• Rick Smith
  • Sun August 24 2014
  • Posted Aug 24, 2014

It’s been 20 years since Don Thomas began a 12-year run as a Cedar Rapids City Council member and streets commissioner back when he sported Rollerblades on downtown streets to draw attention to the city’s need for trails.

Thomas last week remembered the fights he had with some council members along the way and the bellyaches that came from constituents who told him he was nuts to fight to fund trails. Money should go for streets, not trails, he said was the message.

“In those days, it was very difficult,” Thomas said. “I felt we needed to spend money on both streets and trails.

When I was promoting trails, I had to promise myself to be strong and let nothing disturb my peace of mind. Especially with all these people shooting at me. Threatening me.”

It was as if little had changed in the trails debate in Linn County just two years ago when suddenly much did change.

But the upheaval did not come without a testy streets-versus-trails dispute over how to spend $4 million a year in metro area transportation money from the federal gasoline tax. In the end, trails won out.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett led the trails charge at the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization (CMPO), where the city of Cedar Rapids holds a majority of the board seats as the board allocates federal transportation dollars for metro area projects.

Traditionally, 80 percent of the funds went to streets and 20 percent to trails. But in 2012, the CMPO flipped the percentages, with 80 percent going for trails.

Corbett on Friday said he had gotten tired of looking at maps that showed proposed trails projects — none more so than the CEMAR Trail from downtown Cedar Rapids to uptown Marion — that had made little progress no matter how many new trails maps came out over the years.

“I’ve seen cities around the country that offer recreational opportunities for their citizens and have pretty extensive trail systems,” Corbett said. “We have a great long-term plan, but there really hasn’t been any way to fund it. The pressure to fix potholes was always going to be greater than building trails.”


It was a sentiment that city leaders in Hiawatha and Robins didn’t necessarily share.

In a story in The Gazette in 2003, city officials assured that the seven-mile CEMAR Trail from Cedar Lake just above downtown Cedar Rapids would make its ways in 2007 to uptown Marion, traveling under both First Avenue East in Cedar Rapids and Highway 100 in Marion.

That is, if funding arrived. Most of it didn’t.

Now, with about $8 million in CMPO funds committed to the trail project in upcoming years, that trail finally could be in place by, perhaps, 2018, said Brandon Whyte, who was hired in December to a newly created position of multimodal transportation planner to oversee CMPO’s new emphasis on trails.

Four years ago, the city built one section of the CEMAR Trail, from 20th to 29th streets NE, but that’s been it.

Whyte said the dollar figures speak for themselves. Without the new commitment of CMPO dollars to trails, the rest of the CEMAR Trail project would not have access to enough CMPO funds to move it ahead in any kind of timely fashion, he said.

Kesha Billings, an associate planner with the city of Marion and Marion’s trails coordinator, agreed. She said the CEMAR Trail was little more than a couple of words to her when she started her job with the city of Marion in 2007.

“There was always this glimmer of hope, that thought, ‘What if?’” Billings said. “Now we’ve basically put money where the mouth is.”

Marion is preparing to hire an engineering design consultant for the four miles of the CEMAR Trail project in Marion, with the design expected to come in 2015 and construction in 2016 or 2017. Building a trail — which can cost about $400,000 a mile not including bridges and culverts — is more time consuming and complicated than it might seem, Billings said.

She said Cedar Rapids has had plenty of difficulty in its part of the project over the years with property acquisition and trying to figure out how to get the trail through an industrial brownfield.

“Building a trail is not as simple as just grading a spot of flat ground,” Billings said.

In Cedar Rapids, the CEMAR Trail below 20th Street NE will cut through the former Terex industrial site, which has been purchased by Mount Mercy University for a new athletic complex. The university’s athletic director, Scot Reisinger, said last week that the university has signed off on the trails plan.

In Cedar Rapids, too, the trail will make its way under First Avenue East as it heads toward Marion.

Marion’s Billings said the trail in Marion will run under Highway 100 and connect to an existing crushed rock trail, which will be paved and that goes to Thomas Park. The trail then will head east to uptown Marion.

In addition, a spoke of the trail will head up toward the Home Depot store along First Avenue SE. Some current names of trail sections may change, she said.

