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                   Friday, May 15, 2020

Connecting safe bike/pedestrian routes around Scott AFB, O'Fallon, Shiloh and Mascoutah, Illinois

By DAN ROBINSON
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The St. Louis metro area has one of the best network of bike trails in the Midwest. This is particularly true of the Illinois side of the metro area (the STL "Metro-East") with the expansive and growing Madison County Transit and MetroBikeLink trail systems [10]. With the completion of the Goshen Trail's southern extension to O'Fallon, access to the trail network has been opened up to even more of the population of the Metro-East.

I have been a regular cyclist on the county roads mainly east of Illinois Highway 4 in eastern St. Clair and western Clinton Counties. These lesser-traveled, straight, flat and open paved roads (Fig. 1) offer a web of relatively safe cycling route options around the rural eastern fringes of the St. Louis metro in between Mascoutah, Summerfield, Highland, New Baden, Trenton and beyond.


Fig 1: Characteristic example of county roads east of Silver Creek.

However, bike-safe options westward into the more populated areas of O'Fallon, and to the Madison County/MetroBikeLink trail system connections, just aren't there yet. The main obstacle for these connections is Silver Creek, a wildly-meandering and multi-channeled stream that flows southward through eastern St. Clair County. Silver Creek's wide floodplain, multiple channels and frequent floods prevent all but the main east-west roads from crossing its expansive realm.


Google Maps satellite image of Silver Creek at I-64 on the north side of Scott AFB/MidAmerica Airport

From Mascoutah to Lebanon, the only available bridges across Silver Creek are on (listed from north to south) US Highway 50, Interstate 64 and State Route 161. Obviously, the interstate is off-limits to cyclists, leaving the two 2-lane highways as the only option for a bicycle traveler or commuter. Route 161 (Fig. 2) and Highway 50 (Fig. 3) are completely unsuitable routes for cyclists, as both present a treacherous mix of high speeds, heavy traffic and no usable shoulders. The end result is that cycling for commuting or leisure into the heart of the metro area is out of the question for the communities east of Silver Creek.


Fig 2: Illinois State Route 161 between Mascoutah and Scott AFB.


Fig 3: US Highway 50 between Lebanon and O'Fallon.

In 2013, as part of the nationwide "Shift Your Commute" initiative, Heartlands Conservancy published a detailed study [1] exploring bicycle commuting routes to Scott Air Force Base, the Metro-East's biggest employer. A safe Silver Creek crossing was addressed as one of the top priorities to encourage cycling commuting to the base from the east. This study does an excellent job of mapping out all of the potential cycling routes to the base from the surrounding communities. The proposed Route 161 Boardwalk and Trail was the study's solution to the Silver Creek problem, a dedicated trail paralleling the road from Mascoutah to the base's southern gate. This trail's main element would be a boardwalk bridge across the creek and floodplain (Fig. 4), a feature that used $2.6 million of the entire trail's $3.6 million estimated cost of construction.


Fig 4: Part of the Silver Creek floodplain where the planned Route 161 Boardwalk/Trail would cross. The bottomland frequently floods, as it was at the time of this photo.

The Silver Creek crossing is just one element of the plans to construct safe cycling routes to the base. The City of O'Fallon also undertook a separate study of potential bike paths in the area, including several ambitious greenways along Silver Creek, Rock Springs Creek and Eagle Creek [2, 3]. Like Silver Creek, I-64 is another barrier with no current safe cyclist crossings to the south for O'Fallon and Lebanon residents. With those two points in mind, I'm suggesting another possibility not covered by the original Heartlands Conservancy study: a bike path paralleling the upcoming Metrolink light rail extension to MidAmerica Airport.

In June of 2019, the State of Illinois voted to provide long-awaited funding of an extension of the Metrolink light rail from the current end-of-track at the Shiloh/Scott AFB station to MidAmerica Airport [12]. The route of this new extension will cross Silver Creek on one or two new bridges immediately south of Interstate 64. Between Shiloh/Scott and Belleville, the MetroBikeLink trail takes advantage of the light rail track right-of-way for a parallel dedicated bike/pedestrian path (Fig. 5). The MetroBikeLink trail crosses several bridges alongside existing bridges for the light rail tracks (Fig. 6). Could the MidAmerica extension accommodate a similar configuration up to and across Silver Creek and beyond?


