Saturday, May 24, 2014

$250,000 in Horse Trail Upgrades Set For Shawnee

Visitors to some of the most scenic parts of the Shawnee National Forest will soon have better access thanks to a $200,000 grant announced by the state this week.

The grant provides 80 percent of the funding for four projects that will cost around $250,000 when complete. The projects include two new parking lots and trailheads near One Horse Gap in Pope County and Garden of the Gods in Gallatin County. A third trailhead will be expanded and more than five miles of trails for hikers and horseback riders rebuilt and improved.

The Governor's office and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources made the announcement.

Eighty percent of the funding comes from the federal Recreational Trails Program grant administered by DNR. The U.S. Forest Service will match the 80-20 grant with $37,500 of their own trails funding for the Shawnee National Forest and $12,500 from the Shawnee Trails Conservancy, a local equestrian trail group. Earlier this year that group had received their portion as a grant from the Illinois Equine Industry Research and Promotion Board, which distributes funds from an voluntary assessment on equine feed purchased in the state.

"Improving our infrastructure for recreation on public lands is an important step as we work to connect more people with nature and the outdoors,” IDNR Director Marc Miller said in the release. "These grants will help communities and government agencies do a better job of making public spaces available to all."

Amanda G. Patrick, public affairs officer for the Shawnee, told Southern Illinois Tourism News the forest leadership, "is excited about this successful cooperative effort between the U.S. Forest Service and the Shawnee Trail Conservancy."

The Conservancy wrote the grant application and guided it through the process, she added.

The new trailheads will be located near One Horse Gap and just outside the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area. The one to be expanded will be the East Trigg trailhead on the River to River Trail.

"All three trailheads will be large enough to accommodate multiple horse trailers as well as passenger vehicle parking to serve all trail users," explained Patrick.

The second new trailhead between Garden of the Gods and High Knob will be located close to the rock formation long associated with the Civil War era Confederacy supporting Knights of the Golden Circle.

The grant will also fund approximately 5.4 miles of work on USFS hiker/equestrian trails, including some portions of the River to River Trail, in the One Horse Gap area.

"These trails are heavily utilized and in many cases are not well-constructed or well-located for the heavy impact," Patrick explained. "Sections of trail will be relocated on the landscape to minimize resource damage from erosion and sedimentation and to avoid sensitive features while other sections will be reconstructed in place."

While Forest Service personnel will complete the planning and layout, Trails Unlimited, a team that specializes in trail work will perform the construction.

The One Horse Gap trail work will be a continuation of a project funded by a 2010 RTP grant to reroute and reconstruct approximately 7 miles of hiker/equestrian trail in the same area. About 5.5 miles of this work is complete to date; the remainder of the work is expected to be done in fall 2014.

Patrick said planning has already begun for the trailheads and trail work associated with the new grant. Actual construction may not begin until spring 2015.

"The Forest is very appreciative of the time, energy and investment provided by STC as this project would not be possible without their continued support. [We're] also grateful for the state of Illinois's consideration and selection of this project that promotes the development of trails and the opportunities they provide for visitors to the Shawnee. This level of support is exciting as it brings capacity to all involved in addressing trail reconstruction and maintenance, needs that are critical to the long-term sustainability of local trail systems that protect unique places while also increasing the safety of our visitors," she added.

The project in the Shawnee was one of four announced this week by Gov. Pat Quinn. The three other Recreational Trails Program grants announced this week were $151,000 for a special parking area for vehicles and snowmobilers along the Pecatonica Prairie Trail in Winnebago County, $616,000 for the development of the Hanna City Trail in Peoria and Fulton Counties and $200,000 for the development of the Freeman Kame Horse and Hike Trail in the Freeman Kame - Meagher Forest Preserve in Kane County.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Marion's New Single-Point I-57 Interchange Opens Today

Single-Point Interchange on Route 13 under the I-57 overpass

The $45 million single-point interchange is scheduled to open later this afternoon.

The project to reconstruct the intersection of Interstate 57 and Illinois Route 13 started two years ago.

