GOSHEN — With more than 3,600 miles of local, state, federal and nonprofit trails open to the public, finding a trail system to enjoy in Indiana is literally a walk in the park.
Despite that ample access, many of those trail systems remain islands unto themselves, serving their own communities with little or no connectivity to other trail systems within the state. It’s a known issue, lawmakers say, and one the General Assembly is hoping to remedy with the recently convened Indiana Bicycle Trails Task Force.
Created by House Enrolled Act 1174 earlier this year, the bill was authored by Indiana Rep. Wes Culver, R-Goshen, with the goal of developing plans and estimating the costs of connecting Indiana’s existing bike trail systems into one contiguous, statewide system. Appointments to the task force were made through the governor’s office, and members serve as unpaid volunteers.
“I’ve been involved with the statewide tourism council for the last five years, and I’ve seen things that bring income to the state through tourism. One of those is bike trails, or really any kind of trail, because those are becoming more and more popular,” Culver said. “So the idea behind forming the task force was to get people together from around the state to work on a number of things, one of which is connectivity. Right now, a lot of communities and counties are building trails, but they’re kind of independent. Everybody’s doing their own 10-mile or 15-mile trails, and they don’t really work for the entire region or the state.”
The bill also requires the task force to develop at least six ways to fund the desired trail connectivity, as well as prepare a timeline showing the various phases of completion for each funding method. Task force members will also explore potential changes to current Indiana law aimed at improving the safety of bicyclists on state roads and trails.
“I’ve talked to various departments — whether it’s DNR, tourism, the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor’s office — and everybody is enthusiastic about the concept. It’s very bipartisan,” Culver said of the task force. “It’s just such a simple concept, having people work together in their efforts. It’s synergism at its best.”
According to Kyle Hannon, president of the Elkhart Chamber of Commerce and newly appointed chairman of the task force, the energy and drive he witnessed during the group’s first meeting in Indianapolis Aug. 15 has him excited about what the future holds for the collaborative partnership.
“I think there’s really a sense of optimism among the task force right now, and also a realization of the challenges we have in front of us,” Hannon said, noting that the group’s current plan is to meet at least once each quarter through July 2019 — the deadline for when the group must have its report back to the legislative council and governor for review.
“Communities in Indiana are becoming aware of the positive economic impact of these recreational opportunities. They’re starting to see these trails as quality of life amenities that people are interested in and assets that can be used to attract people to their communities, and I think that’s only going to continue and increase. So the question really at this point is, how can we work together and how can we make the entire statewide endeavor better?”
Continuous 'loop' proposed
According to Culver, one of the most ambitious ideas to come out of the task force to date involves exploring the possibility of creating a continuous trail “loop” that communities across the state could link onto.
Culver said he envisions such a trail being utilized to host major statewide events in the same vein as the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, an annual week-long non-competitive bicycle ride that draws thousands of recreational riders from across the United States and many foreign countries.
“We’ve even toyed with the idea of making it 500 miles long and calling it the Indiana 500, basically playing off of the Indianapolis 500,” Culver said of the proposed loop. “But we’re really just at the beginning stages of all these discussions. And the key here is that we want to have community involvement. Whatever plan we come up with, we want it to come from communities working its way up. So if for example we were to come up with a loop, it would only be a concept, and then each community would decide where that loop would go in their community, if they’re interested in having it at all.”
It is exactly those types of discussions, particularly as they relate to landowner rights, that task force member Justin Schneider, director of state government relations for the farming and agriculture advocacy group Indiana Farm Bureau, said he plans on keeping an eye on during his time with the group.
“I think probably my key role, and why I’ve been asked to participate, is the land acquisition aspect of all this,” Schneider said of his recruitment to the task force. “I don’t think it’s a secret that not everybody wants a trail running through their backyard or through their field, and we’re the one group that represents landowners in all of this discussion.
"So my role is really to try and bring that voice to the task force, to talk about strategies of how you get community buy-in and acceptance. If people don’t support it, they’re probably not going to want to part with land for it. So it’s about exploring what that bigger picture looks like that makes it something people are willing to consider.”
However the plan eventually shakes out, task force member Paul Grayson, deputy director of the Indianapolis Zoo, said he’s confident the task force will be able to come up with a plan that is not only widely accepted, but groundbreaking in its creativity and scope.
“I think there’s the real potential here to create something that’s distinctly Hoosier, unlike anything else in the country,” Grayson said. “I also believe it could be created in such a way that it becomes a real bucket list for folks to experience. So I’m really looking forward to working with all the creative and thoughtful minds that have been placed on the task force to see what we can cook up over the next two years.”