The Old Plank Road Trail in Will and Cook counties has been included in a 3,700-mile Great American Rail-Trail route that was announced Wednesday, May 8, by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) organization.
The local path is one of more than 125 trails designated along the "Great American" route, which stretches from Washington, D.C., to Washington State. The OPRT is a 22-mile trail that travels from Joliet through New Lenox, Frankfort, Matteson, Richton Park, Park Forest and Chicago Heights and is owned and managed by multiple jurisdictions, including the Forest Preserve District of Will County.
The remainder of the Great American route in Illinois uses the I&M Canal State Trail in Will, Grundy and LaSalle Counties and the Hennepin Canal Parkway in Bureau and Henry counties.
"It’s exciting to learn the Old Plank Road Trail was chosen to be part of the Great American Rail-Trail," said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve District's chief operating officer. "The OPRT was our first rail-trail conversion and would not have been possible without local advocates and volunteers as well as the commitment of our municipal partners in preserving the corridor and funding the development and maintenance of the trail."
The Great American Rail-Trail "will unite millions of people over thousands of miles," Ryan Chao, president of RTC, said in a press release. "This trail is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide – together – an enduring gift to the nation that will bring joy for generations to come."
The preferred route of the nation's first cross-country multiuse trail is detailed in a comprehensive report released by the organization. The Great American Rail-Trail Route Assessment Report outlines RTC's recommendation for the route, developed in close partnership with state and local trail planners and managers.
The organization sought a cross-country route that would provide a high-quality experience for trail users and boost economic and social benefits to the communities it connects, said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at RTC.
Over 12 months, RTC analyzed more than 34,000 miles of multiuse trails, reviewed state and local trail plans and held discussions with hundreds of trail partners and state agencies along the route. The preferred route aligns with RTC's and its partners' goal of having one contiguous route that is initially more than 80 percent, and ultimately entirely, off-street and separated from vehicle traffic, and is the most direct route between Washington, D.C., and Washington State.
The route travels through 12 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to highlighting the 1,900 miles of existing route, the report also identifies trail gaps in need of development to fully connect the Great American Rail-Trail route into one contiguous course, according to a press release from RTC.
"We believe the Great American Rail-Trail will be a transformative project for the nation, as it magnifies on a grand scale the benefits that trails have delivered to communities for decades," Chao said. "Whether bridging gaps within and between communities, creating safe walking and biking access to jobs, transit, shopping and green space; or serving as recreation for cyclists, runners and casual daily explorers, this will be America's trail."
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RTC will work to spur trail completion and it is asking 1 million trail lovers to pledge their support to the cross-country trail. All of the details, including the route, are available on RTC's Great American website.
The OPRT has been a popular path ever since the first 12-mile section opened more than two decades ago on July 19, 1997. That first trail section stretched from Western Avenue in Park Forest to the Forest Preserve District’s Hickory Creek Preserve – Hickory Creek Junction in Mokena. Subsequent trail additions pushed the path west into New Lenox and Joliet. The most recent extension brought the trail a mile farther east to Chicago Heights for a total trail length of 22 miles.
Plans for creating the path date back to the 1970s when the Forest Preserve worked with 14 municipalities to try to gain ownership of the defunct Penn Central railroad line. It took around 20 years for the group to get the funding necessary to buy the rail route and there was opposition by some along the way. But trail proponents persevered and the OPRT became a reality.
Success with the OPRT paved the way for other regional trails and trail conversion projects, and the Forest Preserve will continue to look for similar opportunities in the future, Schultz said.
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