• Posted Jun 17, 2003

Imagine traveling from the headwaters of the Mississippi River to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico - a distance of more than 2,000 miles - and covering it all on scenic bike trails.

That's the goal of the movers and shakers behind the Mississippi River Trail (MRT), a proposed route that snakes along North America's largest river through 10 bordering states. Former president Bill Clinton has designated the MRT as a National Millennium Trail to recognize the importance of creating a legacy for future generations. These trails honor the nation's past by serving as a way to encourage new recreation areas, feature open spaces, and preserve history. The MRT will expose cyclists to a variety of landscapes, cultures, natural beauty and history. The proposed route goes through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. The MRT's proposed Iowa route will meander for 280 miles through 10 counties, including Scott and Muscatine counties. The trail will be developed "off-road" as much as possible, although some sections may be located on clearly marked bicycle lanes on roadway shoulders. Supporters of the trail say it will enhance recreational opportunities and bring additional tourism dollars to the Mississippi River Valley. "When completed, the Mississippi River Trail will be a world-class bike route that Iowans and people from around the world can enjoy," says Mark Ackelson, president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and current chairman of the board for the MRT, Inc., the non-profit organization that provides private support for the project. "Not only will the MRT make Iowa a premiere cycling destination, it will also link the communities to their natural world and serve as a catalyst for economic development," he concluded. The proposed route for Iowa's section of the MRT has been drafted by Iowa State University's Center for Transportation Research and Education (CTRE). It can be viewed at: David Plazak and Jamie Luedtke of CTRE conducted the research for Iowa's route, first gathering data to help select routes near the river that were safe and comfortable for riders. They also looked at the number of different attractions available, including towns, parks and natural historical monuments. The second phase, completed March 31, involved soliciting public input that will be used to further tweak the proposals. "There were some difficult areas on these maps to find good routes," admits Plazak. "There really isn't one (in some cases), and more detailed planning is needed." Chuck Oestreich, a trails planner with Davenport-based River Action, Inc., is helping to spearhead the project at the local level. Oestreich said River Action has submitted four proposals for federal funding through the new transportation bill. "There is a process that specific moneys can be utilized at the beginning of the Transportation Bill (allocation cycle). We're hoping to receive a total of $6.2 million for the four projects," he said. Crossroads is here Oestreich said the Quad Cities is unique in that it will serve as both a north/south and east/west crossroads for planned national trails. "This is (on) the Mississippi River Trail, but it's also one of the few areas of the country that is a part of the American Discovery Trail that goes east to west," Oestreich said, adding that the St. Louis area is the only other crossing for the transcontinental trail. "We're working on a crossing of the Arsenal Island to be utilized for both (the MRT and the Discovery Trail). We will eventually have a dedicated pedestrian bike path separate from the roadway (on Arsenal Island)." As part of the project, a ramp has already been installed to allow easier accessibility for cyclists using the Government Bridge, he said. The focus now is to link existing paths in Davenport and Bettendorf to the remainder of the river frontage in Scott County. The proposal would add about 12 miles to the approximately 20 miles of existing bike trail in our area. Oestreich said River Action already received a $20,000 grant from the Riverboat Development Authority to conduct an "alignment study" of possible routes through the city of Buffalo. They are hoping to link up with that city by extending Davenport's existing bike trail - which now ends at Credit Island Slough - west to Buffalo's border along a lightly traveled portion of South Concord Street. Building a bicycle/pedestrian bridge over Credit Island Slough to link the two paths would be the most economically feasible, the planner said. "This would be much more scenic and much more pleasant for people to enjoy," he said. As for the stretch in Buffalo, organizers had first thought to place the trail on a bluff overlooking the riverside town and the Mighty Mississippi. But that plan was scrapped because of the study's findings, the planner said. "They found it would not be feasible because the bluff is not easy for the average biker to utilize," Oestreich explained. In addition, there are four streams in the bluff area that would have to be bridged, adding to the project's expense, he said. Another piece of the MRT puzzle to be added involves the stretch of river from Bettendorf's Leach Park to Riverdale. River Action has already received funding to conduct a study of Riverdale (including the area along the vast Alcoa factory) to determine the best route there. If funding comes through for those projects, "that would be more than 30 straight miles of uninterrupted ... path in Scott County," said Oestreich. While topography and commercial development may force some portions of the route to deviate from the river itself, "it's as close as we can possibly manage to the river," he added. Eventually, Oestreich would like to see "spur" trails linking outlying communities to the Mississippi River Trail. "We're hearing things from DeWitt and Eldridge that people want to have a path that connects to the Quad Cities," he said. Proponents of the MRT say the Mississippi River is often an overlooked treasure in our own backyard. It's time we showcased it. "(The trail) should be a real boost. I'm just revved up about it," Oestreich said. "I think it would be wonderful. I firmly believe that healthy trails make healthy communities." The planner said a similar trail already established on the Illinois side of the Father of Waters has been a boon for small river towns in the area such as Port Byron and Rapids City. "(They're) seeing a significant influx of tourism because of the path that they have," Oestreich said. "They're seeing that their own citizens are benefiting." The Great River Trail, as it is known in these parts, covers 62 miles in Illinois between Rock Island and Savannah, he said, and there are plans to extend it into Wisconsin. The state also offers the Grand Illinois Trail that makes a 550-mile loop between Chicago and Rockford. Trail began in Tennessee The Mississippi River Trail project has its roots in an idea proffered by a Tennesseean named Susan Jones, according to Oestreich. "It really developed in the south in Memphis. (There were) a number of people down there who felt that they wanted to celebrate the Mississippi River with a bike route. They started developing it .... People who were friendly to the Mississippi River found out about their efforts and joined them. Now it's one Mississippi River Trail." The national trail will utilize both off-road bike paths and bicycle lanes on roadway shoulders. The lanes will be four to six feet wide and paved with asphalt, which is generally less expensive than concrete. More than 200 miles of paved shoulders will need to be constructed for new MRT bicycle lanes in Iowa, bringing the total to 255. The total cost associated with on-road bicycle lanes is estimated at $25.3 million. The MRT's off-road bike trails will be 10 feet wide to accommodate both bicyclists and pedestrians. It will cost about $920,000 to pave new bicycle trails with asphalt. Supporters believe it's a good investment. "The MRT will ... stimulate tourism all along Iowa's eastern border, bringing approximately 20 million in additional dollars to the state's economy each year," according to the CTRE. The route will improve safety, since cyclists will no longer need to fight with traffic along highways. In addition, the trail should foster a greater appreciation for Iowa's natural resources. "(It) will provide convenient access to river views, area attractions, and connections to trails in all adjacent states. The MRT will encourage exercise, sightseeing, and appreciation of Iowa's natural, historic and cultural riches along the Mississippi River," states CTRE. Visitors to Iowa's trail will have access to parks and wildlife areas, national treasures such as Effigy Mounds National Monument, locks and dams, riverboat cruises, art galleries and antique shops, historic neighborhoods such as Snake Alley in Burlington, casinos, sporting events, restaurants and lodging, to name a few. Oestreich said it will take years to "connect all the dots" on the bike trail system. But once the MRT is completed, the historic passageway that once carried Native Americans in rough-hewn canoes and intrepid fur traders venturing into the wilderness will see a new wave of modern-day explorers. For still the river calls. By: Barb Geerts 6/18/2003 ©Eldridge North Scott Press 2003

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