Legislators urged to invest in completing recreation trails across Nebraska

By: - February 3, 2022 4:00 am
Cowboy Trail at Long Pine, NE

The Cowboy Trail at Long Pine, Nebraska features a long bridge over a scenic canyon. (Julie Harris/Bike Walk Nebraska)

LINCOLN — Nebraska should capitalize on plentiful state and local funds by completing two major hike-bike trails that cross the state, a panel of state lawmakers were told Tuesday.

State Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha, an avid biker who’s pedaled across the U.S., said that $18 million would be required to finish the Mo-Pac Trail between Omaha and Lincoln, and complete the Cowboy Trail that spans northern Nebraska.

The work would help complete the proposed Great American Rail Trail, a 3,700-mile-long collection of trails linking Washington, D.C. and Washington State, Hilkemann said. That trail is about 53% completed.

“The trail is an iconic piece of American infrastructure,” the senator told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

Trails like the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota and the Katy Trail in Missouri attract tourists to taverns, cafes and bed-and-breakfast inns, boosting spending in small towns along such routes, Hilkemann said.

The pandemic caused a surge in bicycling, he said, and the advent of electric-powered “e-bikes” is going to increase such recreation even more.

State Sen. Robert Hilkemann
State Sen. Robert Hilkemann of Omaha
(Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

Developing recreational trails was the top request of respondents in a recent survey by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

“This is low-hanging fruit. Nebraskans want trails,” said Julie Harris of Bike Walk Nebraska.

At least four other states have used millions in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to launch trail projects, advocates said. They include Indiana, Arizona, Virginia and Vermont, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

An 8-mile gap remains in Cass County between trails that originate in Omaha and Lincoln. But Harris said that the Cass County Board has given its approval to a new route that would link the two trails in the South Bend area. A previous route had been opposed by landowners in that area.

The Cass County gap, because it would require building some bridges, adding some culverts and constructing a pathway from scratch, would cost about $8 million, an expense that led to questions from one senator, Steve Erdman of Bayard.

Jason Buss, a representative of the Nebraska Trails Foundation, said that hike-bike trails built on old railroad beds are relatively easy because they are flat and already graded. They cost only about $185,000 per mile.

Wabash Trail east of Lincoln
The MoPac Trail east of Lincoln passes by a Nebraska landmark — a grain elevator.
(Julie Harris/Bike Walk Nebraska)


The Cass County trail will be much more expensive, Buss said, because it will be built along country roads, across a couple streams and require improvements to a minimum maintenance road.

“It’s just not flat,” said Sen. Robert Clements, who lives only a couple of blocks from the Wabash Trail in Elmwood.

The Cowboy Trail, a 321-mile-long former railroad line, was obtained by the state in 1993. But about 93 miles are yet to be built, from Valentine to Gordon, and Rushville to the Wyoming State Line.  

Michelle Stryker of the State Game and Parks Commission said that it would cost about $6 million to complete the Cowboy Trail. She added that the trail also needs about $8 million in repairs due to floods in recent years. 

Hilkemann did not identify a funding source for the trail work in his proposal, Legislative Bill 813. But during the hearing, he said funds could come from ARPA, or any other federal or state source. Thanks to robust tax collections, the state has a record amount in its cash reserve fund.

The Appropriations Committee, which is reviewing budget proposals, took no action on LB 813 after a public hearing Tuesday.


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.