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Did You Know?

Half of school children walked or biked to school in 1969, but only 13 percent were doing it in 2009.

What’s happening with the remaining section of the Weber Spur Trail?

The Weber Spur Trail on Chicago’s Northwest Side has been subject to a series of starts and stops over the last decade, resulting in slow, sporadic progress for the rails-to-trails project.

But the trail may finally be making some progress as the North Branch Trail Alliance re-engages local communities and stakeholders and works to ensure the project is top of mind with elected officials and government agencies.

The Weber Spur is a 2.7-mile trail that starts at Touhy Avenue in Lincolnwood, takes a southwestern route through LaBagh Woods and could connect to Elston Avenue’s bicycle lanes (see drone footage of the route).

Suburban Lincolnwood built a one-mile stretch of the trail; now it’s up to the city of Chicago to follow through on plans to build its 1.7-mile portion.

Residents and elected officials have been discussing the need for developing this trail for nearly 20 years. After an initial burst of planning activity, development has remained in limbo despite overwhelming community support for the project. Union Pacific remains the owner of the property.

This trail will create the ultimate low-stress connection for people biking and walking between the North Branch, Sauganash and North Channel Trails — some of the busiest trails in the region.

“This network is so important to keep going. … Without this connection, the city’s connections to the suburbs and back to the city from the suburbs really is severed,” said Jim O’Reilly, president of the North Branch Trail Alliance.

Recently, some local residents have called on Union Pacific to add some safety features on specific stretches of the path, such as the street overpasses where railings are absent.

 

 

A LONG HISTORY

The Weber Spur Trail has a rich history that dates back to 1890 when Union Pacific Railroad used it as a freight cutoff to relieve congestion between Evanston and Chicago. From the 1920s to 1999, Union Pacific provided passenger and freight train service on the Weber Spur Trail.

In 2005, initial discussions started to bubble up in local communities about how to make use of this abandoned rail line, which is bordered by lush vegetation and wildlife.

When Union Pacific removed the railroad tracks in 2009, local residents, community groups and other stakeholders started to advocate for building a safe walking and biking trail along the former rail line — generating interest and excitement for the Weber Spur Trail.

In 2015, city and government officials held a public meeting seeking input and feedback for the trail’s development, including goals, intentions and a vision for the multi-use trail.

The public meeting “was one of these proud moments of like, OK, we’re going to get somewhere,” O’Reilly said.

In 2017, Active Transportation Alliance and then 39th Ward Alderperson Margaret Laurino hosted a Trails and Bikeways Workshop, seeking public input about development and construction of the trail.

Attendees deemed the trail as crucial because it serves as a key northeast connection between the North Branch and North Channel Trails. In addition, they said the trail should have safe and easy access points like The 606 Trail.

The project scored a victory in 2017 when suburban Lincolnwood built 1 mile of the trail, stretching from Devon Avenue to Touhy Avenue by the Lincolnwood Town Center mall and a few blocks west of the North Shore Channel Trail.

Unfortunately, progress on the Weber Spur Trail has been slow and inconsistent ever since.

 

WHERE WE ARE NOW

While Union Pacific officially has a no trespassing policy for the property, the gravel-surface trail is used frequently throughout the year by people walking, running, and biking.

People who live near the trail say that local support for the project is enormous.

O’Reilly said 39th Ward Alderperson Samantha Nugent has expressed support for the project, and he’s optimistic that conversations will continue with the Union Pacific Railroad.

“The section [of the Weber Spur Trail] in Chicago has garnered more and more attention, but not action to follow,” O’Reilly said.

In 2022, the City of Chicago released its plan to create a connected network of trails, dedicating $15 million to that goal.

The city’s trail plan includes connecting the Weber Spur Trail in Lincolnwood to the Sauganash Trail and North Branch Trail at LaBaugh Woods and continuing southwest to Elston Ave.

The North Branch Trail Alliance and Active Transportation Alliance plan to work with the city to ensure the local communities around the trail are engaged with the process and the project maintains momentum.

While it will likely take years to complete the trail, this initiative from the city is a huge win that pushes the project forward, according to O’Reilly.

Including the project in the city’s trail plan “is an exciting piece of news,” said O’Reilly. “Any progress is good progress. I’ve learned that through the years.”

 

Please note that the map above does not show the completed section of Weber Spur Trail north of Devon Ave. in Lincolnwood.

Top photo courtesy of Bob Kastigar.

During a recent webinar hosted by Active Transportation Alliance, advocates and governmental agencies shared details about various trail projects on the North Side of Chicago and in the Northern Suburbs. This blog post was largely drawn from the webinar.

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