Graham Kilmer
MKE County

Parks Updating Countywide Trail Plan

Planning process seeks citizen input on future of Milwaukee trail system.

By - May 18th, 2024 06:55 pm

Oak Leaf Trail sign on Menomonee River Parkway. Photo by Graham Kilmer.

Milwaukee County Parks will update its countywide trails plan this year.

The plan serves as the long-term guiding document for trail projects in the parks system, and the planning process offers county residents a unique opportunity to influence the future of public trails in the area.

The last time the trails plan was updated was 2007. Guy Smith, director of Milwaukee County Parks, was the department’s first-ever trails coordinator and worked on the plan nearly two decades ago. At the time, the county’s Oak Leaf Trail network included 108 miles of trail. Today, it’s more than 135.

In the intervening years, much has occurred. The department has completed a number of projects included in the 2007 plan; municipalities around the county have begun developing their own bicycle and pedestrian trails, at times connecting them to the county’s Oak Leaf Trail network; flood plains have shifted; and municipalities, like the city of Milwaukee, have increasingly developed protected bike lanes on roadways.

“There’s just so much happening,” said Jeremy Lucas, Parks director of administration and planning.

In 2022, the state awarded Parks a $128,000 grant to update its trail plan. The department began looking for a contractor to assist with the undertaking, involving public outreach and data collection.

The planning process will allow the county to take a “huge, comprehensive look” at the current state of bicycle and pedestrian trails in the county, Lucas said. “Where the trails are, and where the gaps are, where we need to expand, where there’s missing connections.”

In 2023, the department finished a trail plan for the northwest side of the county, which, compared to other parts of the county, has long been a bicycle and pedestrian trail desert. The project incorporated the county’s goals for racial equity into the trail planning process. The area is predominantly home to Black county residents. Countywide, only 30% of Black residents have direct access to a trail, according to parks.

The plan update will include a racial equity analysis and incorporate the Northwest Side Trail Connectivity Plan, according to a document for potential trail plan consultants.

“Through a community-focused planning process, the County desires to develop a list of prioritized projects and recommendations that will improve the trail network, address equity concerns, improve bike and pedestrian safety, and impact the most people,” according to the document.

The process will include in-person and virtual public input meetings, as well as input from local governments, nonprofits, businesses and other stakeholders. The public input for the northwest side plan was “very robust,” Lucas said, and the department hopes to use that process as a model for the larger countywide plan.

Since 2007, the department has created eight of the 19 multi-use trails proposed in the plan. That includes an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail and a new trail through Kohl Park being built this year.

“It‘s a pretty big deal to be able to get those funded in an environment where that funding is so hard to come by on the county level,” Lucas said, adding that grant funding has been critical to the department’s trail efforts.

The county parks system has a backlog of maintenance and infrastructure projects with an estimated cost of about $500 million. The amount of funding the county borrows every year for infrastructure projects is roughly equivalent to what the parks system alone would need to begin addressing its backlog.

The public input process for the plan could begin this summer, and the plan finalized by early 2026, Lucas said, which would provide time to consider some of the projects the plan yields for potential funding from the 2027 budget.

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