Fig 5: MetroBikeLink trail (right) and Metrolink light rail tracks (left) at Shiloh Station road, west of Scott AFB.


Fig 6: MetroBikeLink trail bridge (left) and Metrolink light rail bridge (right) crossing over Route 161, east of Belleville. The bridges share common approaches and abutments.

With knowledge of the local road network and cycling experience on many of them, I created this new map of the region. The main points of this map are to show the current "gaps" in cycling-safe routes around the region along with the existing and officially-planned dedicated trails. Roads shaded in red are ones that I do not consider to be safe options for cycling due to combinations of high speed, heavy traffic and/or prohibited access. The roads shown in black are relatively safe to use as part of a cycling route due to low speed limits and/or sparser traffic. For the purposes of discussion, I'm referring to the unofficially-proposed bike path along the Metrolink extension as the "MidAmerica Trail". Click on the map to view the full-size version in a new tab.

Bike routes near Scott AFB and surrounding communities

Please Note:
  • The MidAmerica, Mascoutah, Lebanon and MetroBikeLink Connector trails shown on this map are purely conceptual and have NOT been officially proposed or surveyed.
  • Not all streets and roads are shown. Most of the unmapped residential streets in the towns and cities shown can be assumed to be "cyclist friendly" (shaded black on the map).

Trail descriptions

  • Berm Trail: A completed paved trail running east-west across nearly the full width of the town of Mascoutah between Lake Road and North Jefferson Street (State Route 4).
  • Eagle Creek Greenway: An officially-proposed trail connecting Hesse Park in O'Fallon to the proposed greenway along Silver Creek between O'Fallon and Lebanon [2].
  • Lebanon Trail: A conceptual (not yet officially proposed) path beginning at MidAmerica Airport, paralleling Illinois Route 4 northward across Interstate 64 and on to Lebanon.
  • Mascoutah Trail: A conceptual (not yet officially proposed) continuation of the MidAmerica Trail from MidAmerica Airport to Mascoutah, following the old alignment of Illinois Route 4 on the east side of MidAmerica Airport.
  • MidAmerica Trail: A conceptual (not yet officially proposed) extension of the MetroBikeLink trail along the light rail tracks from the Shiloh/Scott station to MidAmerica Airport. Like most of the MetroBikeLink trail, the MidAmerica Trail shares the right-of-way with the light rail tracks, including a joint bike/rail bridge across Silver Creek. Silver Creek is the costliest obstacle to overcome in constructing a cycling path accessible to communities east of Scott AFB.
  • MetroBikeLink Connector: A conceptual (not yet officially proposed) path connecting the Route 161 Boardwalk and Trail with the MetroBikeLink trail. The connector would begin at the Route 161/Route 158 intersection and continue west along the south side of Scott AFB to Section Line Road. Cyclists would then use Section Line Road to reach the MetroBikeLink trail at Shiloh Station Road. The connector, along with the Route 161 Boardwalk and Trail, would give Mascoutah cyclists access to Belleville and its system of trails.
  • MetroBikeLink Trail: A completed, paved, dedicated bike/pedestrian path built along the Metrolink light rail tracks from Belleville to the Shiloh/Scott AFB station. The trail parallels the tracks for most of its length [7].
  • Rieder Road trail: An officially-proposed bike and pedestrian path from Wherry Road and I-64 northward to US Highway 50, paralleling its namesake road [1].
  • Rock Springs Creek Greenway: An officially-proposed trail connecting Rock Springs Rotary Park in O'Fallon with the proposed greenway along Silver Creek between O'Fallon and Lebanon [2].
  • Route 161 Boardwalk and Trail: An officially-proposed bike and pedestrian path from Mascoutah to the southern gate of Scott AFB, paralleling its namesake highway and including a dedicated bridge across Silver Creek [1].
  • Siebert Road Trail: A partially-completed paved trail running from South Main Street along Siebert Road to Johnson Road in Shiloh. Official plans are to extend the trail east across Route 158 to the Scott AFB gate.
  • Silver Creek Greenway: An officially-proposed trail paralleling Silver Creek from Scott AFB north through eastern St. Clair County east of O'Fallon [2].
  • St. Vincennes Trail: An officially-proposed bike and pedestrian path built parallel to Old Vincennes Trail, a street on the east side of O'Fallon. [1].
  • Trestle Trail: A completed trail on the southeastern edge of the town of Lebanon, IL, named for the CSX railroad bridge it passes under. This short but important trail connects the dead-ends of East McAllister Street and Korte Sewald Road, providing the first cycling-safe link to the county road network south and east of Lebanon.

