For years, Dane County has been trying to put the finishing touches on the Lower Yahara River Trail, and what the county has come up with will be a breathtaking jewel in its extensive bicycle trail network.

“I think this will be an incredible tourist draw for Dane County,” says Chris James, the county park planner overseeing the project.

Ultimately the trail will provide an off-road link from Lake Kegonsa State Park in southeastern Dane County to downtown Madison. But in the shorter term, Phase One of the project will link McFarland with the Capital City Trail, providing a way for bikers to get from McFarland to Madison via a system of bridges and boardwalks across Lake Waubesa. Once on the Capital City Trail, cyclists can take the tunnel under the Beltline and connect up with the new Cannonball Path and the Southwest Commuter Trail.

“The Beltline is a huge constraint for that region of the county to get downtown and this trail is going to open up that floodgate,” James says.

Construction should begin mid-summer of next year and be completed about a year later.

The trail should also alleviate the longstanding problem of walkers traversing the lake on railroad tracks.

“I think it’s just kind of a natural draw that people get on and walk down the railroad tracks and that’s a very unsafe scenario,” James says. “We’re pretty optimistic and hopeful that this trail will provide people a safe alternative.”

The trail won’t come cheap, however. The total cost of the first phase will be about $5.5 million, with $4 million funded from a federal grant. The county has applied for grants to cover about 60 percent of the remaining costs, says supervisor Patrick Miles, but the county will be on the hook for some of it.

The next phase will connect Stoughton with Lake Kegonsa State Park. Plans in the future will link Stoughton to McFarland, where the village has already finished a trail network.  

James says there are low-traffic, on-road routes between McFarland and Stroughton. But the McFarland-to-Madison route solves a problem that has stymied bikers who want access to and from southeastern Dane County.

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“We’re seeing so many more people commuting on bicycles and even this first phase of the trail really opens up a connection from McFarland, and even southeastern Dane County, to the Madison metro area by bike off-road,” James says. ”And that’s just huge because so many more people, with the cost of fuel and cars, are going to bicycle transportation.”

The Lower Yahara River Trail project was first approved in 2010, but has been held up because of rerouting to avoid numerous archaeological areas. The county is planning to hold a public hearing later this month to introduce the new plans.

“The planning process has been going on for nearly five years now, and it’s been several years since we’ve had a public information meeting to talk about the trail,” James says. “In the meantime there have been some changes to the alignment based on moving it to miss archaeological resources and moving it outside the railroad corridor, and we feel like we need to now bring this final new alternative to the public.”

The public meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. at the Lussier Family Heritage Center, 2101 Lake Farm Road in Madison.

Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.