Bob Huffman bicycles 14 miles one way on Sunday mornings over a combination of paved trails, side streets and busy roads to meet his wife, Chris, for breakfast at the Cracker Barrel restaurant off Interstate 65 at 61st Avenue in Merrillville.
Huffman, 69, of Munster, began cycling in the region 40 years ago along whatever paths were available.
He's finding many routes are safer and less fragmented as local governments add new trails and work to connect existing ones, so cyclists and hikers don't have to share pavement with cars and trucks.
Officials in Hammond, Highland, Munster, Schererville, Merrillville, Hobart and Crown Point all have bike trail improvement projects on the books or recently completed.
Porter is among Porter County communities with projects in the works.
Most of the work is funded from a variety of federal sources, including the Transportation Alternatives, Surface Transportation, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality, and Recreational Trail programs, with local matches.
Plans include more miles of pavement, new shelters, restrooms and other amenities, including a water fountain just for dogs on a Hobart trail.
On the Erie-Lackawanna Trail, recent projects made the trail a complete, paved, off-road path extending for 17 miles between Crown Point and Rabin Plaza in Hammond.
Last summer, when a highway project lowered Indianapolis Boulevard to grade level north of Ridge Road, workers built the new highway over culverts to create a tunnel connecting Wicker Park with the Highland portion of the Erie-Lackawanna Trail.
At about the same time, Highland and Hammond worked together on a separate project to pave a formerly gravel path on the Little Calumet River levee, from Wicker Park west to Northcote Avenue.
"It was a big project, because it needed to be paved," said Mitch Barloga, planner of nonmotorized transportation and greenways for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
Before the paving, "people came through on the bike trail, hit the gravel trail, and it stopped them cold," Barloga said. "We wanted to make sure the entire Erie-Lackawanna was continuously paved in asphalt. This did that."
In Crown Point, officials plan amenities to improve user experience. A trailhead at the Summit Street entrance to the Erie Lackawanna in Crown Point will add paved parking, a shelter, restroom and fountain. The work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
A second round of enhancements to the trail is planned for next year at the 93rd Avenue entrance, where a roundabout and sidewalks are planned to improve safety at the site.
A project underway in Munster will take the Pennsy Greenway Trail from the intersection of Timrick Drive and Fisher Street west to Illinois, where it can connect with other trails including the Burnham Greenway.
The new section of trail, expected to be completed within 60 days, will be the first off-road, bi-state link in the region, and would become part of the American Discovery Trail, a 6,800-mile system spanning from Delaware to California.
A second phase of the work in Munster will extend the 10-foot wide, paved trail southeast to Calumet Avenue.
Future plans call for a bridge over the Little Calumet River at Manor Avenue to connect Munster and Hammond on the Monon trail, and another two bridges over the Hart and Cady Marsh ditches to connect Munster and Highland trails.
A new section of the Pennsy Greenway in Schererville was unveiled in late 2011 beginning at the town's Rohrman Park and extending northwest under U.S. 30 to the downtown, near Redar Park.
Future plans would connect the Schererville and Munster portions of the trail near Main Street.
The completed part of the trail "has been a great asset for the community, and it's been well received by residents," Schererville Parks Superintendent John Novacich said.
Usage peaks in summer, when residents bike and hike the trail to a popular farm market in Redar Park, among other destinations, but the trail is used in winter, as well.
Connecting the Munster and Schererville trails at Main Street will require the purchase of additional railroad rights of way but remains a goal of the town, Novacich.
"There's a vision there that helps to spur you on," Novacich said. "People have seen a piece of it and it's whetted their appetites for more."
Set to start this summer is work to complete a portion of the Oak Savannah Trail in Hobart, where plans are to extend the trail from Linda Street near American Legion Post 54, to Cleveland Street and Ind. 130 near the Porter County line, where the more than 10-mile long Prairie Duneland trail picks up form the county line to Chesterton.
Bid letting is set for July and work is expected to done by the end of the year on the Hobart project, which will include a trail-side water fountain that can be used by pets - and by people for filling water bottles.
The Oak Savannah Trail when completed will span nearly 10 miles between the Porter County line and Lake County's Oak Ridge Prairie park near Griffith.
The Oak Ridge Prairie park could itself become a spoke at the center of a confluence of trails which skirt it or come close, including the Oak Savannah trail which originates in the park and the Erie Lackawanna trail to the park's west. A planned C & O Greenway trail skirts the park's southwest edge.
"Oak Ridge Prairie stands right in the middle," Barloga said.
Barloga and the regional planning commission, which coordinates trails among the various communities, hope to work with Lake County and Griffith town officials to build a link at the park connecting the trails.
"That would open up a lot of travel between two of the most popular trails," Barloga said.
A project that Barloga calls one of the most unique would bring the C & O Greenway trail under Interstate 65 to the sprawling commercial center at I-65 and U.S. 30 that includes Westfield Southlake Mall.
"You don't usually have trails going to commercial retail areas like that," Barloga said.
Merrillville town officials in 2010 completed a 1.3-mile stretch of the C & O Greenway Trail from east of Taft Street, near the Innsbrook Country Club, east to Broadway.
Plans are to extend the trail southeast across Broadway and beneath I-65 to the mall area. The project already has been approved and funded.
Long-range plans would bring the C & O Greenway northwest to the Oak Ridge Prairie to help form the long-awaited link between the Oak Savannah and Erie Lackawanna trails.
In Porter County, plans are to complete the Porter Brickyard Trail linking the Prairie Duneland and Calumet trails in Porter County
The Porter Brickyard Trail is a 3.5 mile connector, initiated by the Porter Town Council and Redevelopment Commission. The Calumet Trail parallels U.S. 12, running along the south side of the Indiana Dunes State Park.
In Dyer, paths have been built within the town's parks, but a connection to a major trail has been just out of reach, Parks Director Mark Heintz said.
Paved trails rank high on residents' lists of preferred amenities, Heintz said.
"They're in our master plan, and we're keeping our eyes open for opportunities" Heintz said.
The number of trails and growing connectivity are worth working toward, Heintz said.
"It's the kind of thing that all flows together. It's the reason we're trying to push these things."
Trails are something "people just want more and more of," Barloga said. The Northwest Indiana area now boasts 130 miles of trail on the ground in three counties, he said.
"They just sell themselves."