Fig 7: Trestle Trail in Lebanon, connecting the town with the cycling-safe county road grid to the south and east.
  • Trolley Trail: An officially-proposed bike and pedestrian path from Borchers Lane east of O'Fallon to Belleville Street in Lebanon, paralleling US Highway 50. Also referred to as the US 50 Bypass Trail on some maps, this path follows an old interurban trolley line. This trail would provide a safe cycling connection to O'Fallon via Borchers Lane and the proposed St. Vincennes trail. [11].

Fig 8: Silver Creek at the location of the planned Trolley Trail and bridge, west of Lebanon. The old interurban line roadbed embankment that the trail is based on is visible at right.

MidAmerica Trail: Benefits

  • Right-of-way acquisition from private landowners is one of the biggest hurdles for trail development, and this could be minimized for virtually the entire trail length into Mascoutah. The segment from Shiloh/Scott station to MidAmerica Airport would be completely contained within the light rail right-of-way similar to the rest of the MetroBikeLink trail. The Mascoutah Trail around MidAmerica Airport would be on land already owned by St. Clair County, eliminating right-of-way acquisition costs and complications.
  • A bike path bridge built at the same time as the light rail bridge, possibly even using the same (slightly widened) approaches, abutments and piers, would be a much less expensive way to cross Silver Creek than a dedicated bridge.

Fig 9: Silver Creek at the location of the future Metrolink bridge crossing on the MidAmerica extension, and the location of the MidAmerica Trail crossing discussed in this article. The Silver Creek Greenway would also pass through this scene. Interstate 64 is just to the left of this image.
  • The MidAmerica trail alignment would bring the MetroBikeLink/MidAmerica dedicated bike path route closer to O'Fallon. O'Fallon cyclists could use the lightly-traveled Shiloh Valley Township Line Road to reach the I-64 crossing at Rieder Road.
  • The MidAmerica trail bridge could also serve as another Silver Creek crossing for Lebanon cyclists via a trail northward to Lebanon.

MidAmerica Trail: Challenges

  • Any cost savings of a joint light rail/bike path bridge may be offset by the significantly longer trail needed to reach Mascoutah.
  • Proximity of the trail to the airport runways/final approach paths may be a concern with parts of the trails around Scott AFB and MidAmerica Airport. A fence will also be needed to separate the trail from the active runway.

Lebanon Trail: Advantages and Challenges

  • The Lebanon trail's Route 4 alignment would also be significantly longer than the Rieder Road/Highway 50 path.
  • The Lebanon trail would likely require a new traffic signal system at the westbound ramps of I-64 (similar to the one recently installed at the eastbound ramps) to allow cyclists to cross the heavily-trafficked westbound on-ramp safely.
  • The Lebanon trail would require right-of-way acquisition and crossings of several residential driveways, adding complexity, additional costs and potential for public opposition to the project.
  • The Lebanon trail would require bridges and embankments to cross the multi-channeled Little Silver Creek and floodplain south of Lebanon.
  • Thanks to the Trestle Trail, a bike-safe route now exists that allows Lebanon cyclists to reach the I-64/Highway 4 intersection via Korte Sewald Road and Perrin Road. Although this route is 3 miles longer than a conceptual trail straight down Highway 4 all the way from Lebanon, it eliminates the need for right-of-way acquisition and Little Silver Creek crossing costs and complications. In the event of the MidAmerica/Mascoutah trail, the only segment of trail needed to connect to the existing Lebanon route would be a short segment between Perrin Road south across I-64. Again, traffic signals may be necessary for a safe bike/pedestrian crossing of the westbound interstate on/off ramps.

