Downed trees, deep ravines among obstacles for hike-bike trail linking Omaha and Lincoln
Some question $8.3 million pricetag for eight miles of trail in Cass County
State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood used to pick plums with his family down this stretch of county road. The road, which is now closed and blocked by downed trees, could become the route for a bike-hike trail linking trails from Omaha and Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
ELMWOOD — Some eyebrows shot up this spring in the Nebraska Legislature when lawmakers approved $8.3 million to complete eight miles of crushed-limestone, bike-hike trail to link recreation trails coming from Omaha and Lincoln.
That’s $1 million per mile, one senator said, which is what it used to cost to build a mile of paved highway.
But a recent drive down the most direct route linking Lincoln’s Mo-Pac Trail with the Lied Bridge over the Platte River found that this is no happy trail, at least in terms of building a pathway for hikers and bikers.
Huge downed trees blocked the route at one point, as did head-high weeds. Nearby is an old bridge from the abandoned Rock Island Railroad line. A proposed trail would either have to go under it or on it, or the timber bridge would have to be removed.
Deep ravines and high dirt banks rimmed other portions of 322nd Street, which extends northward from where the Mo-Pac East Trail ends in the unincorporated village of Wabash to a trailhead off the Lied Platte River Bridge.
“Have you seen $8 million yet?” asked State Sen. Rob Clements of Elmwood, as he maneuvered a four-wheel-drive pickup over and around downed tree limbs on one portion of the route.
At the request of a reporter, Clements led a tour of what would be the most direct route to link Lincoln and Omaha recreation trails, 322nd Street, a gravel country lane interrupted by two miles of minimum maintenance dirt road.
Link is a longtime dream
The link would realize a longtime dream of trail enthusiasts — a continuous trail between the state’s largest cities — and give Nebraska another completed segment on a cross-country bike trail, the Great American Rail Trail.
“We’re finally going to get it done,” said Marie Gregoire of Murdock, a member of the Mo-Pac Alliance, a group of Cass County residents and trail enthusiasts promoting the trail.
That group organizes a “Pie Ride” on the first and third Thursdays of the month in Elmwood, which brings 100 bikers or walkers a night to dine on pizza pie at local establishments or homemade pies baked by local church and community groups.
“Pie is happiness. People will come out for pie,” Gregoire said.
She added that she and her husband had just returned from a vacation in Minnesota, riding bike trails there on electric, or E-bikes, which allows even senior and amateur riders to cover 30 to 40 miles of countryside a day. Trails attract tourists, she said.
“On a bike trail, you can see things at such a leisurely pace,” Gregoire said. “You don’t have traffic coming up behind you or in front of you.”
Clements is a somewhat unlikely supporter of building the last link of the trail.
Senator opposed earlier proposal
A banker whose family homesteaded in Cass County 154 years ago, Clements is one of the more conservative members of the Legislature. He had opposed earlier plans to build a trail link because the route would have crossed private property and would require taking land via eminent domain.
But this time, he voted for devoting funds from the state’s $1.04 billion allocation from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), reasoning that the state had plenty of money to do it.
“It was going to get built anyway,” Clements said, reasoning that trail backers would raise the money someday.
Plus, he said, the Cass County Board signed a letter in January supporting completion of the trail link if public right-of-way along its county roads was used, thus not taking any farm fields or front yards out of private hands.
Trail brings activity to town
Over the years, he said, residents of Elmwood, population 700, have warmed to the idea of having a recreation trail.
It hasn’t caused any problems, such as vandalism, since the trail from Lincoln was completed 22 years ago, and it has brought some activity to town, including the Pie Rides and an annual “market-to-market” relay run from Lincoln’s Haymarket to Omaha’s Old Market.
On the day of Clements’ tour, a man was walking his dog in a shady portion of the trail on the east edge of Elmwood.
The trail ended in Wabash, a couple miles south of Elmwood, because the right of way to the east has been purchased by a company that mines limestone out of the hills near Weeping Water, Clements said.
