Lebanon Group Pedaling to Develop, Improve Trails, Routes in St. Clair, Surrounding Counties
By Mark Skaer
There was a time, not so long ago, when bike enthusiast George Fero could hardly pedal his way to nearby Horner Park in Lebanon, IL. Total destination from his Lebanon home and back: 3.2 miles. What should take but a few minutes to complete…
“It probably took me 45 minutes,” he now says with a laugh.
Wife Marie, sitting next to her husband, couldn’t help but smile, either.
“You used to ride to Horner Park and could hardly breathe,” she interjects, knowing that her diabetic husband decided to tackle bicycling in 2008 in the effort to lower his sugar level. “Now you can ride across Iowa.”
Well, give or take a few days, of course. Fero, current member of the Board (Region 8) of the League of Illinois Bicyclists, continues riding along the bi-ways and highways in and around Lebanon, but it is his desire to make it much safer for bicyclists (as well as walking pedestrians) to enjoy a leisurely – as well as competitive – ride or walk without battling autos, trucks, and traffic. It is one reason he took on the vice president role of Ridge Prairie Trailhead Initiative (RPTI), an Illinois nonprofit corporation, formed officially in 2010, to lead in the development of a bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure in and around Lebanon.
PEDDLING FOR A PEDALING ADVOCACY GROUP
In truth, RPTI is the brainchild of another Lebanon resident, Robert Wilhelm. He, along with his brother, Mark, thought it would be a great idea to have bicycling and walking routes and trails in and around Lebanon, all joining neighboring cities.
“We just thought it would be great to have,” says Robert Wilhelm, principal of Wilhelm Construction Company, LLC, a family-owned remodeling and construction business located in Lebanon.
Unfortunately, his “dream” did not take off quickly. The conversation between the two brothers took place in 2008, two years before RPTI finally took hold.
“We dropped the idea many times,” admits Robert Wilhelm, especially when he and his brother tried hard to get support from community folk. Even when he and others approached Fero to help out – as they understood he was an avid biker by now – Fero turned down the Wilhelms’ offer to get involved.
“I was just too busy at the time,” explains Fero.
Robert Wilhelm remembers Fero adding, “But down the road I can foresee myself [Fero] having more time.”
The idea of creating bike and walking trails was still in the back of Robert Wilhelm’s mind when John West, who was then running for a St. Clair County Board position, knocked on the front door of the Wilhelms’ residence. At the time, West was campaigning, looking to gain votes as well as insight as to what county residents wanted. His ears were open.
“Yes, he came out of the blue,” said Wilhelm of West. “I was surprised. We chatted for a while. When he asked if I had any comments about anything, I told him I really had nothing.”
The light bulb went on, however, when West began heading back to his car.
“When he was walking away, I turned around and said, ‘Hey, I do have one thing,’” says Wilhelm, who has been known to bike from Lebanon to Breese, a good 50 mile round-trip jaunt, which he refers to as a “relaxing Sunday ride.” “I brought up the bike trails. I remember John’s face lit up and he said, ‘Really? I’ve always wanted one.’”
Not too long thereafter, out of the blue – again – came a call from Fero.
“He [Fero] said, ‘Robert, I’m ready to work on those bike trails,” remembers Robert, the fifth oldest of nine Wilhelm brothers, five of which work together for the family construction company. “I said surely that was a sign from God now!”
By this time, Fero, admittedly, was tiring of cycling his “first good bike” – it being a Giant brand – around his self-created 5-mile loop around the city of Lebanon, which often took him past the same neighborhood time after time on a nightly and/or daily basis.
“I wanted to do more and different routes because I thought people were getting tired of me going past the same houses and neighborhoods,” says Fero. “They were getting tired of me!”
Through the grapevine, Fero heard that several people commented on Facebook that he had inspired them to “do something, because they saw this old fat guy going around on a bike.”
“I think one said, ‘If he can do it, I can do it!” says Fero, with a broad smile.
Soon thereafter, the professor of education at McKendree University joined forces with the Wilhelm brothers. By the start of 2010, RPTI – finally – took off.
GETTING THE INITIATIVE FOR THE INITIATIVE
There are over 40 members of RPTI, including Lebanon residents, representatives from Metro-east bicycling clubs, civic leaders, and bicycling advocacy groups. Robert Wilhelm is president, while Fero is vice president. Rounding out the board of directors is secretary/treasurer Harlan Gerrish, Mark Wilhelm, and Dr. Duane Olson, a professor of religious studies at McKendree. All live in the Lebanon area.
The first order of business, really, was getting organized.
“We started inviting others to help us get organized,” explains Fero, who, like other RPTI members, was not experienced with proper structuring procedures.
