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Railroad Clearing Dormant Line; New Trail Branch Possible

Biker on the trail
The Friends of the Constitution Trail organization is excited to adopt it as a branch of the trail, should the project materialize, said President Patrick Dullard.

Central Illinois bicyclists, runners, and walkers might be getting a lot more room to roam.

Norfolk Southern is removing debris and ties from a 30-mile stretch of abandoned railroad between Bloomington and Mansfield. It’s been dormant for years, and it’s long been eyed as a potential recreational trail that would connect to Constitution Trail somewhere in southeast Bloomington.

But officials caution that railroad-to-trail projects take a long time to materialize. It took nearly 20 years to open the first segment of the Kickapoo Rail Trail between Champaign and Kickapoo State Park in Vermilion County, near Danville, said McLean County Administrator Bill Wasson.

The possibility of acquiring the abandoned Norfolk Southern line is part of the county’s greenways and comprehensive plans, said Wasson. But it’s far from a 100 percent done deal, he said.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to saying that (it will definitely be a trail),” he told GLT. “It’s still a pretty wide-open discussion at this point.”

Other potential public uses include utilities or a road, he said.

Even if it becomes a trail, it’s unlikely to become 30 miles of completed trail overnight. It would likely be phased in, Wasson said, like the Route 66 trail extension. A new 8-mile stretch of that trail from Normal to Towanda opened last year, costing about $1.7 million in combined federal, state, and local funding.

Several local governments along the Norfolk Southern line have already passed intergovernmental agreements related to a potential joint project, passing through towns like Downs and LeRoy.

“The reason it will take several years to put together all the funding is we’re going to have to leverage a lot of funding from outside the community to do that. But we believe there are avenues to do that,” Wasson said. “There have been many, many successful railbanking acquisitions across the country, so there are methods to accomplish that and do that in a manner that doesn’t have a big economic impact on our local governments. Phasing the project is also a very important way we’d do that.”

The Friends of the Constitution Trail organization is excited to adopt it as a branch of the trail, should the project materialize, said President Patrick Dullard. He said he hopes initial development would occur in the small towns first, instead of starting at one end where it might take years to get to the other.

“It’s huge. We get to hit another portion of the county that’s not served, by going southeast. The economic impact for those little towns would be strong. It would be a great addition to the trail," Dullard said.

Until that happens, Dullard stressed that eager trail users should stay away from the abandoned rail line. It’s still property of Norfolk Southern, and using it now would be trespassing, he said.

“Stay off of it. Be patient. It would be really bad for someone to get hurt and put the brakes on the whole thing,” Dullard said. “It’s just not safe.”

Norfolk Southern did not answer a request for comment.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.