Bike advocates ask for aid to finish Lincoln-to-Omaha trail

Published: Feb. 2, 2022 at 4:39 AM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - An unfinished stretch of bicycle trail that would connect Omaha and Lincoln could get a financial boost from the state under proposal presented Tuesday to Nebraska lawmakers.

Trail advocates asked members of the Appropriations Committee to approve state funding to bridge the 8-mile gap between the existing MoPac trails in rural Cass County.

They’re also seeking financial assistance for work on the Cowboy Trail, a scenic pathway through northern Nebraska that’s used by bikers, hikers and horse riders.

The projects are part of the larger Great American Rail-Trail initiative, an effort to connect existing trails into one nation-spanning, 3,700-mile route from Washington state to Washington, D.C. In Nebraska, the trail would travel from Omaha to Lincoln, then turn north until it connects to the Cowboy Trail trailhead in Norfolk.

“This trail is an iconic piece of American infrastructure that will connect thousands of miles of rail-trails, serving tens of millions of people” nationally and providing an economic boost for Nebraska towns on the route, said Sen. Robert Hilkemann, of Omaha.

Rail-trails are pathways, usualy covered in crushed limestone, that are converted from old, abandoned railroad lines.

Many local governments and nonnprofits have used them to encourage physical activity and draw visitors to their communities. In Lincoln, dozens of bicyclists participate in a Tuesday night “nacho ride” during the summer, where they ride out to a restaurant in the tiny town of Eagle. The trail is also popular with hikers, dog walkers and runners.

Hilkemann said he’s likely to seek $18 million in assistance for the trail projects, although it’s unclear whether that money would come from the state’s general fund or another source. Some lawmakers questioned the cost and asked how the more remote trails would be used.

Julie Harris, the executive director of Bike Walk Nebraska, said the $18 million would pay for construction of 100 miles of rail-trail. Harris said trails have grown in popularity during the pandemic, as more people turned to bicycling for exercise while social-distancing.

“This is a proven way to give small towns in Nebraska a boost in tourism and hospitality sorely needed as they recover from the pandemic,” she said. “This is low-hanging fruit.”

Harris said finishing the 8-mile gap on the MoPac trail would provide a bicycle-friendly connection from Maryville, Kansas, up to Lincoln and then northeast to Omaha and into Iowa.

Jason Buss, a 15-year trails volunteer and president of the Nebraska Trails Foundation, said the Great American Rail-Trail is 53% complete nationally and 51% finished in Nebraska. With funding for an additional 100 miles that are already on public property, he said Nebraska’s share would be 68% complete.

In northern Nebraska, the Cowboy Trail stretches from Norfolk in the state’s northeast corner to Valentine, in the middle of remote, north-central Nebraska. Trail advocates eventually hope to extend it to Chadron in northwest Nebraska, making it the nation’s longest rail-trail.

Once completed, the full trail would run 321 miles through the Sandhills.

Michelle Stryker, an administrator with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said approximately 91 miles of the Cowboy Trail still need to be developed. She said the trail has helped communities along its route, including the creation of the most remote bike-sharing station in North America.

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