Bicyclists Rejoice as West Portion of Cal-Sag Trail Opens
Tired of dodging traffic on busy streets in the Southland, bicyclist Francis DeCastro, 44, of Oak Lawn, has been looking forward to the opening of the western half of the Cal-Sag Trail for years.
He's eager to ride on a smooth, recently paved trail along the Cal-Sag, watching wildlife and the occasional passing watercraft instead of worrying whether an SUV is going to push him off the road.
"My biggest concern if I'm riding on the streets is people don't drive safely," he said. "And sometimes people drive past and yell at you out the window."
DeCastro patiently waited for the trail to open Saturday morning after a ceremony at the Lake Katherine Nature Center in Palos Heights.
Before Saturday, he had to go far to find a trail.
"If I'm motivated enough, I drive out to another forest preserve now or to Lake Shore Drive," DeCastro, 44, said.
But with this 13-mile stretch of the trail now open — from Alsip to Lemont — he won't have to go that far for safe riding.
Nor will the other 185,000 residents, according to the organizers, who live within a mile of the trail. Sen. Dick Durbin's office said 450,000 people live in the 14 communities along the trail.
Federal funding for the entire 26-mile trail is $22.7 million secured by Durbin. Local funding is paying for the remaining 20 percent of the cost, about $5.6 million, organizers said. The other 13 miles, from Alsip to Burnham, is scheduled for completion as early as 2017.
But Saturday, bicyclists, joggers and runners were content to navigate the new 13 miles along the south side of the Cal-Sag.
Some $8 million in federal funds and $2 million raised locally paid for the western portion that opened Saturday, according to Durbin's office.
"Funding is always the hardest, but Sen. Durbin secured some federal funding for us," said Debbie Stoffregen, president of the Friends of the Cal-Sag Trail. "We had (to) match 20 percent. Our battle cry was '$4 for every $1 donated.'"
Stoffregen, of Oak Lawn, was beaming as the long-awaited dream was finally realized.
"We're very excited. A lot of people have worked very hard," Stoffregen said. "This is a prime example of the good that can happen when federal, state, local, county work together with not for profits and local people to make something happen. For this to get this far in 11 years, this is amazing."
Her family was planning to ride on the trail Saturday, but she could not because "I have too much schmoozing to do here."
Oak Forest resident Eric Knoedler, 61, was thrilled to test the new trail.
"I first heard about this maybe five years ago," he said. "I've ridden and walked it. Some parts were still all mud, so I walked a few miles of that. But it's paved now."
The only part still unpaved is near the athletic fields of Trinity Christian College, but that should happen soon, Stoffregen said.
To mark the official opening, two groups staged a relay – each carrying a half of the Cal-Sag Trail logo, one starting at the east edge, the other at the west – and they met at Lake Katherine.
U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-3rd, carried a half as he ran toward Palos Heights from Alsip. A representative of the Mizwicki family ran from the west.
Patrick Mizwicki was a high school cross country runner who died in 2011 when he was struck by a vehicle while crossing 104th Avenue before the trail had been upgraded and improved. Patrick often talked about the beauty of running in the forest preserve, said his mother, Jo Anne Mizwicki, adding "he would have loved this trail."
Palos Heights Mayor Robert Straz said the "whole idea is to bring people to the south and southwest suburbs so people realize this is not a vast wasteland people up north think it is. We've got a lot to offer."
Tom Kotarac, deputy executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, was an aide to Durbin when Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, tried to pull funding for the trail.
"Right after the earmark was secured, it went to the Senate floor. I got an email at 10 one night that said 'trouble.' John McCain had an amendment to strike Illinois bike trails. So I called some of the advocates here, armed Sen. Durbin with the stats and facts, he went down to the floor and, as the Democratic whip, defeated that amendment, 82-14," Kotarac said to cheers.
Durbin reminded the crowd that the federal gas tax helped fund the project.
"Our job is to bring home your tax dollars and invest it in things that make a difference in Illinois and these communities," Durbin said. "I can't think of a better investment than this Cal-Sag Trail."
Lipinski, a frequent user of the Centennial Trail on the north side of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, looks forward to that trail eventually connecting to the Cal-Sag Trail.
"There's no question biking, walking is transportation," Lipinski said. "It connects communities, and it takes people off the roads. We need more of these."
Afterward, self-described "weekend warrior" Audrey Jew, of Orland Park, enjoyed riding the "nicely paved and scenic" trail, adding, "We saw a lot of chipmunks."
She's with Folks on Spokes and the Joliet Bike Club and said she feels "safer" on trails, noting "sometimes, the roads aren't ridable."
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