung by the trail’s unannounced-closure-then-extremely-short-notice-closure to treat any of the meeting as more than perfunctory.
Many who commented prefaced their questions and criticisms with appreciation for the MWRD’s efforts on flood control, and even for their partnership in new trail projects. Most of the comments circled around our six points. (Of course we congratulate ourselves, but feel free to remind us that they’re kind of obvious.) Three in particular were most voiced:
- Willow Springs Road is a poor detour route—many accused the MWRD of putting trail users in harm’s way, and said the district should do what it can to improve user safety
- The I&M Canal Trail between Willow Springs Road and Route 83 needs resurfacing to accommodate the added trail traffic as a detour route
- Planning the trail closure and its impacts was incompetent/inconsiderate/irresponsible/etc., and the MWRD needs to do better
Heather Wickens of the Canal Corridor Association noted the negative economic impact that trail closure could have on towns like Willow Springs and Lemont along the corridor. Ders Anderson of Openlands asked about the legality of burying a federally funded trail—$3+ million of Enhancements funding constructed the trail—which also became a repeated topic. MWRD’s O’Connor said “We’ll look into that.”
Whether the MWRD looks into any of the comments and questions will become obvious over the next three years, of course. Collecting this input four days before closure doesn’t engender a lot of confidence, but to the MWRD’s credit, I think they really feel that they’ve done the wrong thing here. In conversations with staff and Commissioner Shore after adjournment, I found them a bit stunned and also sincere about earning back trail users’ trust. A staff member remarked how the district must close roads to repair sewer issues, and that this project looked on paper like another road closure and detour. They didn’t realize that people have a much stronger, much more personal connection to trails than they do to any road or street. That sounds like a dumb thing not to realize, but inside a huge agency like theirs, laser focused on opening their TARP system, it rings true.
It might offer a glimmer of an upside from last night: as frustrating and possibly unproductive (time will tell) as it was, I think last night’s meeting might have made trails count for the MWRD in a powerful way that they didn’t before. The region’s trail systems need the district to continue being the world-class trail building partner they’ve been since the Centennial Trail was established. They might be on their way to becoming world-class trail stewards as well.
Catherine O’Connor invited the audience back in one month to learn the district’s response to the comments and questions raised last night. That’s a good next move. We’ll post info when it’s available.
Thanks to everyone for reading, and special thanks to you if you turned out last night. And please don’t be shy about donating a little to Trails for Illinois—these fights are draining, and we’d appreciate the help.
Comments welcome, and have a great weekend. Maybe ride the Centennial one last time.
Steve Buchtel, Executive Director