Q: What is the status of the MetroLink bike trails? I noticed quite some time ago they put in bridges to extend the bike trail to the Fairview Heights station, but they have not paved a trail. Also, the extension of the bike trail to Scott Air Force Base was not completed. What’s the latest information on completion of these trails?
A: Some people occasionally joke that they were born too soon or too late. When it comes to cycling, I’m beginning to think I was born in the wrong country.
I came to this conclusion during my recent river cruise through Europe. As we sailed up the Danube and down the Rhine, I watched endless packs of cyclists either enjoying the scenic and well-developed trail systems that paralleled the rivers or wheeling their way through the picturesque old towns and villages we visited. Our ship even carried along a dozen or so bikes that we were invited to take for a spin when we docked, but, regrettably, we were too busy cruising, touring or eating for me to take advantage.
I reached Nirvana on the final day in Amsterdam, where bicyclists rule. One estimate I found said the city’s 811,000 residents own 881,000 bikes. Nearly 60 percent of residents ride a bike daily, and police have to tow off some 75,000 illegally parked bikes every year. For the first time in my life, I saw a three-story parking garage — for bicycles only. In 2015, the city announced plans for a new bike garage that would handle 21,500 bikes by 2030. Before we ventured out on the streets, we were warned over and over that cyclists have the absolute right-of-way except at crosswalks — and even then you should look both ways three or four times.
Yes, I know hundreds of locals celebrated the sport Friday night by pedaling in the 12th annual Tour de Belleville, but for much of the rest of the year I often feel like the Maytag repairman on the city’s trails. I haven’t ridden on Main Street for years for fear of being hit, yelled at or touched or pushed by passing motorists leaning out of car windows (yes, that happened to me a handful of times). And I’m sure you’ve seen letter writers complaining that the trails you ask about are a waste of taxpayer money.
Fortunately, the Scrooges are in the minority, and work on expanding the system, although not at the pace some of us might like, continues. So it is with considerable joy that I offer the following updates courtesy of Bill Grogan, managing director of the St. Clair County Transit District:
First, the best news, which even I was unaware of: The new trail between Southwestern Illinois College and the Shiloh-Scott MetroLink station has been open for several weeks.
“We kind of had a soft opening, where a couple of things weren’t completely finished but from all the safety and customer amenities standpoint we were able to open it,” Grogan said. “So it’s been open for most of the summer now.”
It’s a great ride, he said — and one I’ll be taking this weekend before the heat comes roaring back.
More good news: The bridge over Carlyle Avenue is being finished almost as I write, Grogan told me. Riders will find a newly paved gradual incline that starts just east of East Main Street to the bridge, eliminating the hassle of crossing the often busy intersection at grade level.
“The fence company is putting up the fencing,” he said. “The contract date for completion is Oct. 1, but it’s going to be finished before then — by mid-August right now is what they’re telling us.”
On the western front, work on the Memorial Hospital to Fairview Heights trail has stalled, but should be done in short order once it gets moving again, Grogan said.
“We had essentially placed a hold on any new trail construction because of the (Illinois) budget impasse,” he said. “Now that there appears to be a budget agreement, we’re basically waiting to hear information from our funding source, which is the Illinois Department of Transportation, about what the implications of this new budget agreement are going to be.
“We know that one of the things that’s contained in it is a 10 percent reduction in our funding for FY (fiscal year) 2018, and we don’t know what other implications there may be for us. So it will be sometime in the near future that we relook at that circumstance and see whether we’re going to change our attitude about all this stuff on hold right now.”
In the meantime, the district, while it was working on erosion and retaining wall problems along the MetroLink track itself, decided to acquire the rights to the land needed for the eventual bike trail.
“So basically, the dirt’s all in the place it needs to be, there’s a gravel base where the trail’s going to be and the bridges and culverts are all in place,” Grogan said. “The only things left to do are to pave the thing and put in what we call trail finishes — the signs, the protective bollards and things of that nature. So it won’t take long once we get the green light on that, but we don’t have the green light quite yet.”
Cyclists should find two other projects exciting as well. Grogan said his district has been in preliminary discussions with Eckert’s to run a branch of the trail from the trailhead east of McKinley Avenue to the popular country store and orchards, which likely would divert riders from the dangerous Green Mount Road.
“We know Eckert’s is a big draw for a lot of people in this region,” Grogan said.
And, finally, work also is progressing on extending a trail in Madison County from Troy to O’Fallon. The Madison County Transit is overseeing the project, which likely will not be completed until at least well into the second half of next year, Grogan said.
How far above sea level is the Amsterdam airport?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: From the famous castle in Bratislava, Slovakia, I could see two other countries — Hungary and Austria. It is the only world capital that straddles three countries. Only 34 miles separates it from Vienna, making them the world’s two closest national capitals.