Bike Path Networks to Connect Rural Wisconsin Communities

An ‘explosion’ of rural communities apply to fund infrastructure projects under a new Wisconsin program

Sheila Julson November 6, 2023

As a member of the Sauk County Board of Supervisors, Marty Krueger is among the elected officials in southwest Wisconsin who have a bold vision—to develop a world-class recreational trail that will connect rural communities from Middleton, Wisconsin, in neighboring Dane County, all the way to the Mississippi River.

Today, their vision is closer to fruition through a grant from the Safe Transportation Alternatives for Rural Schools (STARS) initiative, which helps communities apply to Wisconsin’s Safe Routes to School program for funding to build paths for children who bicycle or walk to school.

STARS, administered through the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s (WisDOT) Transportation Alternatives Program, aims to help towns with less than 5,000 residents to apply for federal grants from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. As part of Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the law authorizes up to $108 billion in spending for transportation infrastructure. In 2023, Wisconsin received $18 million for the Transportation Alternatives Program, $5.9 million of which went to rural areas.

Collin Mead is government affairs manager for Wisconsin Bike Fed, a bicycle advocacy organization. His group was awarded a contract from WisDOT to help rural schools and communities apply for STARS grants. He noticed that rural communities were underserved, even through the TAP program, which requires a 20% match.

“These local communities, especially the rural ones with populations of less than 5,000, don’t even have that 20% upfront,” Mead says. “STARS allows them to actually apply to receive funding without having that hang-up of coming up with the 20% match.”

Mead says he has seen an “explosion” of rural communities apply for funding under STARS. “We have seen huge success in year one,” he says. “There is obviously a need in rural communities to build out their bike trails and increase safety and transportation for kids going to school.”

Connecting the ‘Cape Cod of the Midwest’

Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula is a vacation destination dotted with small towns, earning it the nickname “Cape Cod of the Midwest.” Door County towns such as Egg Harbor and Fish Creek are pedestrian friendly, but the sidewalks end at the edge of town, forcing the county’s residents, vacationers and families of students at K- 12 Gibraltar School to need a car to travel throughout the county’s peninsula.

Brandon Robinson, executive director of the Bay-Lake Regional Planning Commission (RPC) in nearby De Pere, Wisconsin, is working with the Door County town of Gibraltar, on a feasibility study to develop a multi-jurisdictional bike trail within northern Door County. “The town was notified in July that they were successfully awarded the grant for the feasibility study, says Robinson, who will work with the Town of Gibraltar on a feasibility study over the next two years. The envisioned 16-mile Bayshore Connectivity Trail would link the communities of Sister Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek and Egg Harbor, along with the towns of Liberty Grove and Gibraltar, as well as navigate through Peninsula State Park.

“Currently, there are limited options to safely walk and/or bike to and from school,” says Robinson. “Students can often be seen walking on the shoulder of State Highway 42, making for hazardous scenarios. The feasibility study will look at options to offer students a safer pathway to get to and from school as part of the 16-mile envisioned connectivity trail.” The final goal of the feasibility study is to identify several safe and efficient trail route options between the areas communities.

The general project area map used for the Bayshore Connectivity study. (Bay Lake Regional Planning Commission)

Travis Thyssen, Gibraltar’s town administrator says, “This connectivity trail will serve guests, local residents, and offer a safe passage for kids that come from all points of the upper peninsula to attend Gibraltar School. Many kids would have to travel by car down highways to get there. This will allow them not to have to do that.”

Door County resident Marise Redmann, who owns land next to Fish Creek Park and Peninsula State Park, is selling 119 acres to Gibraltar, which will be used to expand parks and for the Bayshore Connectivity Trail route.

“I’ve been a steward of this land that I was raised on. I feel the best use is to protect it and make it accessible to the community for hiking, biking and recreational activities,” she says. “We need to consider our carbon footprint. The next generation will inherit the choices that we make today. Anything that further promote foot and bike traffic is a smart use of this land.”

Enhancing Quality of Life

STARS is not limited in scope to school safety. Through the STARS initiative, Sauk County and neighboring Dane County (which includes Madison, the state capitol) have proposed a new Wisconsin River Recreational Bridge to replace the century-old Sauk City rail bridge that once spanned the Wisconsin River and connected Sauk and Dane counties and after damaging floods was demolished in 2018.

According to Sauk County Supervisor Krueger, the counties were about $4 million short in funding the new Wisconsin River Recreational bridge, which was estimated to cost about $10 million,

But with a $5.5 million grant through the STARS program, engineering and design efforts for the bridge are now underway.

Like Robinson, Krueger believes that developing and expanding safe bicycle and pedestrian recreation trails that link Wisconsin communities is key to boosting Main Street businesses, parks and schools.

“We look upon this as having huge economic impact, along with opportunities for community development and workforce retention, as we find that some people are moving out of large urban areas and looking for something more rural,” Krueger says of the recreational trails expansion in Sauk and Dane counties. “This plays into that quality of life and the amenities that the younger workforce is looking for these days.”

Sheila Julson

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer covering food and beverage topics, rural and urban farms, green living and general interest features.

Have thoughts or reactions to this or any other piece that you’d like to share? Send us a note with the Letter to the Editor form.

Want to republish this story? Check out our guide.