Long promised trail connections are starting to link up

From a new trail through a bit of urban wetlands to a single-track park for mountain bikers, Kalamazoo's non-motorized pathways have seen planned routes become bikeable realities in 2017.

Plus, the long-awaited, long-planned connection of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail through downtown is still on track to be finished by the end of fall.

And on track are more connections, needed for Kalamazoo's non-motorized network to link up to future trailways to Portage, Battle Creek and beyond -- eventually around 200 miles through southwest Michigan.

But occasional disconnects have hampered progress.

Disconnection

Though plans for the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail's downtown connection have it going by Bell's Brewery on Porter Street for years, Bell's raised objections in September when the paint for a bike lane went down on approximately 20 street parking spots in front of the brewery's Eccentric Cafe entrance. 

Porter Street has been part of the planned connector route for "for 15 years," Rebekah Kik, City Director of Community Planning and Development, says.  

"We had been in conversations with Larry (Bell, founder of Bell's Brewery) for three years, three years' really-concentrated conversations with Larry. We've discussed all kinds of different routes with him as well." 

All talks with Bell's have been positive, she says. The brewery has been a supporter of biking, as its long row of bike racks shows. Bell's has held fundraising rides for the KRVT, and sponsors the popular Iceman Cometh race in northern Michigan. 

"I know he's been concerned about the parking and loss of parking," Kik says. There's been a lot of demand for parking in the north-east part of downtown thanks to growth of restaurant/pub/nightlife spots in competition with Bell's. "But on the other-hand, we also have so much pressure from the non-motorized community in wanting to finish this trail."

So the city has been looking at possible compromises, including making the lane on Porter seasonal, or moving it to Walbridge Street. Walbridge would need an extra block of protected bike lane on Kalamazoo Avenue, which would require MDOT approval. 

Bell suggested he may donate his property on Walbridge if the city moves the trail there. "I am certainly going to pull my team together and follow up with Bell's about the donation of the property," Kik says.

Half-block by half-block

In spite of roadblocks, portions of the connection have been completed: two blocks along Kalamazoo between Porter and Edwards Street, lengths along Arcadia Creek to Westnedge Avenue, Westnedge to the west leg of the KRVT. The trail will also make use of paths through the Arcadia Festival Place and Kalamazoo Valley Community College's Arcadia campus.

Kik says the connection should be complete by Nov. 1, with signage and other details to be added in the spring.

A non-motorized path through downtown has been in the city's plans since 1998, but implementation really started in the spring of 2015 with an on-road test of a possible route.

That route had to be modified due to business' concerns, MDOT regulations, railroad right-of-ways, and other issues involved in snaking a non-motorized path through a crowded downtown. "We have literally gone half-block by half-block with this route," Kik says. "Studied it to death."

David Rachowicz, director of Kalamazoo County Parks, has also been involved in connecting the KVRT. "The hardest part about it is, when someone says 'just put it over here,' then you've just opened the door to a whole other set of issues," he says. 

A portion of the cycling community has suggested a straight shot down Ransom Street, but that would avoid the heart of downtown. "The real goal of this is to get a safe route downtown for all users. One thing that gets lost -- if you use the trail you probably know this -- 50 percent of the people on our trail system are walking," Rachowicz says. 

"And so many people come and use this trail from out of the area as well. So that's another big problem with the downtown, that people just flat-out get lost" between existing KRVT sections. 

Kik points to a 2014 MDOT study on bicycle tourism that showed bicycle tours and other events bringing $21.9 million to the state that year, and the average amount spent by touring bicyclists per trip is $760. All aspects of bicycling brought the state $668 million that year.

Bikers do love craft beer and the food that goes with it, Kik acknowledges. Could the loss of 20 parking spots be made up by more bikers finding it easier to navigate to Kalamazoo's biggest brewpub? 

The Kalamazoo connection might cost some parking spots, but hungry and thirsty bikers after the 40-mile ride from South Haven would find downtown Kalamazoo businesses like Bell's a welcome stop.


139 miles, plus Portage

One mile through downtown and about seven miles through Galesburg and Augusta are all that's needed to connect 139 miles of trail networks, Rachowicz says. "It's going to be huge as far as the total amount of trail that will be connected. From Battle Creek all the way to South Haven, essentially."

