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by Justin Engebregtsen

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The trail that keeps growing

Two years after opening, 30-mile bike-and hike path keeps users coming back


Lakeshore Life staff

When the Ozaukee Interurban Trail opened two years ago, organizers knew they had finally brought to fruition an ambitious project that would benefit all of Ozaukee County for years to come.

But just because they had a gem on their hands didnít mean they werenít also looking for ways to improve it.

Since its grand opening on Sept. 28, 2002, the trail has proven to be worth every penny and every minute spent providing a venue for active people both inside and outside of the county.

That was obvious to anyone who took to the trail and saw they werenít alone in taking advantage of it. But organizers wanted more concrete evidence that their efforts werenít in vain.

In August, the Trail Advisory Council with the help of volunteers from Cedarburg High School set up at locations in Cedarburg and Thiensville and started counting.

In the course of just one week, more than 4,700 people used the trail where it intersects with Freistadt Road in Thiensville, while just over 4,000 were tallied at the Keup Road intersection in Cedarburg.

We get a lot of questions about how many people are using the trail and that sort of thing, Trail Advisory Council Chairman Andrew Struck said. A rough approximation would put the totals at about one user per minute on the trail.

It makes us feel wonderful to see numbers like that. Itís great to have hard data to support what we already know. The trail is being used a lot, and it feels good to get everyone involved.

Our advisory council and all of our volunteers are thrilled to see a lot of work paying off.

Of course, the number-one concern of the council is the enjoyment of county residents, but they arenít the only group lauding the trail.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources designated the nearly 30-mile route a Great Wisconsin Birding and Nature Trail, paving the way for a number of improvements that will make the experience even better for birdwatchers.

The advisory council has explored the idea of placing signs and maps along the trail to direct people to the best birding spots, Struck said, a project he hopes will receive backing from the DNR.

But thatís small potatoes considering the plan currently in the works for the part of the trail that weighs heaviest on the minds of users and council members alike.

The majority of the route that stretches from the north end of the county to the south is off-road to ensure as safe an experience as possible for all users.

But to cross I-43 in the Town of Grafton, the trail flows onto Highway W (Port Washington Road), which contains a fast, high volume of traffic, Struck said.

That one blemish on an otherwise pristine 29.6 miles motivated the council to propose a trail enhancement project.

The plan is to replace the two-mile, on-road portion with a 1.3-mile route that will include a pedestrian/bicycle bridge spanning I-43.

With an estimated cost of $1.25 million, organizers knew they had a formidable task in front of them. But a Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) Grant from the DNR covered 80% of the funding.

That left a more attainable fund-raising goal of $250,000.

A little over $14,000 has been raised so far, Stuck said, but organizers have just begun exploring avenues through which their goal can be reached.

Struck hopes contributions from foundations and private donors will bring the plan to fruition and enhance the trail.

Itís going to be a major aesthetic improvement because people would be able to access some beautiful woodlands and wetlands that are currently not accessible, Stuck said. We just think it would be a good improvement for the entire trail.

We want people to feel safe getting out there and improving their health and being active. Weíve seen articles and research that says if a trail is nearby, convenient and safe, people are much more likely to use it.

This project goes a long way to accomplishing that.

Struck estimated the potential impact of the improved path at more than $800,000 because of the drawing power the trail has exhibited thus far. That number hardly seems like a stretch considering the countless requests on the trailís Web site for information regarding places to eat, shop and even sleep, requests that have come from as far away as North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas.

But by no means are the benefits of the trail only being felt by local merchants.

The YMCA organized a Historic Bike Tour that will take place Sunday, Sept. 26, the Grafton Booster Club recently held a fund-raiser that included a run along a portion of the trail, and the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Mequon used part of the southern route to host its Pig Walk, which raised money for Family Sharing of Ozaukee.

Itís those events that show the time and money to get the trail up and running were very well spent.

We really support groups that want to use the trail for events and fund raisers, Struck said. Weíre seeing a higher degree of requests for use of the trail in that regard.

Everything we invest in the trail comes right back to us in that way.