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'Finally!' Trail Connection Project Completed after Years of Planning



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The Black Road bridge connection provides a safer way for people to cross over Interstate 55 and the DuPage River. (Photo by Chad Merda)

Twenty-two years ago, an east-west line was drawn on a map showing the closest point between the DuPage River Trail in Shorewood and the Rock Run Greenway Trail in Joliet.

It made sense to connect the two north-south trails along Black Road where the gap between them was the shortest. And connecting the trails would enhance recreational opportunities for bikers, runners and walkers in Will County, but also provide a safer way for people to cross over the DuPage River and Interstate 55.

The trail connection would link Hammel Woods with Rock Run Preserve as well as schools, libraries and commercial centers. And it would tie multiple regional trail systems together.

The trail connection that was once only a line on paper became a reality on Friday, November 12, when it opened to the public for the first time with a public ribbon cutting.

Ralph Schultz, who is now the Forest Preserve District’s executive director, drew that first line on the map when he was a landscape architect for the District.

“I included it in a 1999 capital plan that was funded by referendum,” he said. “It’s 22 years for me, going on 23 years, to see this project come to fruition and it’s absolutely amazing.”

During a recent interview near the new pedestrian bridge over the DuPage River, Schultz was asked how he felt seeing the trail connection completed.

“Finally!” he said. “We’re finally done. It’s finally in. It’s taken a long time.”

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'Culmination of a career'

Through the years, Forest Preserve staff shepherded the project forward, inch by inch. When grant funds were requested years ago, the District was told the two trail systems weren’t long enough to warrant connecting them at that point. So, work continued on the two individual paths to make them longer.

Eventually, in 2014 and 2015, the Forest Preserve successfully sought and obtained grants to fund 80 percent of the $3 million project from the federally funded Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program (ITEP) and the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program.

In the past, crossing the river and the interstate on Black Road was a dicey proposition. But people wanted to get from one trail to the other, from Hammel Woods to Rock Run Preserve and from one town to the other, Schultz said. They would attempt to walk or bike on Black Road, which had no shoulder over the river or interstate, before the trail connection was in place.

“The road itself has a 45-mph speed limit,” Schultz said. “And so, it’s really not a safe place to be.”

Some projects can be completed in less time, but there are others, including the Black Road trail connection, that take years to finish, Schultz said.

“Sometimes a good idea lasts,” Schultz said. “And its time will come. And this is one where we kept at it, we kept pecking away. … For me, this is part of a culmination of a career spent trying to get people outside.”

'A good day'

Work on this project was delayed through the years for “myriad” reasons, said Matt Novander, the Forest Preserve's chief landscape architect. 

“The project was originally put out to bid in 2016,” Novander said. “Due to the shallow bedrock in the area, we ran into a whole bunch of utility relocates that took a lot longer than expected.”

Also, construction could not take place along Black Road during the winter due to concerns by Shorewood and Joliet officials over plowing and maintaining the road during icy and snowy conditions.

The Black Road trail connection project also was complicated because it required pedestrian bridges to get path users over both the DuPage River and Interstate 55.

The pedestrian bridges were built in Minnesota and transported to the project site via interstate. Permits had to be obtained from transportation agencies in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois as the 16-foot-wide bridge sections were trucked to their ultimate destination, Novander said.

The DuPage River bridge went in first in August 2020. The I-55 bridge was set in place in September 2021. Traffic had to be stopped twice in the early morning hours to get the sections lowered into place over the busy interstate. The crew had only two 15-minute intervals to get the bridge sections in place, Novander said.

The DuPage River bridge is made of three spans and it is 289 feet long; the I-55 bridge is made up of two pieces and it is 232 feet long.

The aesthetically pleasing bow-string pedestrian bridges are made of steel that will weather and create a protective barrier for the underlying material. Maintenance will be easier because the bridges will not have to be painted, Novander explained. The bridge decking is poured concrete.

During the project, sidewalks on the north and the south sides of Black Road were replaced. An 8-foot-wide asphalt path was installed on the north side and an 8-foot-wide concrete path was installed on the south side. A push button was installed at the East Frontage Road traffic signal to allow for safer pedestrian crossings from one side of Black Road to the other.

After overseeing the project since 2016, Novander recently walked the trail connection shortly before it opened. 

“The first time I was able to walk over the five spans was a good day,” he said.

Connecting the dots

Now that the trail connection is complete, DuPage River Trail users can safely travel east to the Rock Run Greenway Trail, which connects with the Joliet Junction Trail and the I&M Canal State Trail.

The I&M Trail heads west into LaSalle County and north to Romeoville where it links with the Veterans Memorial/Centennial Trail. Street routes also link path users to the Old Plank Road Trail and Wauponsee Glacial Trail, which are both over 20 miles long.

Ultimately, the Forest Preserve District would like to see most of its trail systems connect, Schultz said.

“What we’ve tried to do is create a spine or a network of regional trails across the county and then build smaller connecting trails,” he said. “We also want to focus very heavily on partnerships.

"Locally, there are cases where we might be able to construct a trail for several miles from one direction and several miles from the other direction and maybe there is a two-mile gap in between and we’ll work with local partners then to fill that gap in," he added. "They may ultimately control and own and manage that trail, but we want to be a part of making that network happen.”

Seeing these trail connections completed after decades of work makes it all worthwhile because of the end result, Schultz added. 

“We know that access to nature is beneficial to people,” he explained. “We know that it helps their physical and their mental health. Providing opportunities for people to get outside is important to the Forest Preserve District and it's one of the main things we strive to do.”

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