Bridges To Trails

Savanna, Ill. is at a literal crossroads. Perhaps even more literally, it is at a cross-trails.

Described by George Bellovics, Grand Illinois Trail Coordinator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Sterling, Ill., as a "cornerstone" in Illinois' Grand Illinois Trail, Savanna was able to exceed expectations with its important and unique portion of what is ultimately a grand trail vision.

Savanna's link represents the convergence of important trail and road systems, including the Mississippi River Trail, the Grand Illinois Trail, the more local Great River Trail and the Great River Road, a national scenic byway.

The Great River Trail is a 65-mile "local" trail that runs from Savanna to Rock Island, Ill. This trail represents a significant link in the Grand Illinois Trail, which, once completed, is expected to create a 500-mile northern loop trail system in Illinois, linking Lake Michigan to the Mississippi.

Bellovics reports that the state is about 55 miles away from completing the off-road trail segments of the Grand Illinois Trail, and completing the signing and route marking of the roadways.

Trails to People

"The creation of our civilization is based upon movement and commerce. Over the last 30 years or so, transportation engineering has built for the exclusive use of vehicles. By doing that, and bisecting and trisecting communities, many times they have created barriers to people's movement. Trails just give them alternate options for functional transportation," says Bellovics.

"The fact of the matter is, walking is the oldest form of transportation. Reconnecting people so they can easily move between where they live and shop creates commerce. Trails blend to the quality of life because they're allowing movement that may not have been there before."

Bellovics stresses the importance of how trails such as the Great River and Grand Illinois trails connect "cities to countrysides, and people to places."

"Every project like this literally starts with the idea, and the idea that it's a good idea to connect Point A and Point B. Sometimes those points might not be well defined, but it's a real nice spot in the countryside that people like to gravitate toward, or it may be a town or even a neighborhood with a town center. The basic point is that it starts with the idea, and then you build a mission statement from there that is broad enough to include points of view from all over the community," says Bellovics.

A great trail idea should genuinely reflect the community and its norms, morals and aesthetics, says Bellovics. In order for this to happen, those who undertake and shepherd the project need to be passionate and persistent. And that's exactly what Savanna did, despite various roadblocks, says Bellovics.

"The same area where the trail runs was a historic foot trail for Native Americans and other traders that ultimately turned into the same corridor where people lived. It's a logical extension of the timeline of development along that river area," explains Bellovics.

"The trail represented a physical connection between all of those communities along the way that shared historic relevance years ago. What helped that along was that the locals were intimately knowledgeable of their surroundings."

Generally, Bellovics recommends mapping out all public thoroughfares, rights of way, parks and holdings to find areas where it would be logical to connect public spaces with trails. Then, look at the connection points and determine the status of the areas between -- who owns or borders the space.

"You pare down and work as you go, starting with the easy parts first, which is obviously public land. Passionate community support helps show their friends and neighbors that there's nothing to fear by having the trail near their property," says Bellovics.

Beyond the community spirit approach, Bellovics says that adjacent property owners may see other practical benefits. "The trail can become a way for a farmer to reconnect to fields he never had access to because the railroad was there, for instance. The trails can be a positive thing for adjacent land owners," adds Bellovics.

Widespread community involvement and buy-in reaps great rewards for the city and its parks and recreation department, as various local groups (such as a bike or snowmobile club) may agree to maintain a section of the trail, or local companies may happily donate to the cause through in-kind or cash donations. Done right, trail-building is the proverbial win-win.

"The planning work you're doing now is building the trail in the minds of the people who live along the way. The better your graphics, the better you are at illustrating what your point is and how you want to achieve it, looking three-dimensionally at the area, getting intimately knowledgeable of what your surroundings are and knowing what the constraints are will help you in your planning. The team you assemble locally -- your coalition, really -- should include local professionals, like people who have legal and property knowledge, and concerned citizens who share the vision," adds Bellovics.

Trails to Reality

Because Savanna took this advice to heart, it was able to help fulfill the big-picture vision of the Grand Illinois Trail, the Mississippi River Trail and the Great River Trail, while taking an important step toward fulfilling a long-range local goal -- making Savanna a destination.

Paul Hartman, public works director for the City of Savanna, says the trail is driving further riverfront and park development, including such possibilities as boat rentals and other amenities.

The trail, the resulting development and enhancements and a nationwide marketing blitz are hoped to bring Savanna closer to its goal, says Hartman.

The city will tout the unique aspects of its trail section, namely the wildlife, wetlands (including rivers and ponds) and two spectacular bridges, one that spans the Plum River and another that crosses over railroad tracks.

Hartman says the bridge over the railroad tracks proved to be the trail's biggest challenge as the railroad changed hands three times, making final plans hard to come by as the plan would often shift with the railroad's ownership.

Unfortunately, this area was the best place for the trail as alternates were untenable due to environmental and engineering constraints.

"The environmental issues are the key. One of our biggest challenges was meeting those requirements," says Mike Leslie, structural engineer for Willett Hofmann & Associates, Dixon, Ill.

"You need to know everyone who owns anything adjacent to the trail. We had to purchase property or get easements from the railroad. The trail is also adjacent to the Upper Mississippi Fish & Wildlife Refuge, run by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, so we had to get easements, and they had stipulations on the use of their land, which included no motorized vehicles on the path in their area. You need to be aware of who owns it and what kind of stipulations they have if you need to cross their property or purchase property from them."

Willett Hofmann & Associates designed the trails and bridges for Savanna's three-mile section. The truss portions of the two bridges were fabricated and delivered by Wheeler Consolidated, Bloomington, Minn. The bridge piers and path were built by Ronald Moring Construction, McConnell, Ill., which also set the trusses on the piers and abutments.

The bridge over the railroad is 1,135 feet long and 15 spans. The bridge running over the river is 220 feet long. Both utilize hardwood decks and weathering steel.

Leslie says they chose the weathering steel and Ipe -- a South American hardwood -- to cut down on long-term maintenance. He says the steel rusts naturally for a rustic look and doesn't require painting. Additionally, the hardwood is extremely dense and is naturally rot, insect and fire-resistant. It does not need to be stained or treated, and is vandal-resistant, Leslie adds.