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A Tale of Trying To Extend A Recreational Trail In Southeastern Wisconsin

This is how the planned White River Trail extension currently looks, near 59th Drive in rural Racine County.
Chuck Quirmbach
/
WUWM
This is how the planned White River Trail extension currently looks, near 59th Drive in rural Racine County.

Advocates for a local network of recreational trails are promoting a major step forward for the planned extension of a trail in Racine County. However, the actual opening of the segment is likely years away.

Here's the tale of what it can take to add to the trail system in Southeastern Wisconsin:

The White River State Trail currently goes for 19 miles on an abandoned railroad corridor between Elkhorn in Walworth County and Dover in western Racine County. A planned eleven-mile extension would be to the east – between Union Grove and Sturtevant – allowing easier access for people living in or visiting Racine.

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Chuck Quirmbach
The orange line that tilts up when looking from left to right represents the planned White River State Trail extension.

For now, where it crosses 59th Drive – a few miles east of Union Grove – the trail corridor is a narrow stretch of overgrown plants, trees, and two dirt lanes on which an emergency vehicle could travel after the old rails and wooden ties have been removed. But, even that would be a bumpy ride.

The idea to acquire the additional 11 miles from the Canadian Pacific railroad came from the Union Grove Rails to Trails group. Co-leader Shelly Petrick said the effort started about six years ago as part of a project for a local leadership class.

Petrick told a recent meeting in Union Grove that gathering endorsements meant a lot of outreach.

"We set up informational tables at the high school track meets and outside Piggly Wiggly," Petrick said. "We attended board meetings for the local municipalities, and we gained letters of support from every municipality the trail will pass through."

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Chuck Quirmbach
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) expresses his "love" for walking another recreational trail, as he discusses the planned White River trail extension.

Eventually, the effort caught the attention of the local state representative, who is well known across Wisconsin as a conservative: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. Vos disclosed that he and his wife walk another Racine County trail a few times each month.

"And, I'll be honest with you, I have no idea how the trail got there, I have no idea who the people were that made it happen, or how they put the money together," Vos said. "But I know we love walking on that trail."

Vos said he was willing to support the use of about a million dollars in state Knowles-Nelson Stewardship funds to acquire the White River State Trail extension. Racine County came up with a half-million dollars, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has negotiated a tentative deal with Canadian Pacific.

But that only gets us part of the way through the trail tale.

Assuming the deal stays together, Racine County would be in charge of developing the extension. County Public Works Director Julie Anderson said one question would be: Who gets to use the corridor besides traditional bicyclists and hikers?

"Of course, everyone wants a stake in this, right?" Anderson said. "So, we've got the snowmobiles that have an interest. We've got the UTV's [utility terrain vehicles] that want an interest in it. We've got fat-tire bikes that are used year-round. So, we're trying to figure out how we plow some areas of our current trails in the winter because of fat-tire bikes."

Anderson said another issue is deciding the trail's surface.

''Do I know what the surfaces are going to be right now? I have no idea," Anderson said. "Do I envision parts of it will be paved? Probably. Do I envision parts of it will be in gravel for a while? Probably!"

The surface will be one of the factors in determining the development cost. Estimates vary, but one figure puts the price tag at $80,000 per mile.

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Chuck Quirmbach
Kevin Muhs, of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission

It's possible the federal government could help. Kevin Muhs of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission said his agency recently teamed up with local governments to apply for a national program called RAISE, which provides money across all transportation modes. Muhs said he hopes for funds to develop several local trail segments, including the White River extension.

"So, I'm not going to stand up here and say, 'We've got a great chance, we're gonna get it!' But, what we've found through experience with this program in the past is that, in other parts of the region, is usually after two or three times, you do get it," Muhs said.

Muhs also said the infrastructure bill now being debated in Congress could expand another potential pool of funds.

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Chuck Quirmbach
A map of the planned Route of the Badger recreational trail network.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy said the White River Extension would be an important segment for the Route of the Badger – a planned 700-mile regional trail network in Southeastern Wisconsin that still has a few hundred miles before completion.

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