DECATUR — Plans to extend the Z.O.& O Express Train track at Scovill Zoo have taken another step forward after the Decatur Park District said it recently sent work for the project out to bid.
When finished, the extended track will stretch along the lakefront and connect the zoo with its neighbor, the Children's Museum of Illinois. The work bids are due back to the district on May 30, said Ryan Raleigh, director of operations for the park district.
However, there’s no schedule for when the extension work will begin or when it will be completed. "We did not set a required timeline, but when the contractor gets on, they'll state how many days it will take to complete," he said.
Since the Howard G. Buffett Foundation donated $2 million to study and build a longer track for the train in 2016, Raleigh said the district has been working with consulting engineering firm Chastain & Associates to study the soil, terrain and other aspects of the train's proposed new route.
"We're excited," Raleigh said of the project. "But since its a very difficult terrain to get across, it's taken a lot longer than we would have liked."
The current train route, added in 1984, takes passengers on a one-mile narrated tour of the zoo. The train is a scaled replica of the 1863 C.P. Huntington steam train, and zoo director Ken Frye said proposed project will be the first major expansion.
In October 2016, Buffett announced that his foundation would fund the train expansion on the same day that he announced it would fund the park district's Nelson Park amphitheater project, which is now under construction. The Decatur philanthropist, son of multibillionaire investor Warren Buffett, has been a longtime financial supporter of various Macon County organizations.
Buffett, who was sworn in as sheriff last year after the resignation of former Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider, also donated $3 million for a law enforcement-themed expansion of the children's museum set for completion later this year.
Over the past year, engineers have conducted boring samples to determine how deep they need to drill into the earth to make the expansion possible, Raleigh said. He said Chastain & Associates has created a design for what the expansion will look like, the track directions and the elevation requirements for a bridge.
The prospect of connecting the zoo with the children's museum made sense to Lori Ekena of Forsyth, who was visiting the zoo on Friday with her daughter, Michigan resident Mackenzie Mills, and grandchildren, Atlee and Parker Mills.
"I think it's a great idea," she said.
Andrea Montero and Kaitlyn Shelton feel the same. As they looked after Montero's nephew, Quincy Taylor, and Shelton's son Beckhem, both said they're looking forward to bringing their little ones back to ride the extended train trip around the zoo and museum.
"They love choo-choo trains," Shelton said of the children.
Raleigh and Frye, the zoo director, acknowledged the process to move the expansion forward has been long. Frye said patience will be key going forward.
"It's not going to happen right away, but we're excited to see the process of it going up over the next year and a half and watching it grow along with us," he said.
Frye said the train remains a popular attraction at the zoo, and he hopes that the construction process won't put it out of commission for long, if at all. "It'd be the zoo's goal to have no interruption in ridership, but we'll see how that works with the contractors," he said.
To accommodate the train connection at the children's museum, Raleigh said a portion of the facility's front parking lot would need to be moved over to make room.
Amber Kaylor, executive director of the museum, said the lot would most likely be moved closer to South Country Club Road when the time comes. Looking forward to the project's next few steps, Kaylor said she's already heard buzz about the expansion brewing among museum patrons.
"One of the questions we get the most is 'When will the train be coming over to the museum?'" she said. "It's going to be a really cool connection between us and the zoo."