WEST ALLIS — Long-sought permission for the cross-town bicycle path to cross Union Pacific Railroad tracks has finally been won by the city.

The state office of the railroad commissioner ordered the railroad to create two crossings for the future bicycle trail by May 1, 2019.

West Allis Mayor Dan Devine, a bicyclist, applauded the decision. Devine expressed his hope that the commissioner has enough clout to back up the order. When the West Allis Crosstown Connector Bike and Pedestrian Trail is completed, it will be possible to ride from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River on bike trails, both on and off-road.

Alderman Marty Weigel, an avid cyclist, was frustrated with what he saw as the railroad's lack of cooperation.

"We've been struggling with this for a long time," he said. "We got the best we can."

The city had wanted the crosstown trail to be  a straight line, but the Union Pacific wouldn't let the trail cross its tracks there, Weigel said.

The railroad has had a long-standing policy of opposing any crossings, due to worries about safety and liability. These crossings, however, will be over lightly used railroad spurs.

Increased costs

The divergence from a straight line will add to the cost, Weigel said.

The estimated cost is about $600,000, of which the city's share is $120,000. The rest is a federal anti-air pollution grant.

Several have questioned why the money isn't spent on the schools that have some real needs.

"This grant is to reduce air pollution," said West Allis Principal Engineer Peter Daniels. The Milwaukee area exceeds EPA air pollution standards, so the federal government is willing to provide $480,000 to try to get people out of their cars and onto their bicycles.

"We want work, school and shopping trips," Daniels said.

The trail isn't primarily for Sunday afternoon bike rides, he said. That isn't why the federal government gave the city the money for the bike route, he said.

Apparently, more people than ever are interested in taking their bikes to work, judging by many who were at a public information meeting two weeks ago on a portion of the trail.

Reduce car use

They said they take their bikes to work and are interested in the trail being finished, Daniels said.

The timetable shows the bridge over highway 100 being started next spring. The freeway bridge enabling bicyclers to pass underneath Interstate 41/894 should be finished that fall.

The railroad crossings are to be done by May 1, 2019, so the city can start trail construction that spring, also, Daniels said.

The trail could be ready to use by fall 2019, he said.

The hurdles

Getting the trail safely across the railroad tracks, highway 100 and the interstate were major challenges. The office of the railroad commissioner just took care of the first hurdle by ordering the railroad to create the crossings. The Union Pacific will be compensated for the work.

Crossing Highway 100 will be done by building a bridge beside the current railroad bridge at 1800 S. 108th St., where Allied Pools is located. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is helping the trail cross I-41/894 by making room for it in the underpass it will create underneath the freeway.

The first phase of the trail opened in late 2013. Using part of the historic interurban trolley corridor between West Allis and Waukesha, it starts at Greenfield Park and runs parallel to and a bit south of Greenfield Avenue to about Highway 100.

On its west end, the first leg of the crosstown connector links the New Berlin Recreation Trail, which connects to other bike routes and trails going all the way to the Mississippi River. It also intersects the existing Milwaukee County Oak Leaf Trail for north-south routes.

The crosstown connector also will link the New Berlin trail to the Hank Aaron State Trail.

The second and final phase of trail building will start at Highway 100 with the bridge over that heavily traveled street.  On its way east, the trail  will cross the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, then go under I-41/894, coming out on 98th Street, going to Burnham Street, Rogers Street, 92nd Street, Lapham Street for two miles, then National Avenue, then 65th Street, then Washington Street, then 64th Street, then Mineral Street, then 56th Street, taking that to the Hank Aaron State Trail.

Some have wondered why the crosstown connector is needed, when the Hank Aaron State Trail goes east and west through the city already, Daniels said. But if the city is serious about luring people from their cars and onto their bicycles, they need as many bike routes just as the city needs streets going the same way, he said.

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