Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spoke confidently Wednesday of the plan to connect the Illinois and Michigan and Hennepin canal trails: “This is going to happen.”
LaHood, along with Illinois Secretary of Transportation Omer Osman, attended an event Wednesday in Peru to update and rally community leaders to close a 15-mile gap between the two canal trails and help create a 3,700-mile trail that extends from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.
The first steps have been taken, an enthusiastic LaHood told those in attendance at Riverfront Bar and Grill, which sits across from where the trail may pass.
Marquis Energy of Hennepin donated $100,000 to perform a feasibility study and the consultants have been hired.
The study will take about seven months to complete and will determine how much the trail will cost, where it will pass and what cooperation with the railroad companies will be necessary.
The study also is imperative to obtain federal and state funding.
Osman said Wednesday that the state will support the project as much as it can. Illinois, contributing 194.8 miles to the cross-country trek, is one of 12 states where the trail passes. The 15-mile gap of trail between La Salle and Bureau Junction is the largest gap in the state needed to connect the trail.
“We want to do our part and be leaders for the other states to get the project done,” Osman said.
The nonprofit group Canal Trail Connector Inc., led by co-chairs Jay McCracken and Bob Eschbach, meets regularly with a commitment to move the project forward.
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the Starved Rock Country Community Foundation, the Marquis Foundation and regional leaders were in attendance Wednesday, hearing from LaHood their support will be the key to seeing the project to fruition.
Brandi Horton, of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, said communities and businesses along the trail will see a boost of visitors if the 15-mile gap is completed, because the trail will become more enticing to tourists looking for outdoor adventures. The national Rails-to-Trails group is committed to completing the Great American Rail Trail, promoting the potential of economic and quality-of-life benefits for the communities it passes.
“It was intentional that we met (at Riverfront Wednesday),” Horton said. “This is an example of a business where a bicyclist may stop here for a beer, or a snack. ... The ripple effects of completing the trail are incredible.”
Lauren Las, of Heritage Corridor, said one of its goals as the region’s state-certified tourism bureau is to provide access to outdoor recreation, and the proposed trail will provide a safe outlet, while also benefitting the region’s economy.
Considering the proposed path may cut through some farmland, Bureau County farmer Jim Draper, who lives along the Hennepin Canal trail, said the agricultural community should welcome the trail.
“Farmers should see this as an opportunity to show a larger audience what they have to offer,” Draper said. “This is an opportunity for the public to reconnect with rural land and see where their food comes from.”
McCracken and Eschbach echoed LaHood’s confidence Wednesday.
“Let’s get this done,” McCracken said.