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Study to move bike trail shelved until springtime

             As bicyclists and pedestrians using the Cal-Sag Trail dwindle down to a precious few as the days grow short while November nears, Palos Heights officials appear poised to take the winter off to look again next spring at whether to move the Cal-Sag Trail bicycle path from the section of Lake Katherine Drive it shares with motor vehicle traffic to the north side of its curb.

            Aldermen voted 4-3 on Oct. 6 against 1st Ward Alderman Jeffery Key’s motion to spend up to $40,600 to pay Morris Engineering Inc. to perform land surveying and engineering services to move the bike trail off the roadway and onto the grassy easement along the north side of Lake Katherine Drive. The city would have to pay only 20 percent of the amount; the Southwest Council of Mayors has approved paying the remaining 80 percent.

Alderman Jeffrey Key (1st Ward) had proposed moving the trail off the street and onto the grassy easement of Lake Katherine in response to safety concerns voiced by residents of nearby townhouse developments last summer soon after the trail opened.

Estimates are that another $200,000 would be needed for the work to move the trail. City officials, however, are confident they would also be reimbursed 80 percent of the costs through the Southwest Conference of Mayors that Palos Heights belongs to.

            It was Alderman Don Bylut (1st Ward) who persuaded the majority of alderman in attendance at the meeting to vote against the expenditure for the engineering study, and instead keep an eye on the area of concern to perhaps reconsider when bicyclists return to the paths in large numbers next spring.

            “The bike path as it is was approved by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT),” Bylut noted in speaking against Key’s motion. “And I don’t see spending a quarter million in taxpayer dollars to fix something that IDOT says doesn’t need to be fixed.”

            Bylut acknowledged Lake Katherine Drive neighbors have claimed using a stretch of the roadway as part of the bike trail is unsafe, but said “I have yet to hear from the cyclists who use it that it is anything but safe.”

Alderman Key had noted that using the roadway as part of the bike path had been approved “as a money-saving vehicle” and that “IDOT engineered it and approved it” as he introduced his motion to engineer changing that. Since it opened, seeing “repeat usage, thousands use the path and the numbers will go up,” Key said. “The prudent thing to do is move the path to the north side of the curb.”

In addition to the bike trail’s removal from Lake Katherine Drive, in the long term the city needs to expand the parking lot that serves Lake Katherine, at the east end of Lake Katherine Drive, Key added.

After Mayor Bob Straz agreed more parking is needed for Lake Katherine, Aldermen Bylut argued against Key’s motion. He hit neighboring residents’ contention that it is unsafe for autos, bicycles and “mothers pushing strollers” all sharing the street. “If that mother is pushing a stroller down the street is doing it, she must feel safe,” Bylut said.

The $250,000 to move the trail “would be better spent” on expanding Lake Katherine’s parking lot, he added.

“I say do both,” Mayor Straz answered him.

Alderman Michael McGrogan (4th Ward) offered that the parking lots just south of Lake Katherine’s parking lot behind medical and office buildings along Route 83 are often empty of cars and suggested the city seek agreements with building owners to use the lots for Lake Katherine event parking.

Back to the motion on the table, Alderman Alan Fulkerson (3rd Ward), an attorney, asked succinctly: “Is there evidence of a dooring or any injury to a biker on that stretch” of Lake Katherine Drive?

No, “the only incident is one man fell off his bike, but that was at the parking lot” of Lake Katherine, not on the Drive, Alderman Jetty McGovern (4th Ward) replied.

Answering Bylut, Alderman Key said: “Things are expensive. Nothing is cheap,” painting the water tower for example. Moving the trail is “the smart thing to do.”

Bylut suggested the council hold off, wait, “track it and see where it is each month to re-evaluate it and revisit it next year if need be. “The bikers seem to think it’s safe,” he repeated.

In the roll call vote on Key’s motion, seconded by Alderman Dolores Kramarski (3rd Ward), Alderman McGovern joined them to hire the engineering study, but were outvoted by Bylut, Fulkerson, McGrogan and Robert Basso (2nd Ward).

Alderman Jack Clifford (2nd Ward) was not present. If he sides with Key and the other supporters for passage, however, he would create a tie vote, allowing Mayor Straz to invoke his power to cast a tie-breaking vote to fund the engineering study.

Parks and Recreation Director Michael Leonard had estimated the move would cost at least $200,000 that “the city has not budgeted for” last July after a large number Lake Katherine Drive neighbors demanded the City Council move the trail off the street at its July 7 meeting. Many feared using Lake Katherine Drive as part of the Cal-Sag Trail creates a danger zone of an accident waiting to happen.

            The agenda for the next Parks and Recreation Committee, chaired by Alderman Key, listed a vote on whether to recommend approval for Morris Engineering Inc. to perform land surveying and engineering services for the Lake Katherine Drive bike path interconnect, in the amount of $40,600. It never came to a vote that night, however.

If approved by aldermen on the committee, as was likely, the issue will go before the full City Council at its next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 18.

At that time and to this day, so far no major crashes between bicyclists and autos or pedestrians have been reported on the drive that separates Lake Katherine and the townhouses just to its south.

Many of the homeowners aired their concerns to aldermen and the mayor and in letters to the editor in The Regional about “doorings” and other potential collisions between bicyclists and autos, and mothers with strollers and other pedestrians with bicycles and motor vehicles, all using Lake Katherine Drive, especially on weekends when it’s very busy with weddings and other events at Lake Katherine. A dooring results when a driver opens the car door to exit his vehicle and it slams into a bicyclist, which one resident called the most common type of auto-bicycle collision.

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