The lack of a railroad bed on which to build this portion of the Mo Pac trail — which is unlike most recreation trails, which follow old rail lines — makes it more expensive to build, said Clements.
Paul Zillig, the general manager of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, said it generally costs about $1 million a mile to build a recreational trail from scratch. And there’s additional cost if bridges or extensive clearing or grading is required, he said.
A drive down 322nd Street illustrates some extra work that will be required.
High dirt banks, deep ravines
The first couple of miles north out of Wabash are typical country roads, lined by fields of corn and beans. But soon enough the road is paralleled by a deep ravine, and then there’s a mile of minimum maintenance road that is basically two narrow tracks bordered by high banks dug deep into the prairie.
“What are you going to do with that?” Clements asked of the high banks.
Three houses are passed in the first couple of miles, which is an advantage of this route, the senator said. However, Clements added, he has heard from one homeowner who was worried that her dogs will chase passing bicyclists, and one farmer wants stop or yield signs at his field entrances to avoid accidents there.
“Liability is one concern for the farmers,” he said.
Eventually, the path crosses the east-west Church Road — so named because several churches were situated along the paved road. “Road Closed to Thru Traffic” says a sign on a barricade, along with “No Outlet.”
The senator has already shifted his pickup into four-wheel drive, and the added traction is needed as he threads his way down the rutted, dirt road, around and over fallen branches and through tall weeds.
“You’re lucky it’s been dry,” Clements said, as the truck bounced over the ruts.
About a half-mile in, the road is blocked by two huge, downed trees. “Road Closed” signs, mostly obscured by tall nettles, proclaim the obvious.
Undeterred, the senator manages to turn around and drive around the section to show what’s on the other side of the “Road Closed” sign: an old railroad bridge, part of the abandoned Rock Island Railroad line that ran from Lincoln to Omaha. The Lied Bridge is on the former Rock Island line.
When he was a kid, Clements said, his parents would drive under the old railroad bridge, proclaiming that’s “where the troll lives,” and then recount the Norwegian folk tale about the Three Billy Goats Gruff, who had to outsmart the troll to pass.
Long history in Cass County
The senator’s family history in this area goes way deeper than that. “Grandpa’s Woods Golf Course,” south of Elmwood, was founded by his grandfather, and his family’s bank in town was once co-owned by the famed author Bess Streeter Aldrich. He grew up in a home owned by the Aldrich family, a home that now houses the Bess Streeter Aldrich Museum.
North of the closed road and old bridge, 322nd Street takes a jog to the east and then winds along a small creek, Fountain Creek. Eventually, Clements reaches a limestone-rock parking lot, the trailhead for the Lied Platte River Bridge, which leads to trails in Sarpy County.
Clements said he’s no engineer and didn’t know if $8.3 million was too much to spend on a hike-bike trail, but noted there are plenty of physical obstacles to building such a pathway through his district.
Zillig, of the NRD, said no preferred route has been picked for the trail link yet but said his agency has $50,000 set aside for an engineering study of the possible routes.
“As you’ve seen out there, there’s some challenges,” he said.
Other routes shot down
Over the years, past routes have been suggested and shot down, in part over the resistance to condemnation of private property for a recreation trail.
One route had the trail link jogging to the west, then following Nebraska Highway 1 through the village of Murdock. As it stands now, a marked bike route leads cyclists from the end of the Mo-Pac East Trail to east from Wabash and then north up 334th Street, which is paved for a stretch.
Zillig said that whatever the final route is, it will be chosen in concert with the Cass County Board and the Mo-Pac Alliance to gain local approval for what has stirred controversy in the past.
During Clements’ tour, he came across Dr. Matt Rechmeyer of Lincoln and Drew Rechmeyer of Bellevue, brothers who had met midway between the two cities for a 35-mile bike ride on a hot, July afternoon.
The heat didn’t seem to bother these two, who said they meet frequently to ride the roads in Cass Count, and to enjoy the scenery and the exercise.
Do they want a bike trail to connect Omaha and Lincoln?
“We’d be all over that,” Matt Rechmeyer said.
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