Some students at Illinois State University want to make the Constitution Trail a safer place. WGLT's Haley BeMiller talks with members of Trail Safe, a student advocacy group devoted to improving perceived safety issues at one of Bloomington-Normal's most popular outdoor venues.
(Photo courtesy of http://trailsafe.wordpress.com)
HALEY BEMILLER: What began as a student project is slowly turning into a grassroots organization. Illinois State Senior Karl Cardenas, a founder of Trail Safe, says groups in his com class were designated to come up with a civic project. He says many students raise awareness over issues like arthritis, but Cardenas and his fellow group members wanted to focus on the local community. From there, he says, they decided to try to make the Constitution Trail a safer place.
CARDENAS: We use it every day, most of us, and it's so poorly lit. We all know someone that's either been accosted or attacked there, and that's how it came about.
HB: It seems lighting up the trail is your main focus at this point. How do you plan to go about that?
KARL CARDENAS: At first we had this great idea that we wanted to light up the entire trail. Realistically, that's not going to happen, and we understand that funding would be just a nightmare to figure out. So we focus on these smaller segments; we focus on from Raab to Virginia, which is about 2.25 miles.
HB: Right now, there are city ordinances that prevent people from using the trail after dark. If you were able to put this lighting in, how would that mesh with city policy?
CARDENAS: Well, city policy says an hour before dusk and an hour before dawn that the trail's closed. We talked to the police department, and they say that to them, the trail is closed after 11. They say they could enforce ordinance violations, but they're not. My question is, are you really going to stop everyone that walks on the trail after 11, especially on busy weekdays. A lot of these younger kids use when they go to bars like pub Wednesdays or whatever, they're always going to use the trail. I mean, it's just going to happen. Even on inclimate weather, it still gets pretty dark because of the tree canopy.
HB: Are you concerned at all that putting light on the trail will cause more problems and encourage more unsavory behavior?
CARDENAS: No, not necessarily, because it will just give a greater sense of feeling. But if people are worried like, hey we the city, we would like the trail closed after 11, I'm sure people will of course pay attention to that. But still, there are times when people get off the library or walking home and it's still dark, so if we could just have lights in that segment that I talked about, which is the segment that most Illinois State University students use, it would help out a lot.
HB: What kind of conversations have you had with city officials and the general public?
CARDENAS: When we present the idea to people, the reaction we usually get is, "That's a great idea. How come there are no lights?" That's pretty much been the general consensus from people around Bloomington-Normal. As far for city officials, the attitude that they have up there is that it's not going to happen. They pretty much told us straight to our face that it's not going to happen, we appreciate that you guys are concerned about the community and you're trying to do something, but it's not going to happen. That's the attitude we're facing right now.
HB: What position does that put you in? Are you looking to change their mind?
CARDENAS: We just got to try harder. At this point, we have a petition going on both online and on paper, and so far, we've reached over 400 signatures in just a matter of six days.
HB: Have you talked to neighbors at all, people who live off he trail?
CARDENAS: We met a couple of them. A lot of people that we've spoken to haven't identified themselves as whether they live on the trail or not. I'm yet to find someone that's said that's not a good idea or that's declined it.
HB: Does Trail Safe have any ideas that you might propose in the future?
CARDENAS: When we talked to the police department, they want us to raise awareness about the ambassador program, and that's something we would like to help them out with as well if time permits us. But what it is, you go into the police station, you get about an hour worth of training and you get a vest and a form of radio and you walk with a group and you pretty much just walk around and if you see anything that shouldn't be happening on the trail, you call it up and let the police handle it. You're pretty much just the eyes of the police, sort of like a neighborhood watch, but for the Constitution Trail.
HB: Cardenas and other members of Trail Safe hope to continue their work post-graduation and believe they will still be effective when that time comes. Cardenas says representatives attended the Sugar Creek Arts Festival over the weekend to get more signatures and talk with locals. He also says the group will continue to take advantage of other local events like the Illinois Shakespeare Festival.
Town of Normal officials are skeptical of the student group's proposal. Normal Parks and Rec Director Garry Little says Trail Safe will have to work around an ordinance that prohibits trail use after dark. But above all, Little says, he isn't sure if the proposal would make the trail more safe.
"Lighting up only a segment of the trail I don't think will improve the overall trail safety," he says. "When you get to the point where the trail's not lit, what do you do in those areas if people continue to use them?"
Little says Trail Safe's proposal to light the trail between Virginia and Raab ignores the rest of the 30 mile pathway. He says the city also needs to consider funding and how this would impact neighbors. But, Little says he hasn't ruled it out and will meet with some of the students to discuss their petition.
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