It's an extension of a century-old vision: linking downtown Colorado Springs' parks and open spaces by means of a single, multiuse trail.

But it has been out of reach for generations - fractured by broken connections.

Now, city parks officials say they are closer than ever to the elusive goal, their prospects buoyed by what they call a "once-in-a-generation" chance to acquire a stretch of land from Union Pacific Railroad to provide a missing link along the old Rock Island rail corridor.

It's not the only roadblock in what's being called the Legacy Loop Trail and Park project, which carries an estimated $4.1 million price tag.

Private property has long stood in the way of the city's plan, which essentially calls for building long-sought trail connections between the Pikes Peak Green
way and the Shooks Run corridor for a 9.75-mile loop around downtown.

Without the missing links, recreationists must take lengthy detours or ride, walk and hike on busy streets, complicating offroad travel in and around the city's core.

Aside from completing the north part of the loop along the Rock Island corridor, the city is also looking to build a parking area and trailhead at Fontanero Street and three overpasses.

Among the thorniest issues is finding a way across a railroad at the south end of the intended route, also involving Union Pacific, according to Chris Lieber, the city's park development manager.

Lieber said the latest proposal hinges on a plan by the city's traffic department to close a section of Royer Street that crosses railroad tracks in the Hillside neighborhood - long a source of high-centered trucks, delayed rail traffic and public safety concerns.

Traffic engineers plan to begin work in 2015 on an alternate route for vehicles to cross the railroad tracks, and they intend to convert Royer Street into a cul-de-sac when that project is complete, said city spokeswoman Kim Melchor.

Although the plan isn't final, the new connection would entail tying Hancock Expressway to Las Vegas Street by routing it under the U.S. 24 overpass just east of Janitell Road, according to a preliminary plan. The route would include a gated rail crossing, the plan shows.

Once the Royer crossing is shut down, Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services wants to use the location to tunnel under the tracks for a "grade-separated crossing" to ensure the safety of runners, cyclists and hikers, Lieber said.

That part of the project could entail more property acquisition, adding to the steep price.

"This is a real tough nut with grade changes and multiple property owners and the railroad," said Bill Koerner of the nonprofit Trails and Open Space Coalition, who was among a group of people who accompanied parks personnel last week on a tour of the area. "It's sort of the trail connection from hell."

Those looking to build up downtown say it might be worth the trip.

A trail that rings downtown - combining its diverse array of parks and open spaces - has the potential to draw visitors to the area without adding vehicle traffic.

Commuting by foot and bicycle, taking a noon-hour walk from the office and staging weekend races with few street crossings suddenly become easier for residents in a much larger swath of Colorado Springs' oldest quarters, advocates say.

"Anything we can do to help bring people downtown is a worthwhile goal," said Adam Hulsey of the Jack Quinn's Running Club, a weekly social run that attracts more than 1,000 runners downtown on most Tuesday nights, demonstrating the demand for outdoor recreation downtown.

It's an idea with roots that stretch back a century, potentially advancing Gen. William Jackson Palmer's vision for a city that melds its residential and commercial neighborhoods with opportunities to get back to nature for reflection and recreation, said Matt Mayberry of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum.

"His grand vision for the parks system was a mix of trails, formally designed parks and then open space parks," Mayberry said.

To that end, the city's plans also call for enhancing parks along the loop, Lieber said. Two new playgrounds - one in Monument Valley Park and one in Shooks Run near Fountain Boulevard - are part of the amenities the city has planned.

So are plans for a 10K race loop in Monument Valley Park to facilitate fun runs and other community events, and an initiative called the Urban Singletrack Project, which seeks to build singletrack trails off the Pikes Peak Greenway south of downtown, providing another amenity, according to a proposed map.

Funding will be drawn from a variety of sources, including the Trails and Open Space fund and the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority.

The project suffered a setback this summer when the state's Great Outdoors Colorado program rejected a request for a $1 million grant, citing questions over "project readiness."

Lieber said the city is resubmitting the application and will learn in the spring if the funding becomes available.

In planning documents, the parks department calls the Legacy Loop "one of the most timely and urgent recreation projects in all of Colorado Springs" - citing the possibility that the Union Pacific Railroad, long opposed to selling its property, could change its mind and again consign the project to the back burner.

In the meantime, the city will continue knitting together what parts it can, Lieber said.

"We continue to look at ways of advancing the overall, larger vision, but sometimes that also means looking at ways to advance smaller pieces around the corridor."

Reporter

I cover legal affairs for The Gazette, with an emphasis on the criminal courts. Tips to lance.benzel@gazette.com

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