The KRVT's east leg currently ends at 35th and Battle Creek Streets in Galesburg. "We're making good headway" in securing land for the route, he says. The county parks' goal is to start construction next summer to continue the trail near the Kalamazoo River, then up to M-96 near G-A High-School. It will follow M-96 to link with the Battle Creek trail network just east of Augusta.

Portage's non-motorized network is nearly 60 miles of trail and bike lanes. Kik says Kalamazoo could be just five years from linking up to its sibling city.

There is already a length of pathway to ride in this south route. The latest link in the KRVT chain was laid over the summer. Running from Walnut to Lake Streets, the paved path travels along Portage Creek, KVCC's Culinary/Allied Health Building to Upjohn Playground.

Riders will notice more wetlands activity than they might expect in an urban setting: cattails and wildflowers, a chorus of frogs in the evening, ducks, even....

This writer wonders if he actually saw a blue heron, slowly strutting around in the creek near KVCC's new building early September.

"I saw the same bird!" Kik confirms. 

She's been biking the new path from city hall to her office on Stockbridge, exclaiming to staff, "this is the best ride I've ever had! I think I saw a blue heron today!" 

Thanks to being able to "piggyback" on the coming construction of a new stormwater system, the estimated time for completion of the entire link to Portage has shortened to five years -- shorter, if the city secures more grants and partnerships, Kik says. "I'm confident that we can... don't want to count my chickens before they hatch." 

It will continue south through the city's Stockbridge property, the brownfield site on Alcott Street, and eventually through Blanch Hull Park to the Portage Creek Bicentennial Trail.

Road dieting

The struggle to put Kalamazoo's widest roads on diets continues.

South Burdick Street was resurfaced and dieted over the summer. What was before a popular route for bikes between Kalamazoo and Portage, Burdick now sports bike lanes between Stockbridge and Cork. 

"I'm really pleased with that one," Kik says. 

But hoped-for dieting for Portage Street between Stockbridge and Cork will not happen -- at least not this year.

Portage Street underwent a diet from Walnut to Stockbridge, which gave it bike lanes, in 2015. The city was looking into doing the same this year, but "we don't meet (MDOT's) road diet checklist," Kik says. "Since we're using their money, we have to follow their rules." 

The road will be four-lane again, "but we're not going to be doing it with permanent paint." Kik says the city will diet that section of Portage "as soon as we get money from a different source." The city will continue to push for the diet, "because I think that's what residents really want there."
 
Kik has another four-lane river of traffic in her sights: West Main Street. The dieted length would be, Kik hopes, from Solon Street to downtown. "We're in some pretty heavy negotiations with MDOT and working with (Kalamazoo) Township for West Main." 

The road is being repaved. "I believe they're putting it back as a four-lane road, but we are assured, and Rep. Jon Hoadley is really spearheading this, to road-diet West Main." 

Some like the path less traveled

Smooth paved paths and bike lanes are not for a certain breed of bikers.

They'd rather go around and around on single-track dirt through the woods, bumping over roots, flying up and down rollercoaster hills, zipping within inches of trees, skidding around sharp curves on high dirt banks.

After working since 2015 on a mountain bike trail through Markin Glen Park's west side, the Southwest Michigan Mountain Biking Association opened the Maple Hill Trail in August.

It's become a gem in the county parks, Rachowicz says. Already, "the parking lots are full on a lot of nights," he says.

"What's neat about it is that it's a machine-built trail, so there's really nothing like that in our immediate area. It's a really different riding experience than the single tracks through Fort Custer, for example."  

Machine-built trails are rougher, which adds to the challenge for riders obsessed with the sport. 

Mountain biker John Kittredge, getting ready to ride Maple Hill on an unseasonable 90-degree-plus September Saturday, says the trail has sections both for newbies and bikers who want a challenge. "It's of varying terrain, it's machine made so it's got great flow to it. It depends on how hard you want to go." 

"The beauty of it is its proximity to town." Kittredge also says it's safer than riding among cars on the roads. "You hit a tree, you hit a tree. The tree's not going to hit you." 

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He's been an avid bike rider since 2011. He has little experience mountain biking, and admits with some shame that his slowness held-up traffic on the "easy" part of Maple Hill. 

Photos by Mark Wedel.
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