ELMWOOD — Some eyebrows were raised in the Nebraska Legislature this spring when lawmakers approved $8.3 million to run eight miles of crushed limestone biking trail to connect recreation trails from Omaha and Lincoln.
That’s $1 million per mile, said one senator, what it used to cost to build a mile of paved highway.
But a recent trip on the most direct route from Lincoln’s Mo-Pac Trail to the Lied Bridge over the Platte River revealed that it was not a happy trail, at least in terms of building a trail for hikers. and cyclists.
Huge downed trees blocked the road at one point, as did weeds at head height. Nearby is an old abandoned Rock Island Railroad line bridge. A proposed trail should either go under or over it, or the wooden bridge should be removed.
Deep ravines and high dirt banks lined other parts of 322nd Street, which extend north from where the Mo-Pac East Trail ends in the unincorporated village of Wabash to a trailhead off the Lied Platte River Bridge.
“Have you ever seen $8 million?” asked State Senator Rob Clements of Elmwood, as he maneuvered a four-wheel-drive pickup over and around downed tree limbs on part of the road.
At the request of a reporter, Clements led a tour of what would be the most direct route to connect the Lincoln and Omaha Recreational Trails, 322nd Street, a gravel country road interrupted by two miles of low-maintenance dirt road.
Link is a longtime dream
The link would fulfill a longtime trail-goer’s dream — a continuous trail between the state’s largest cities — and give Nebraska another completed segment of cross-country bike trail, the Great American Rail Trail.
“We’re finally going to do it,” said Marie Gregoire of Murdock, a member of the Mo-Pac Alliance, a group of Cass County residents and trail enthusiasts promoting the trail.
This group organizes a “Pie Ride” on the first and third Thursdays of the month in Elmwood, which brings 100 cyclists or walkers a night to dine on pizza at local establishments or homemade pies baked by local church and community groups.
“Pie is happiness. People will come out for the pie,” Grégoire said.
She added that she and her husband had just returned from vacation in Minnesota, riding bike paths there on e-bikes or electric bikes, which allows even senior and amateur cyclists to cover 30 to 40 miles of country by day. The trails attract tourists, she says.
“On a bike path, you can see things at such a leisurely pace,” Grégoire said. “You don’t have traffic behind you or in front of you.”
Clements is a somewhat unlikely proponent of building the final link in the trail.
The senator opposed the previous proposal
A banker whose family settled in Cass County 154 years ago, Clements is one of the most conservative members of the Legislative Assembly. He had objected to earlier plans to build a trail link because the route would have crossed private property and would require taking land through eminent domain.
But this time, he voted to dedicate funds from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) state’s $1.04 billion allocation, believing the state had plenty of money to do it.
“It was going to be built anyway,” Clements said, believing the trail backers would raise the money one day.
Additionally, he said, Cass County Council signed a letter in January supporting completion of the trail link if the public right-of-way along its county roads was used, thus not removing any fields. farm or front yard in private hands.
The trail brings activity to the city
Over the years, he said, residents of Elmwood, which has a population of 700, have warmed to the idea of having a recreational trail.
It hasn’t caused any problems, such as vandalism, since the Lincoln Trail was completed 22 years ago, and it has brought some activity to town, including Pie Rides and an annual relay “market at market” since Lincoln. Haymarket at Old Omaha Market.
On the day Clements visited, a man was walking his dog in a shady part of the trail east of Elmwood.
The trail ended at Wabash, a few miles south of Elmwood, because the right-of-way to the east was purchased by a company that mines limestone from the hills near Weeping Water, Clements said.
The lack of a railroad bed on which to build this part of the Mo Pac Trail — unlike most recreational trails, which follow old railroad tracks — makes construction more expensive, Clements said.
Paul Zillig, general manager of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, said it typically costs about $1 million per mile to build a recreational trail from scratch. And there are additional costs if bridges or significant clearing or grading are needed, he said.
A stroll down 322nd Street illustrates some additional work that will be required.
High earth banks, deep ravines
The first few miles north of Wabash are typical country roads, lined with corn and bean fields. But soon enough the road parallels a deep ravine and then there is a mile of minimum maintenance road which is basically two narrow tracks lined with high banks carved deep into the prairie.
“What are you going to do with that?” Clements asked high banks.
Three houses are passed in the first two kilometers, which is an advantage of this road, the senator said. However, Clements added, he has heard of a landowner who was worried his dogs would chase passing cyclists, and a farmer wants to stop or yield signs at the entrance to his field to avoid accidents there.
“Liability is a concern for farmers,” he said.
Eventually, the path crosses the east-west route of Church Road – so named because several churches were located along the tarmac road. “Road closed to traffic” indicates a sign on a barricade, as well as “No exit”.
The senator has already changed his pickup truck to four-wheel drive, and the extra traction is needed as he weaves along the rutted dirt road, around and over fallen branches and through tall grass.
“You’re lucky it was dry,” Clements said, as the truck bounced over the ruts.
At about half a mile the road is blocked by two huge downed trees. The “Road Closed” signs, masked for the most part by tall nettles, proclaim the obvious.
Undeterred, the senator manages to turn around and walk around the section to show what is on the other side of the “Road Closed” sign: an old railroad bridge, making part of the abandoned Rock Island Railroad line that connected Lincoln to Omaha. The Lied Bridge is on the old Rock Island line.
When he was a child, Clements said, his parents would walk under the old railway bridge, proclaiming it was “where the troll lives”, then tell the Norwegian folk tale about the three gruff goats, who had to outsmart the troll to pass.
Long History in Cass County
The senator’s family history in this area goes far beyond that. Grandpa’s Woods Golf Course, south of Elmwood, was founded by his grandfather, and the town’s family bank was once co-owned by famed author Bess Streeter Aldrich. He grew up in a house owned by the Aldrich family, a house that now houses the Bess Streeter Aldrich Museum.
North of the closed road and the old bridge, 322nd Street jogs east then meanders along a small creek, Fountain Creek. Eventually Clements reached a limestone parking lot, the Lied Platte River Bridge trailhead, which leads to Sarpy County trails.
Clements said he wasn’t an engineer and wasn’t sure if $8.3 million was too much to spend on a biking trail, but noted there were many physical obstacles to the construction of such a trail in his district.
Zillig of the NRD said a preferred route had not yet been chosen for the trail link, but said his agency had set aside $50,000 for a technical study of possible routes.
“As you saw there, there are challenges,” he said.
Other routes shot
Over the years, old routes have been suggested and abandoned, in part due to resistance to the condemnation of private property for a recreational trail.
One route had the trail link jogging west, then following Nebraska Highway 1 through the village of Murdock. As it stands, a marked bike path takes riders from the end of the Mo-Pac East Trail east to Wabash, then north to 334th Street, which is paved for one stretch.
Zillig said whatever route is final will be chosen in concert with Cass County Council and the Mo-Pac alliance to gain local approval for what has been controversial in the past.
During Clements’ tour, he met Dr. Matt Recchmeyer of Lincoln and Drew Recchmeyer of Bellevue, brothers who had met halfway between the two cities for a 35-mile bike ride in a hot after -midday of July.
The heat didn’t seem to bother these two, who said they meet frequently to hit the roads of Cass Count, and enjoy the scenery and exercise.
Do they want a bike path to connect Omaha and Lincoln?
“We would be everywhere,” said Matt Recchmeyer.