The other day I was pedaling with friends under azure skies to Evanston’s Blind Faith Cafe when I was reminded of an old political fight. We were riding on the North Shore Channel Trail, a scenic, nearly car-free route from Albany Park to Evanston, when we came to the notorious gap in the path just north of Peterson. The trail ended abruptly, so we spun north on Kedzie a few blocks, turned west and rode on hectic Devon Street across the channel, then turned north to continue on the bike path into Lincolnwood.
If it weren’t for opposition from former 50th Ward Alderman Berny Stone, we would have been able to instead make a car-free transition to the section of the trail west of the channel via a bike-pedestrian bridge. Back in 2006, the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) had funding lined up to build the span but Stone, then the city’s oldest, longest-sitting alderman and a Daley loyalist, put the kibosh on the project. First he claimed it was dangerous for cyclists to ride near the Lincoln Village shopping center which borders the west side of the channel. He later argued the bridge would conflict with a planned senior center.
Local bike advocates cried foul. “We could find no good reason for his opposition to the bike bridge,” explains cyclist Bob Kastigar, who created a photo essay illustrating the issue at tinyurl.com/stonebridge50. In 2007, aldermanic challenger Naisy Dolar used the bridge as a campaign issue, a strategy Stone dismissed as “ridiculous.” After the incumbent narrowly defeated Dolar in a runoff, it became obvious the overpass, now nicknamed the “Stone Bridge,” would never be completed as long as the feisty alderman held power.
But earlier this year Rahm Emanuel ally Debra Silverstein beat Stone in the aldermanic election. So as I recently cruised the trail it occurred to me the city might build the bridge after all, and I was right. “During the campaign people talked to me about the history of the bridge and asked me to get involved,” Silverstein says. She recently met with bike-friendly CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein and requested a report on what it would take to build the bridge, how much it would cost and whether the funding was still available.
Sadly the money was used for other projects, says Janet Attarian, director of CDOT’s Streetscape and Sustainable Design Program. “We’ll also have to come up with a new design because a canoe launch was built there, which makes it a trickier location,” she says. Although Silverstein says it’s unlikely ward money will be available for the bridge, Attarian hopes to secure grants from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. She plans to give Silverstein the feasibility report this fall.
The Stone Bridge snafu illustrates the power of aldermen to block bicycle projects in their wards that would otherwise benefit all Chicagoans. “The key to making this city a welcoming place to bike is to create a network of bike lanes and trails that would connect our neighborhoods and get people to where they need to go,” agrees Active Transportation Alliance’s Adolfo Hernandez. “That’s why Active Trans is increasingly reaching out to aldermen and community groups to explain the benefits of projects like [the bridge], and organizing supporters to help move them forward.” (John Greenfield)