In the event of a Route 161 Boardwalk route:

  • A short MetroBikeLink connector path south of Scott AFB would provide cyclists from Mascoutah a connection to the existing trail to Belleville.
  • Extending the MetroBikeLink trail to Rieder Road (a partial construction of the MidAmerica Trail) would provide the connection to O'Fallon and the potential US 50 bypass bridge to Lebanon.
  • A second major bridge over Silver Creek would be needed for the US 50 bypass/Trolley Trail to provide a connection to Lebanon.

Regional bike/pedestrian trail notes

  • The abandoned Louisville and Nashville (L&N) railroad grade through Mascoutah has its original bridges over Silver Creek intact. As with many rails-to-trails conversions, these bridges would likely only require new decking for use as part of a bike/pedestrian trail. The L&N roadbed would provide a much less costly route to Scott AFB for Mascoutah cyclists, only requiring a connecting trail north of Route 177 to reach the base's southern gate. The Metrolink line begins using the old L&N roadbed east of Belleville, making a MetroBikeLink trail connection relatively easy. The abandoned L&N roadbed is intact to the east all the way to Okawville, IL, though more costly bridge work at the Kaskaskia River would be needed to extend a trail that far. An effort to construct a trail along this right-of-way was attempted but did not succeed.
  • The closest Madison County Trail network connections [8] to Scott AFB and the areas east of Silver Creek are the Goshen Trail in O'Fallon (about 10 miles from the base) and the Madison County Transit Heritage Trail in Marine (22 miles north of Mascoutah). As this article has already covered in detail, there is no safe cycling route to reach the Goshen Trail from Scott AFB nor the communities east of Silver Creek. East of Silver Creek, the Goshen and Heritage Trails can be reached safely by bike only via a lengthy route on county roads. From Mascoutah, the shortest county road (cycle friendly) route to the Heritage Trail is about 30 miles, while the closest safe route to the Goshen Trail is 27-mile path via the Trestle Trail and county roads north and south of Lebanon.
  • Dedicated pedestrian/cycling bridges across Interstate 64 and Route 158 may eventually be needed to complete cycle-safe commuting routes from O'Fallon to Scott AFB. Route 158 is a busy, high-speed four-lane highway that is not safe to cross as a cyclist or pedestrian, even at signaled intersections. An ideal location of the I-64 crossing would be just east of the Highway 158 interchange, with the Highway 158 bridge crossing either just north of the interchange or just south of the Highway 50 interchange. As these bridges would need to be long enough to span the 6 lanes of I-64 and the 4 lanes and wide median of Route 158, they would be significant expenses, possibly exceeding the combined cost of most of the existing and future trail system around Scott AFB.
  • The Katy Trail's eastern terminus at Machens, Missouri can be reached via the Madison County Trail network, though some short-distance riding west of Edwardsville and in West Alton, MO are required. O'Fallon cyclists can start a ride to the Katy Trail from the Goshen Trail. Cyclists starting east of Silver Creek can take county roads north to the Heritage trailhead in Marine, then west on the trail network through Edwardsville to Alton.

Conclusions

The Heartlands Conservancy study made a thorough and convincing case for developing cycling and pedestrian routes around Scott AFB. Closing the cycling-unfriendly route gaps between these communities and the robust trail systems in the Metro-East would provide not only attractive bicycle-commuting options for residents, but could effectively make the Metro-East the new eastern terminus for internationally-renowned Katy Trail through-rides.

Sources

  1. Scott Air Force Base Bicycle & Pedestrian Commuter Plan (Heartlands Conservancy)
  2. City of O'Fallon, Illinois Bicycle Facilities Plan (City of O'Fallon, IL)
  3. O'Fallon Bicycle Plan Map (City of O'Fallon, IL)
  4. Heartlands Conservancy
  5. Trailnet: St. Louis Area Trail Development
  6. OneSTL Bicycle and Pedestrian Planning
  7. St. Clair County Transit District: MetroBikeLink Trail System
  8. Madison County Transit Trails
  9. Katy Trail
  10. Metro-East Parks and Recreation District Trail Map
  11. Gateway East Trails
  12. Metrolink expansion to MidAmerica Airport funded

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