One of the earlier meetings, which took place in the fall of 2009, was held in the basement of Lebanon’s Visitor Center. These early meetings were attended by casual bicyclists from Lebanon; bicycling enthusiasts from Lebanon, Mascoutah and O’Fallon; and representatives from various organizations, such as the Lebanon Historical Society, that had an interest in developing bicycle pedestrians trails in and around Lebanon.
“They showed us how to get organized and how to make our plans,” says Fero. “The biggest thing that came out of these early meetings is that they said our trail needs to go west, not east.”
Wilhelm, at first, thought east was the way to go, but he caught on to the “correct” direction.
“We needed to be a part of what’s happening in the Metro East, rather than look like we’re going out on our own, doing our own thing,” he says. “We needed to connect to what’s there already. If we did that, then the powers at-large would recognize that we’re expanding something that was already there.”
To educate himself early on, Fero attended the Introduction to Bicycle Planning Continuing Education Seminar, held for state, county, and municipal engineers and planners in St. Louis. Members of the League of Illinois Bicyclists and the Missouri Bicycle Pedestrian Federation also were invited to attend as bicycling advocates. Paying the $25 entrance fee out of his own pocket, Fero said he learned plenty from this day-long event, including why it was important to plan for bicycles, how to plan, types of bicycle accommodations, safety issues, standards, and the list goes on.
“I came out of that with a lot of things, full of fun and ideas,” says Fero. “I remember the guys on the RPTI board got upset with me because I kept pushing for putting up bike signs, racks, and then we could put in trails. We needed to go after the low hanging fruit and build a bike infrastructure in the community first. That’s what I learned needed to be done first.”
In those early meetings, it was paperwork, paperwork, and more paperwork. Bylaws had to be created and approved. A constitution was voted upon and a strategic plan was developed – all which are posted on the organization’s website, ridgeprairietrailhead.com. In the end, RPTI’s mission is “to develop and improve trails and routes in St. Clair and surrounding counties and to promote safe and considerate walking, running, and biking.”
“It took us months to work this all out,” says Fero, who spearheaded the organizational side of the bike advocacy group. “Finally, after all of this, in order for us to get funds from various granting organizations, we needed to be an incorporated not-for-profit organization. In the summer of 2010, we filed our papers.”
Yes, in order to build trails, money is needed. Fero remembers a contact who advised the group not to have 501(c)(3) status, which includes exemption from federal income tax and eligibility to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions.
“As we went along, we found out we couldn’t get grant and donation money because we were not 501 (c)(3),” says Fero. “So two years later, we applied for that status” with the Internal Revenue Service.
In Fero’s estimation, RPTI’s “biggest break” monetarily came in the spring of 2010. Brenda Boudreau, the wife of RPTI member Duane Olson and a professor of English at McKendree, informed the group that a $2,500 grant was there for the taking. It was being offered by Get Up & Go, an organization that provides support and leadership to health organizations and health/wellness events in St. Clair County. RPTI applied, and – lo and behold – it was awarded $2,400. In short, it was a big stepping stone all the way around.
“What that $2,400 grant did was show us we were able to get grants,” says Fero.
RPTI’s “Lebanon Safe Streets Project,” funded by a grant from the St. Clair County Pioneering Healthier Communities Grant Program, provided more Share the Road signs for designated bike routes in Lebanon, along with a mailing of bicycle and pedestrian safety information to all Lebanon residents
Soon enough, RPTI was applying for more grants, and Metro East Park and Recreation District (MEPRD) answered a few of its pleas.
“We got $2,500 for a couple of years from them (MEPRD) to put up signs and install bike racks around the city,” said Fero. “That was our seed money. That is what got us going.”
But with bike trails to build, more money is still needed. In efforts to raise its own money, RPTI initiated its first bike ride four years ago. As fortune would have it, the selected October day was not favorable weather-wise.
“It was a miserable, cold, rainy day,” remembers Fero – which explains, in part, the low participation number: 45.
To boost attendance, two years ago the initiative attached its bike ride to Lebanon’s Fall Festival, put on by the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, usually held the first Saturday in October. Thanks to a “beautiful day,” as Fero described it, over 100 participated in the 2012 ride, which takes in the rolling hills surrounding Lebanon. Pre-registration is $20, $25 day of ride. The entrance fee gets the participant a T-shirt, along with a $5 food voucher for Fall Festival vendors. The ride begins at Lebanon High School (200 West Schuetz). Available routes are 11, 15, 31, 47 and 66 miles.
In all, RPTI has established three bike racks in town, one rack in Horner Park, a bike repair station that includes a repair stand and necessary tools to make emergency bicycle repairs, and a tamper-proof tire pump donated by the Belleville Area Bicycling and Eating Society next to the station for the public to use. RPTI now has visions of building trails, but, to date, the ride has been bumpy.
