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Centennial Trail Closes for 2-3 years starting May 13


Chicago-area trail users, please move your schedules to attend this:

Public Informational Meeting to discuss Centennial Trail and McCook Reservoir with Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

6 p.m. on Thursday, May 9, 2013
Willow Springs Community Center, 8156 Archer Ave., Willow Springs

Click here to jump to our six points for the discussion (below the following section)

What you need to know:

One hundred miles of pipes the size of the gateway above move storm water underneath Cook County, and their capacity was certainly tested two weeks ago. The water they carry has to go somewhere, and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has targeted McCook Reservoir (map) as critical storage for the system when its expansion is complete.

The overburden from that expansion—1.8 million cubic yards of brown earth that’s scraped off the top of, in this case, limestone to be mined—will be deposited on the Centennial Trail, near Route 83 in Lemont. The MWRD wants to rebuild the trail when they’re finished in 2-3 years, and they’d like your input on that.

The Centennial Trail is built on MWRD property through a lease agreement with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Trucks can transport the overburden nearly five miles down along the Sanitary & Ship Canal to the dump site, never leaving MWRD property, avoiding public roads. This has huge savings for the agency by avoiding dumping permits, tipping fees, other transportation costs—$9 million total savings for the $18 million project.

It’s the kind of lean, cost-efficient thinking we want out of our public agencies. But we also want them to be good stewards, and in this case, there’s a federally funded trail there.

When the overburden removal is complete, where these guys are riding (yes, I was in a car, and it’s ironic, get over it) will instead be a dirt pile that’s 1.5 miles long from Route 83 east, and 60 feet high. The Centennial Trail, which was named by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in honor of the MWRD’s centennial, will be buried beneath it. Over $3 million in federal transportation money paid for the trail’s construction, and nearly $1 million local tax payer money.

The MWRD needs 2-3 years to complete overburden removal. In 2015, the agency will build a new trail on the north side of the pile, closer to the Des Plaines River. In the mean time, the MWRD plans to sign a detour route on both Route 83 and at Columbia Woods along Willow Springs Road directing Centennial Trail users to the I&M Canal Trail on the other side of the Sanitary & Ship Canal.

Here are issues that trail users need resolved:

1. A detour across the Willow Springs Road bridge to its intersection with Archer Road is confusing and dangerous. The John Husar I&M Trailhead, the detour’s destination, is completely hidden and unsigned from Willow Springs Road and Archer Road. How will the MWRD work with Cook County Highways, IDOT, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to mitigate these issues? Can they provide a permanent wayfinding sign solution for the John Husar trailhead?

2. The MWRD closed the Centennial Trail in early March without notifying the public, the Forest Preserve District, the adjacent communities, and IDOT (a requirement when closing a federally funded transportation facility). Now their public meeting is four days before closure. The agency is too important as a regional trail partner to be so cavalier about its plans. Will the MWRD establish a protocol of alerting the public and necessary agencies regarding potential trail impacts during project planning, before the scope is finalized and the project bid?

3. The MWRD should show a detailed plan for the Centennial Trail’s replacement. The landscape of the “island” between the Sanitary & Ship Canal and the Des Plaines River will be dramatically and permanently changed. A new trail to replace the Centennial will have to deal with slope, erosion, increased flooding as the giant berm contains Des Plaines River overflow. Will the MWRD partner with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in a public process to develop the planning and design specifications for a replacement trail?

4. Will the replacement trail be finished at the close of the overburden project, or will it be built after the 2-3 year closure—and really be unavailable for four years or more?

5. The Centennial Trail is part of the I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor, and is planned to connect to Salt Creek Trail at the historic portage site at 47th St. and Harlem. 


From there, trail users could bicycle to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. That extension is nearly entirely on MWRD property, as is the current Centennial Trail. In exchange for eliminating 2-3 years of service to trail users along the Centennial Trail, will the MWRD enable the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to develop the connection to the portage site?

6. The overburden pile of clean earth can itself become a recreational resource. Its height would put one above the tree line, giving a spectacular view of the valley and likely the city of Chicago. Will the MWRD allow organizations to develop walking and mountain biking trails that climb the berm?

None of these points are intended to stop the McCook Reservoir expansion from on-time completion—we need the MWRD to do its job, AND to live up to their well-earned reputation as fantastic trail building partners.

What other recommendations or issues will you bring to the meeting? Share them!

From the mailbag - Trail Rules & Etiquette Signs
On Jan 24, 2013, Laura wrote:

In the short term, it has been requested by some aldermen that our trail have some etiquette signage installed in a couple of places. While the designation of food, drink and restrooms is also being considered, they would like the trail courtesy and etiquette signs up for this spring. Our neighboring town said if we come up with something that looks good, perhaps they would incorporate into their section as well.
Do you have any samples of trail usage signs that you like or have found to be effective? Looking for things like appropriate passing, respect for private property, using recycle cans, riding single file during congested times etc…..

Laura, they don’t work. People want signs so that they can point out what the rules are to people thought to be breaking them.

A lot of the problem is that ALL the rules get put on a sign. Traffic signs do not work this way. “SPEED LIMIT 50 MPH” - just one rule on one sign, not:

  • Speed limit is 50 MPH. Faster drivers will be ticketed!
  • Stay on the right of the road except when passing
  • Use your headlights after sunset
  • Please stop for pedestrians
  • When waved at, wave back. All non-wavers will be ticketed

…and on and on, all in like 14 point type. But agencies install trail signs like this all the time, and no one reads them. You also of course can’t put all the rules that everyone wants each on their own sign - you’d have a trail experience that’s nothing but signs. 

So rules & etiquette signs waste money, returning no value to the trail user experience, or to the towns that install them. Why do roads get away with not putting up a sign with ALL the rules? Because people are taught the rules and etiquette of driving. How to use and share trails isn’t taught.

Better use of money: Use the bike shops, running groups, park districts, community resources (newsletter, mailings, etc) to teach trail use. Incentivize taking a quiz—a free ice cream cone? Our survey work shows that many of the users on a trail are local residents. So an effort in your community to create better trail users would hit a lot of the trail users that others are grumbling about.

If a sign has to go up, pick one rule. Maybe a sign ONLY about passing/being passed:



Could be fun, like the “KEEP CALM/CARRY ON” posters. But wow, no more message than that. In fact, maybe that’s your campaign right there with bike shops, park districts, etc., just getting that one lesson taught.

Getting more consideration between fast & slow trail users would speak to most of the conflicts trails have.

As for issues like dog poop or recycling-only bins, only a sign next to recycling only bins, or next to a doggy bag dispenser would be worth putting up. One sign, one message, with desired action clearly in view.

And then a town can use all the money it saved to make signs helping people find the trail, and inviting trail users to come into town and stay a while! THOSE are signs that return value.

A great sign reference is “Signs, Trails & Wayside Exhibits” from University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I refer to it a lot, great guidance and many examples.

One more thing: lots of times, courtesy and rules come up as a response to rising traffic on a trail. When traffic becomes a headache on the road to the mall, we widen the road. Trails return enough value to communities that expanding trails—widening to 12’, building adjacent walking/running paths, building more trails nearby—is just as appropriate a response. In metro areas, trails should be at least 12’ wide (instead of common 8’-10’), and in some places have separate surfaces for biking and running/walking, when they’re first built. We build roads based on the traffic we need/want to accommodate. Trails should be designed and built the same way.

Thanks for the question, Laura. I’m going to post this to my blog. Let me know how else I can help.

Steve Buchtel, Executive Director

Trails for Illinois
1639 Burr Oak Rd.
Homewood, IL 60430
p: 708/365-9365

May your home be your trailhead.