Pioneering work

The CMPO emphasis on trails is not limited to the CEMAR Trail, nor is the CMPO the only government entity in the metro area focused on trails.

The CMPO has committed funds to support a $2 million, two-mile section of the Indian Creek Trail in Marion, for example, that will extend a paved trail up into the Linn-Mar Community School District campus.

To show how long trails can take even with money, Marion and Linn County will be starting construction of a project funded a few years ago that will build a trail under Highway 13 that will connect to Marion and to Linn County’s unpaved Grant Wood Trail to the east.

In addition, the CMPO’s Whyte said the city of Cedar Rapids will be building a trail along Edgewood Road from O Avenue NW to Blairs Ferry Road NE as one of its new trails projects. Construction also is slated to begin to build a new trail section over Highway 30 at Edgewood Road SW.

Steve Hershner, president of the Linn County Trails Association, said entities such as the Trails Association and the Rails to Trails effort in years past did much of the pioneering work of trail-building in Iowa and played a key role some 30 years ago in creating the popular Cedar Valley Nature Trail.

The trail today runs some 50 miles from Hiawatha to Waterloo, with paving on more than half the trail’s length.

But over the years, those groups have done less and special government funding opportunities for trails have begun to dry up, Hershner said.

Hershner, the city of Cedar Rapids’s utilities director and a Cedar Rapids board member of the CMPO, cast his vote with the majority to steer 80 percent of the CMPO’s annual allocation of federal transportation dollars to trails, leaving just 20 percent for streets.

“If you don’t have that 80-20, you don’t have CEMAR,” Hershner said. “You don’t have anything much beyond the trails network you see today.

“The only way that you’re going to grow that network, grow those connections, is through the use of the (CMPO’s) five-year plan that’s going to kick into full gear in 2017. We are very fortunate to have had that dedication made.

“Otherwise we know we wouldn’t be looking at these trail opportunities.”

Two members of the Linn County Board of Supervisors sit on the CMPO board and both, Lu Barron and Ben Rogers, supported the trails vote in 2012.

Supervisor Brent Oleson last week called the vote a good decision, saying that the community gets “more bang for the buck” with $5 million in money that goes to trails than streets.

“Five million to trails, and you can see, feel and participate more than you can in roads,” he said. “Five million, that’s one major intersection.”

Even so, Oleson said Linn County and the Cedar Rapids metro area remain behind nearby metro areas such as Madison, Wis., and Des Moines when it comes to trails. Among what is lacking in the local trails system are “ambitious features” similar to the High Trestle Bridge on a Central Iowa trail.

Oleson and his Linn supervisor colleagues joined forces earlier this year with Johnson and Black Hawk counties to try to secure $6 million from the Iowa Legislature for trail work to better connect trail systems in the three counties.

The effort did not succeed, but Linn County is competing for state grant funds to extend the Hoover Trail from Ely to the Johnson County line, to pave an unpaved section of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail and to expand a mountain bike trail in Squaw Creek Park.

Oleson said the trail development he would like see for Linn County and the metro area will need to find more funding than what now is coming available in federal dollars disbursed by the area planning agency.

Oleson said the pillars from the former railroad bridge across the Cedar River next to the new bridge going up there for Highway 100 likely would work to support a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over the river.

“It could be a three-quarters version of the High Trestle Trail,” he said. “It would be artistic and visually pleasing and ambitious for our county.”

Cedar Rapids’s Corbett said the cities in the metro area together approved the renewal of the 1 percent local-option sales tax for 10 years in 2013 in a campaign that Cedar Rapids helped to lead.

Cedar Rapids is using its share of the tax revenue, about $17 million a year, to fix streets. The other cities, too, have new revenue for streets, he said.

“Now everyone is a winner. Trails are being completed and there’s money to fix potholes,” Corbett said.

Don Thomas, the former Cedar Rapids council member and streets commissioner, was asked by Corbett last fall to lead the Fix the Streets Committee that helped promote the local-option sales tax extension. Thomas said Corbett and the metro planning agency are on the right page on trails, too.

Twenty years ago, when he took office on the City Council, Thomas said he decided to push trails after hiking in national parks and seeing other cities that had begun to invest in trails.

“If they can do it, there’s no reason we can’t do the same thing,” the 74-year-old said.

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