EXPERIENCING BUMPS IN THE TRAIL TO CREATING BIKE PATHS
Originally, and so noted in its strategic plan, which was adopted on March 8, 2010, RPTI eyed four multi-use paths:
develop a paved trail to extend College Road across Silver Creek to connect Rieder Road;
develop a paved trail to extend from the eastern edge of McAllister Street to the Korte Sewald Road underneath the railroad overpass;
develop a paved trail from Belleville Street to the St. Vincennes Trail, using the former trolley rail bed; and
remove bicycle restrictions, widen, and strip sidewalks along S. Madison Street from Schuetz Street to West McAllister.
Unfortunately, in its first attempt to build a paved trail to extend College Road across Silver Creek, RPTI hit a huge snag over land rights and right-away issues. In truth, it’s a subject Robert Wilhelm would prefer not to discuss, since it involves several community home and land owners, as well as governmental bodies What frustrates Wilhelm more than anything is that the group, in collaboration with the City of Lebanon, managed to land over $1 million in grants -- including funds from Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (CMAQ) and MEPRD, which was not an easy chore and took several months and tries to gain – to help fund this projected $1.4 million trail project. Yet, the proposal all came to a screeching halt last year due to concerns raised by landowners along the existing right of way that could delay, as well as create an even greater expense for, the project.
“It’s like we were working towards this for the last five years,” interjects Fero, a hint of disappointment in his tone of voice, “but we still need to get that last 50 yards.”
He adds, “One of the biggest problems is that we don’t have – outside a limited community, mainly some bicycle groups and some other advocacy organizations – an identity with people in this community so they know what we’re trying to do.”
Fero didn’t stop there, either.
“What we have to do now is have a coalition of public and non-public groups to help us finish the fund-raising and planning, and et cetera. We need 1 9/10th of a mile trail and, with it, we can open up Lebanon to the world. We also need to expand RPTI, not only in membership and what we do, but also on our impact on the community in terms of health, bicycling, and walking.”
As he put it, RPTI is recognized more outside of the local community than in it. Fero is quick to rattle off various organizations that back and support RPTI – and his list included the Metro East Cycling Club, Bicycle Surgeon, Get Up & Go, the St. Clair County Health Summit organizers, MEPRD, and the League of Illinois Bicyclists.
“We have a rapport with the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce and the firefighters,” says Robert Wilhelm.
“But we need to get other government bodies to help in our goal,” interjects Fero. “We are at a standstill, because we need additional support from other organizations in the community. If we get that cooperation, maybe that will open doors.”
With the proposed College Road Trail on hold, the group has opted to focus more of its attention on the former trolley line between Lebanon and St Louis, which Robert Wilhelm refers to as the “Trolley Trail.”
According to Fero, Lebanon was once connected with St Louis via a trolley line that went from Lebanon, through O’Fallon, and though the other cities along the route to downtown St Louis. Remnants of the old trolley line still exist, and Lebanon’s St. Louis Street, a.k.a. “the brick street,” has faux rails running its length in bricks. A trolley car of the type used is located at the Cedar Ridge Health and Rehab Center in Lebanon.
A section of that line runs just north of U.S. Route 50 between Reider Road and Belleville Street. According to Fero, about half of the land is owned by either Lebanon or O’Fallon, and the other three landowners have been contacted. He said each are willing to discuss land purchase or right-of-ways to enable a trail to be built along that historic section of trolley line. Foundations for two bridges are still there but cannot be used since the structural integrity may not support new bridges, but the foundation abutments must be preserved for historical reasons, explained Fero.
In all, Fero said three bridges will need to be built in that one-mile segment to accommodate the trail. The only alternatives for bicyclists and pedestrians to travel to the west is either to first go five miles north, or to travel along U.S. Route 50. As Fero was quick to point out, this segment of U.S. 50 is one of the most highly traveled, two-lane highways in the region with a 55 m.p.h. speed limit and no shoulders.
Fero said the cost for this one-mile segment of bicycle/pedestrian trail is approximately $2.75 million because of the additional bridges and right of way acquisitions, and assuming the original grants can be transferred to this trail puts the project about $1.5 million short. At this point the only thing holding back development of this trail is funding, he said.
“I believe this trail would benefit both Lebanon and O’Fallon,” says Robert Wilhelm. “If we can get this trail between Lebanon and O’Fallon, it will benefit both cities. I think O’Fallon may use it more than Lebanon, in the end.”
Fero said RPTI continues to move forward with seeking funds, building coalitions, and planning for the eventual completion of the two Lebanon trails. It is RPTI’s belief that with these two trails, Lebanon could become a major bicycling hub in the region and become a major stop on one of the planned trans-American bike trail systems.
“Ultimately,” says Robert Wilhelm, “we are striving to connect to the Madison County trails coming into O’Fallon from the north. We then want to connect with O’Fallon, Scott Air Force Base, and the Belleville/Metrolink trail. Finally, we want to go all the way to Carlyle.”