Bikers, walkers and runners are enjoying a newly paved Erie-Lackawanna Trail between U.S. 30 and 93rd Avenue in Merrillville, the first of several trail upgrades being undertaken this year in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
"It's a unique endeavor," NIRPC Active Transportation Planner Mitch Barloga said upon the 180-page plan's ratification by the commission's executive board this spring. "We're combining conservation and non-motorized transportation planning efforts. This may be the first time we have seen a plan combining these two efforts."
NIRPC is also preparing a new regional trail map for distribution. The two documents detail the state of the three-county area's 160 miles of trails and the variety of waterways that have been designated for recreational use.
Along with the Erie-Lackawanna work, this year's trail plans include:
• A half-mile extension of the Marquette Greenway from the Hammond Bird Sanctuary to the Illinois state line, connecting Chicago and Northwest Indiana at the lakeshore.
• Wayfinding signage on the Erie-Lackawanna and Prairie Duneland trails, including entrance, street and directional signs, mile markings and maps on kiosks.
• A bridge for the Marquette Greenway at the Wolf Lake Pavilion entrance in Hammond.
• Nearly 1.7 miles of trail along U.S. 30 from Hayes Leonard Road to Ind. 2 in Valparaiso.
Several more projects are scheduled for completion in 2019:
• Paving of 3 miles of Pennsy Greenway from the Schererville Town Hall north to Main Street in Munster.
• Paving of about 2.5 miles of the Singing Sands Trail in Michigan City. The trail is part of the Marquette Greenway.
• Installation of a bridge on the Erie-Lackawanna Trail over Calumet Avenue in Hammond.
The projects will help fill in a network that has grown from about 13 miles of known trails in the early 1990s to the 160 miles now. The 11 major trails in Northwest Indiana's network, according to the Greenways+Blueways plan, are the Calumet Trail, C&O Greenway, Dunes-Kankakee Trail, Erie-Lackawanna Trail, Lincoln Memorial Trail, Little Calumet Levee Trail, Monon Trail, Oak-Savannah Trail, Pennsy Greenway, Prairie Duneland Trail and Veterans Memorial Trail. Three multi-state trails share regular roads, and 17 shorter trails fill out the current network.
The work has relied heavily on federal funds, and federal involvement means added complexity: "using federal monies raises the overall cost of a trail project 25 percent to 50 percent," according to the Greenways+Blueways plan. "Furthermore, due to plan processing and permitting, the time needed to complete a project also increases — sometimes significantly."
But the various federal programs NIRPC administers typically require a local contribution of only 20 percent, making federal programs "the clear choice for nearly all NIRPC municipalities," according to the plan.
More than 95 percent of new trail projects in Northwest Indiana have benefited from federal funding, amounting to more than $40 million since 1991.
The second resource covered by the plan — waterways with recreational potential — was part of a 2007 Greenways+Blueways plan. In 2007, 15 potential "water trails" were identified.
Since then, the list has been adjusted based on input from water trail users, particularly members of the Northwest Indiana Paddlers Association.
Among the variety of waterways spanning the three-county area, the 2018 plan's "high priorities" include the Little Calumet River east of Ind. 249 in Porter County, the Kankakee River, Cedar Creek in south Lake County, the Grand Calumet River in north Lake County and Deep River in Lake County.
Lake Michigan has become a National Recreational Trail, and Trail Creek in LaPorte County, stretching from its marina to Friendship Botanic Gardens, is a well-established blueway.
The Greenways+Blueways plan notes that the challenge in developing water trails "remains providing safe and legal access to the water. Thus launches with parking, log-jam removal and signage stand as the principal elements behind a successful blueway."
"We're constantly making sure that Trail Creek stays open from the marina to Friendship Gardens," said Gina Darnell, who chairs the Blueways Stewardship program for the paddlers association.
She said the group has also worked with Hobart, and is currently working with Lake Station, on improving access for people with disabilities to Deep River.
One of the main focuses of the group, the Little Calumet River, offers the most significant opportunity along with its many challenges.
"It's a constant battle to keep the river open," Darnell said. The group is now working on clearing four log jams from the east branch of the river, followed by cleanup in Chesterton and Portage, with the hope of having a 6- to 8-mile stretch open next month, she said.
The ultimate goal for the east branch is to go from the Heron Rookery to Lake Michigan, using Burns Ditch, "to open the whole system," Darnell said.