The Illinois Prairie Path was the first rails-to-trails conversion in North America. It was created in 1963 and has undergone many improvements since. The far eastern portion of the Prairie Path remains the most problematic. It is interrupted by street crossings and passes by gritty industrial properties. It’s most glaring problem is that it ends abruptly at 1st Avenue, only a half mile west of the Forest Park Blue Line Station.
Ralph Di Febo is the driving force behind solving this problem. He formed The Prairie Path Extension Group three years ago. The group comprises 10 concerned citizens, including Erik Spande, president of the Prairie Path Board, and two of his board members. There are also local officials in the group, like Forest Park Commissioner Joe Byrnes.
Byrnes recommends building the extension, so that bicyclists can take an uninterrupted ride from the CTA station to the western suburbs. He envisions the CTA installing bike racks with cameras at the starting point. He also believes the Maywood portion of the path could be beautified with plants to make it more aesthetically pleasing. He would further explore installing blinking bike crossings at major streets, like they installed for the Salt Creek Trail. Besides Byrnes’ involvement, the group has received letters of support from the Forest Park Kiwanis Club, District 209 and Mayor Rory Hoskins.
Making the Prairie Path more accessible to mass transit involves closing the gap between the existing trailhead and the Blue Line. It’s a stretch of only 2,700 feet. Crucial to the plan is the installation of a crosswalk and walk button at the existing traffic signal on First Avenue.
One of the group’s strongest supporters is Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who is an avid bike rider. His assistant, Lisa Schrantz, said that Johnson believes anything that makes mass transit more accessible to resource-deprived communities is a good thing. Johnson encouraged the group to apply for a grant through the “Invest in Cook” program. Unfortunately their application was not accepted.
That’s because Cook County is completing a comprehensive county-wide bike trail plan and is not accepting applications to improve individual portions of the Prairie Path. Schrantz said the plan is being developed by the Division of Transportation, which conducted listening sessions and online surveys, while gathering data from the affected communities. She believes their plan will be completed by early summer.
Di Febo is encouraging Forest Park residents to complete the county survey. In the comments section, they can describe their own bike-riding habits, call for filling in missing links in the existing paths and recommend new paths. Di Febo can envision a bike path heading north from the Prairie Path to link up with the Des Plaines River Trail. He can even see it connecting to the 606 Trail on the North Side of Chicago. Someday people could use bike paths to ride from Lake Michigan to the Fox River. He believes that filling out the survey will prompt the county to make the Prairie Path extension a priority.
Besides closing the gap in the trail, there is another safety issue to address. Litter along the Prairie Path makes it hazardous, especially broken glass. On April 23, 2022, volunteers will clean the entire 60-mile trail. Di Febo is overseeing the volunteers who are assigned to clean the portion that passes through Berkeley.
Schrantz said that the Division of Transportation continues to value input from residents. So completing the survey would be a worthwhile exercise. We can also clean up the litter along the path. We can even improve the environment by biking instead of driving.
To take the survey and access the interactive mapping feature, visit cookcountybikeplan.mysocialpinpoint.com/outreach/home.