"The contractor is preparing to open that up to the full configuration by 3 p.m." explained Doug Helfrich, IDOT District 9 construction engineer, on Thursday. "There will be new signals at the I-57 bridge, and those temporary signals will be down."

He says there won't be a big change other than the new traffic signals will be closer to the bridge.

(Of course, he's an IDOT engineer, he probably even likes roundabouts. While I have to grant that the single-point interchanges will be more efficient, as will the roundabout Carbondale announced earlier this month, they do require a lot more thinking than motorists usually give when they're approached for the first few times.)

If you haven't noticed contractors do have the new lights up under the bridge and Helfrich promises "full pavement markings on the road" to guide motorists. Once crews get all of the approaches cleaned up in the next month it should look sharp and we'll wonder how we ever lived without it.

The project is part of the $100 million Illinois is spending on the interchange, expanding Route 13 to six lanes from Route 37 to John A. Logan College, adding new frontage roads, and building an overpass over the Burlington-Northern Railroad just west of the Illinois Star Centre mall.

Work on the interchange project should be completed by July 1. Sometime in mid to late July Helfrich said traffic on Route 13 will be diverted to the new eastbound railroad overpass so work can start prepping the ground for the westbound overpass.

The bad news about the overpass project is the continued restricted access on Garden Way, the new frontage road on the south side of the highway from Sam's Club to Skyline Drive. That will likely delay any development, particularly new restaurants who would normally be anxious to snatch the prime new lots out next to the highway. The big chains like to be on the side of the road that has the heaviest evening rush hour traffic. For Route 13, that's the south side as most of the traffic is heading east on Route 13 in order to get on the interstate, or continue onto and through Marion on the state highway.

That road can't open until the railroad allows the new at-grade crossing on Garden Way to be open. That won't happen until the current Route 13 at-grade crossing is history and both overpasses are operational.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Closed With Plans to Reopen Even Better Friday

Both O'Charley's and the southbound ramp from Route 13 to Interstate 57 are closed this week for reconstruction.

O'Charley's plans an upgrade of their restaurant. The remodeling inside will cost a bit of seating space, but should make the dining experience less crowded. Based on the drawings posted inside, the entrance will be transformed into a more visible white tower with the green stripe at the top to see of the name better.

Meanwhile work on the highway progresses to a point that it's becoming clearer how the diamond interchange will work underneath the overpass. There will probably be a wreck or two as drivers get used to the switch from the temporary two intersections and stoplights to the single set of lights.

The reconstruction of the I-57 interchange at Exit 54 began two years ago and should quickly draw to a completion if the weather will cooperate.

The biggest downside is the still incomplete Morgan Avenue interchange. The intersection rebuild only includes the ramps up to the immediate area of the overpass. The project to add another two-lane overpass and connect the other two ramps to the new road has been taking its time as the state has to overcome roadblocks in acquiring right-of-way on Morgan between the highway and Carbon St.

When finished Morgan Avenue will consist of four lanes between the interstate and Carbon with two additional left turn lanes from Morgan into the STAR Bonds area at Stanford and Carbon Streets.

One good thing about all of the construction, it's helped at least one hotel in town. Between road crews and contractors in town for the power plant work at Lake of Egypt the owner told me he's had the best two months' occupancy he's ever experienced with monthly rates over 90 percent.

As to the restaurant (which has some of the best rib-eye stakes around) O'Charley's has changed tacks in the last couple of years with a focus on spiffing up its existing restaurants. A story last year in the Florida Times-Union posted on the company website quoted company president Mickey Mills as saying, "It was just dated."

The chain of 213 restuarants (down 20 since 2008), has been modifying its menu, adding Free Pie Wednesdays with a purchase of a meal, and developed a new modernized logo, the first change in 40 years.

The chain planned updating 40 to 50 locations last year at a cost of $200,000 to $300,000 each. Marion's store is presumably in the same price range.

Both the restaurant and the southbound ramp will remain closed through Friday and are scheduled to be reopened Saturday in time for Memorial Day weekend.