Matthew G. Dicker/Shutterstock

Steve Buchtel pitched the 26-mile Cal-Sag Trail, which will stitch together disparate suburbs of Chicago, as offering benefits beyond recreation.

To the founder of Trails for Illinois, the worst kind of sign is one that reads PATH CLOSED. But in June—on National Trails Day, no less—Steve Buchtel beamed upon seeing just such a sign in Chicago's south suburbs, "because before that there had been no path."

After almost a decade of planning, the largest trails project in the Midwest was finally becoming a reality.

At 26.06 miles long, the Cal-Sag Trail (short for Calumet-Saganashkee, the official name of the manmade channel the trail borders) will eventually connect the Des Plaines River in the southwestern suburb of Lemont, Illinois, to the Burnham Greenway on the Indiana border. Along the way, it links wealthy, largely white bedroom communities, post-industrial areas, and middle class, African American neighborhoods in greater Chicago's Calumet region.

All against the backdrop of a channel once so polluted, signs along portions of its banks still warn against "any human body contact."

One morning in October I meet Buchtel, 45, to tour the trail's first segment, which runs about 2.6 miles from Southwest Highway to Ridgeland Avenue. It doesn't officially open until spring, but as we bike the partially paved pathway we pass joggers, kids riding bikes, and parents pushing strollers.

"Trail users are only 20 feet behind the bulldozer," Buchtel says.

There are several separate construction contracts currently underway; the full 26 miles won't be complete until 2017. Federal grants are providing 80 percent of the $21 million construction cost, with most of that coming from the Department of Transportation's Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program. As a bike path in a car-centric suburban region, the Cal-Sag fit the department's bill for alternative transportation projects.

And, critically, the project didn't require corralling dozens of landowners—the Cal-Sag is managed by the Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), which owns a 100-foot buffer zone along both sides of the channel. After fighting tougher water-quality standards for years, MWRD agreed in 2011 to meet Clean Water Act provisions from which Chicago's industrial waterways had long been exempt.

Since the late 1980s, MWRD has added six "waterfalls" to the channel's banks that aerate the water. As the water gets cleaner, fish, birds, and insects are returning. Kayakers are taking to the Cal-Sag, too, paddling alongside barges that ferry freight between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

Where industrial uses occupy the riverfront, the trail jogs along city streets. The Cal-Sag channel becomes more industrial as it runs east toward Indiana.

The Cal-Sag at Blue Island (David Wilson/Flickr)

Blue Island, a racially diverse suburb hard hit by the financial and foreclosure crises, hopes the trail will catalyze development by connecting trail users to area businesses and other transit. Blue Island's Metra commuter rail station is just steps from the trail.

When the project was getting started, Blue Island officials helped organize the cities and towns east of Cicero Avenue, while Palos Heights handled the western half of the trail. That way, Buchtel says, advocates could apply for funding all at once, instead of having to piece the trail together over several funding cycles. They could also work together instead of competing against each other.

"The funders, federal and state, what they see now is an application with a regional story," Buchtel says. "All of a sudden in this very competitive environment, your trail becomes this 400-pound gorilla."

Steve Buchtel

Buchtel, who lives in Homewood in Chicago's south suburbs, helped bring together a small army of volunteers, local officials, and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County—the largest landowner along the Cal-Sag Trail after MWRD—over a period of years, selling the trail as an economic development opportunity.

"I didn't see the benefit at first," says Palos Heights Recreation Director Mike Leonard. He was initially skeptical of Buchtel's pitch, which came during Leonard's first week on the job. But a trip around the trails and greenways of Carmel, Indiana, convinced him trails could be more than pleasant diversions.

"The idea of a trail is nice," he says. "The reality of a trail is powerful."

Along Palos Heights' portion of the trail, Leonard pushed for wrought-iron trail markers and metal truss bridges that recall the area's industrial heritage. Farm implements left to rust in a fallow field now serve as a reminder of the former prairie's rural history, along with birdhouses and gardens that have begun to pop up along the Cal-Sag Trail's construction site.

Now Leonard envisions the trail as more boardwalk than hiking path. He says the city is in talks with a developer who wants to turn an abandoned Buick dealership into a mixed-use development, with its front entrance facing the trail. Rattling off a list of businesses he'd like to see open up along the Cal-Sag, Leonard pulls out a calculator and estimates how much money an ice cream shop or a brewery might bring into Palos Heights.

It's bar-napkin math, but the gist is solid. "There's real opportunity here," he says.

Bikers are already testing the finished portions of the trail.
(Thomas' Photographic Services)

As construction continues, Buchtel is focused on getting more people out onto the trail. After college, Buchtel initially became involved in bike advocacy and planning, following a stint as an advertising copywriter. But he helped launch Trails for Illinois once he realized that people share his excitement for trails projects—an enthusiasm he says isn't the same just for bikes.

"I think people become so animated and elated over trails because we're hard-wired to be moving outside, under our own power," he says. "I have this super-powerful, vicarious experience when I'm witness to that. It's my drug."

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