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Beginning of the dream

Cycling enthusiasts swarm trail meeting
Bicycling enthusiasts and interested community members meet with representatives of the Johnson County Conservation Department and McClure Engineering at a public information meeting regarding extending the Hoover Trail. The meeting was held in the Solon City Hall on Tuesday, April 7. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

SOLON– Gary Gray loves riding his bicycle, especially from his home in Cedar Rapids to Ely on the Hoover Trail. Before the trail went in, bike riding was getting more and more exciting than he’d bargained for. “Ely Road has gotten more traffic so it’s a little harder (to ride on) now. The trail to Ely has made it so much easier, it’s just mindless biking now… no cars. And just think, it’s only five more miles to Solon.”
Gray was among the attendees at a public information meeting Tuesday, April 7, at the Solon City Hall about a proposal to extend the trail from Seven Sisters Road, just south of Ely, to Solon. Representatives of McClure Engineering, the firm hired by the Johnson County Conservation Board to design the trail, were on hand along with the Conservation Department’s Brad Freidhof, to answer questions and alleviate concerns while also taking comments and suggestions.
Gray said he imagined eventually riding out to West Branch or North Liberty from Solon. “It’s another leg you can just think about going on,” he said. When he first heard about the extension proposal, Gray said, “It’s like a dream! You bike along Ely Road all these years looking at that (abandoned) railroad and you think, ‘Why don’t they just pave it?’”
Aaron Granquist, a project manager with McClure Engineering, explained why it’s just not that simple. Linn County, he said, will grade the trail path this year along its portion of Ely Road to Seven Sisters Road. Paving will likely follow next year in conjunction with improvements to Ely Road. On the Johnson County stretch of Ely Road, improvements are planned as well, but exactly when is not yet known.
“The big unknowns,” are, he said, “how we get the funding for our portion of the project and how we coordinate with Johnson County Secondary Roads as they improve Ely Road.”
Then there’s the segment to be built on the roadbed of the long gone Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, better known as “The Rock Island,” or simply, “The Rock.” The line, stretching from Burlington to Cedar Rapids, was built in the 1880s and abandoned 100 years later. The rails and many wood crossties are gone, but there will still be much work to do to put in a trail.
“There’s been a lot of vegetation growth that will need to be scrapped out,” Granquist said adding, “The existing ballast stone needs to be prepped, too. The good thing about a rail bed is its already pretty well compacted. After 100 years of trains moving on it, it’s not going anywhere.” The trail will be 10 feet wide with 2-foot “clear zones” on either side. With the railroad embankment being 14-feet wide already, Granquist anticipates a fairly easy process.
But then there’s three bridges where only rotted timbers or a pair of weathered cut stone abutments remain. Granquist said they should be able to use prefabricated pedestrian bridges once the abutments are repaired or replaced.
Granquist explained there were other challenges for the project as well, including sharing part of the corridor with Hwy. 382, particularly when improvement work could raise the highway to prevent or at least minimize flooding. And then there’s some wetlands that have to be taken into consideration where the trail leaves the rail bed and goes to the highway. Studies have to be conducted, he said, to evaluate any potential impact on the wetlands and any endangered species that may be lurking about in order to qualify for federal grant money. “We have to check all the boxes (on the applications), even if nothing is found to show we did all of the proper investigations. We don’t want to lose out on public funding.”
The proposed Ely-Solon trail links with the Linn County portion at Seven Sisters Road and follows the road east to where it begins a southeaster trek along the abandoned railroad right-of-way. The separated trail continues until just north of 140th Street, where the trail splits off to the west, goes under Ely Road and continues south to the intersection with Highway 382. After crossing the west side of the intersection, the trail follows adjacent to Highway 382 until it rejoins the railroad bed just east of Polk Avenue. From there, it travels to the southeast and takes a turn due south to join with the existing Lake Macbride Trail, ending at the Solon Recreation and Nature Area.
A rough timeline has the preliminary design work done in June in order to meet July 1 grant application deadlines. The final design is due in September to meet other grant deadlines in October. “We’re trying to get the funding we need and use our design to support the applications,” he said. In the best case scenario, he said, some parts of the trail could be constructed next year, however he figured two-to-three years for construction to be completed. Ely Road work is a question mark though, with projects scheduled two to three years out. “We don’t want to build a trail that’s not going to fit with their design, their planned improvements,” he said.
Freidhof, the Conservation Department’s program manager, was pleased with the turnout.
“We have people from Ely, Solon, landowners in-between and bicyclists; it’s a good cosmopolitan group,” Feidhof said. He added comments at the forum were positive, with the negatives addressed early in the process. Those mostly concerned where people did not want the trail to go. “I see there’s some good comments on the paper (attendees wrote comments and questions on sticky notes placed on long aerial photos of the route),” he said. “We’ll take every comment, evaluate it and see how it fits into the plan.”
In addition to the factors leading to completion Granquist mentioned, Freidhof said there were permits that needed to be acquired as well. Regarding the road improvement projects Freidhof said coordinating them with trail work would give the citizens of Johnson County “the best bang for the buck. If we can piggy-back some of the studies, the surveys, on top of each other, that will be beneficial to both projects.” The timeline ultimately will “ebb and flow because of that. Obviously we want to have a fast track and we want to get there as soon as possible.”
For cyclists like Gray, the trail can’t come soon enough.
“The difference between car traffic and bike traffic is… different galaxies,” he said. “You have to have a mirror, and you have to assume the car wants to run over you. And, you have to assume that the driver should be wearing glasses because some of them come way too close!” Gray thinks Iowa could become a cycling destination, “If they put their minds to it. Interconnected trails are the answer,” he said. He mentioned a trail in Wisconsin 100 miles long, as well as “The Katy Trail” built on a former Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, known as “The Katy” line across Missouri, which is over 200 miles in length.
Freidhof seemingly shared Gray’s vision, saying, “This is the first leg. There are more sections we want to complete as well.”
If the trail, which connects to the Cedar Valley Nature Trail (built on former Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Right-of-Way between Waterloo and Hiawatha) were completed all the way to Burlington, it would, Gray said, “be one of the longest contiguous trails, in Iowa for sure.”