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Clean Machine
     April 3, 2017      #73-92 a2z 0
 
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Despite the state opening a section of the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath between Utica and Buffalo Rock State Park, the breach in the path remains a potential hazard for hikers and bicyclists. A slippery, makeshift bridge is the only way besides wading to cross the washout area.
Towpath open between Utica, Buffalo Rock

Steve Stout
steves@mywebtimes.com

Since rains in April 2013, a washed-out section of the Illinois and Michigan Canal towpath had forced the state to close several miles of the trail between Utica and Buffalo Rock State Park.

It was cited as a danger to hikers and bicyclists.

However, in a change of position and despite only limited repairs to the path’s massive breach, Dan Bell, site superintendent for I&M Canal State Trail, recently told The Times restrictions to that area of the towpath have been lifted.

Bell explained the section was opened at the beginning of last winter for snowmobilers, and the decision to keep it open for now was not formerly announced or publicized.

“Earlier, we did shave and cut back some of the banks along the trail’s breach, but that section remains difficult to cross, especially for bikers who will have to carry their bicycles over the break,” said Bell. “We have removed all the ‘trail closed’ signs, and it is open.”

Utica Village President Matt Jereb expressed surprise about the towpath Tuesday night and said, “That is great news for the village.”

He had been working with local legislators and other officials for years trying to get the path open and available for warm-weather use.

“The canal and its towpath are some of our best recreation treasures and attractions we have here in the county,” Jereb said.

Utica businessman, Lisle Elsbury, owner of Duffy’s Tavern, also welcomed the news.

“It is good that the restrictions have been lifted and the (Conservation Police) are no longer writing citations, but the breach still needs to be properly repaired,” he said. “An open, clear towpath is good for business.”

Elsbury added: “It is my understanding that discussions among local and state officials are underway to study various proposals on how the break can be permanently repaired.”

An avid bicyclist from La Salle, Lenny Matuszewski said it was about time.

“It’s crazy to think that the washout is still not fixed, but the fact that the canal is open is encouraging,” Matuszewsk said. “I’m happy that people can enjoy the canal again. I hope to see it bustling soon and bringing together the people and businesses of La Salle-Peru, Utica and Ottawa once again.”

In June 2014, Matuszewski created an online petition at change.org/p/marc-miller-fix-the-i-m-canal-trail, which asks Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller to repair the washout. The Utica Business Association also started a different petition drive online that year to raise public awareness of the situation.

State officials have previously estimated it could cost upwards to $350,000 to design and construct a permanent solution to the towpath washout problem.

Beyond the recreation aspects of having the towpath open, Utica Fire Protection District Chief Ben Brown has maintained for years that an untraversable towpath is a serious public safety issue for his department.

“If we have an emergency situation in that section, it severely inhibits us and could take maybe 15 extra and precious minutes to drive around to Buffalo Rock and then back west to answer a call,” Brown said, repeating what he said years ago. “It is dangerous for the public, my department and our equipment to have the towpath closed or blocked.”​

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