Kalamazoo River Valley Trail supporters seek funds to finish the final link with trails to the east

 The link would complete a 140-mile regional trail network from the Battle Creek Linear Park to Lake Michigan. 
All that's needed to complete the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail is for MDOT and Amtrak to play nice. And a million dollars.

The Parks Foundation of Kalamazoo County has launched Campaign Connect, hoping to raise $1 million to finish the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. 

Private funds raised, plus public funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation will go to finish the last few miles of trail to connect Galesburg and Augusta and link the KRVT system with the Battle Creek Linear Park at the Fort Custer Recreation Area.

As of Dec. 11, according to a Parks Foundation of Kalamazoo County video (here), they've already raised around 65% of their goal. 

KRVT in River Oaks County Park near Galesburg.The KRVT is now 22 miles, and part of a 140-mile regional trail network. It is also a part of the Great Lake-to-Lake Trail Route # 1, which is to be a mostly-off-road trail linking Lake Michigan with Lake Huron. 

The Parks Foundation of Kalamazoo County has been working towards such grand goals, mile-by-mile, since 2007. David Rachowicz, director of the Kalamazoo Parks and Expo Center, says the planning goes back to the 1990s.

It's been slow going, with two to five miles built at a time, he says. "We'll be up to about 25 miles completed at this point," he says.

Bumps in the Trail

A length of the KRVT, laid over the summer, now stretches through Galesburg.

"The trail is 99.9 percent complete, and highly utilized by a diverse group of people," Mayor Lori West says. "It's beautiful." 

West lives on W Battle Creek Street, where the trail passes in front of her house. "It just has brought me great joy to go out there and see everything from moms and kids in strollers to families, kids riding their bikes together, elderly citizens walking and riding."

Laid on top of the city's replacement of an old stormwater drain system, the trail had to wait for that project to be completed. There were a few easement issues. And then there's still the matter of the railroad tracks.

The trail helps link the Galesburg-Augusta primary and high schools, giving students a safe pathway through town to both, West says. That was a major selling point for the city. 

But the trail stops at the tracks crossing McCullum. 

"We thought we were set with the railroad last year to have a safe crossing for our children," West says. "This year they basically told us, 'yeah, we're not doin' it.' What? No! This is part of the sell for the city!" 

Galesburg mayor Lori West in the spring of 2019, standing were the KRVT was planned to go onto land near the Kalamazoo River. The same issue turned up in Augusta, Rachowicz says. Since they had permits for a rail crossing that were to expire this year, a short lone section of KRVT was built from Augusta Drive, along M-96, across the North Branch of the Kalamazoo River and, they'd hoped, across the tracks to Fort Custer.

"But the railroad was a change of plans," he says. "The issue with this particular railroad is really an Amtrak-MDOT issue. MDOT owns the rail, and they lease it to Amtrak. It's been an obstacle for a number of projects along that rail, not just trail projects." 

Rachowicz points to the delay in the reconstruction of the 57-year-old U.S. 131 and railroad bridges over KL Ave. "It was scheduled for replacement, and the railroad said no," he says. 

"We're hoping it gets resolved. As soon as they do, we'll be ready to build those rail connections." 
 
"A county park across the entire county"

The entire project's completion is still "a couple years out," he says. 

"We've gone through some preliminary engineering and planning. We haven't gotten into the construction and design phase yet, that's really when the details get ironed out. But in general, it's going to follow the M-96 corridor into Augusta." Rachowicz expects the trail to resemble the one that follows Gull Road to Richland, a multi-use path separate from the road.

KRVT in River Oaks County Park near Galesburg.Both West and Rachowicz say that they've seen how vital the KRVT has been during the COVID pandemic as a safe way for walkers and bikers to get out of the house.

The value of the KRVT "is so multifaceted," Rachowicz says. "There's transportation, there's health, there's economics, there's recreation. From a county parks perspective, I think the coolest part is, it's bringing a county park across the entire county as a facility and resource that people can use that's relatively close to every person in this county." 

"This year, especially -- there's been record use on the trail. Especially in the spring, with people looking for something to do, to get out of the house." He adds with a laugh, "I don't know if you went into a bike shop, but you couldn't buy a bike this summer." 

Rachowicz lists the towns and communities connected to the KRVT: Parchment, Oshtemo, downtown Kalamazoo, Comstock, Galesburg, "and eventually Augusta."

Kalamazoo is working on getting a connection south to the large Portage trail system, "and once you do that, Vicksburg, Portage, Texas Township will all be connected to the trail system as well," he says.  

"Look at the original vision, and to see that we're on the cusp of completing it is pretty amazing."  

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.