Bloomington resident Dennis Porter wanted in. He called the Minnesota Senate Committee on Capital Investment office requesting to speak before the panel on Wednesday afternoon.
The point of discussion was trails, a subject close to Porter's heart.
He's an advocate against plans to pave a 12-mile dirt trail that girdles the Minnesota River in Bloomington, which has become a destination for countless mountain bikers, dog walkers, and hikers. It's also part of the larger Minnesota Valley State Trail, a 72-mile route established in 1969 that runs along the river from Fort Snelling to Le Sueur.
In 2013, former DFL state Rep. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington authored a bill appropriating $2.5 million "to develop the Minnesota Valley State Trail." She'd go on to say the project was entirely funded, which wasn't exactly true, which led to yesterday's Senate get-together.
The meeting would include those looking to cobble funds to push their pet projects forward. Porter asked for an opportunity to voice his opposition, which is shared by more than 5,000 people who've signed an online petition, demanding the trail be left as is.
"I was told there would be no time for me because the DNR and people from the Park & Trails Council [of Minnesota] were already scheduled to speak," Porter says. And those groups had conquered the full allotment of time. "Let me understand this: The majority of people in Bloomington, who don't want the trail paved or see it as a waste of taxpayer money, don't have a say. But the DNR and Trails Council do?"
The Trails Council, established in 1954, has yet to encounter a trail paving project that doesn't cause drooling. The nonprofit specializes in pushing for more and more trails across the state, regardless of what the locals might think.
Since January — just two months after it was announced she was abruptly resigning as a state representative effective ASAP — the Trails Council lobbyist in St. Paul has been none other than Lenczewski.
The Council's reps were among those hand-picked to step up to the mic. The remaining time was spoken for by two DNR directors, the Greater MN Regional Park & Trail Coalition and its lobbyist Elizabeth Wefel, and Emmett Mullin, who works for the Met Council's parks commission.
According to Committee administrator Logan O'Grady, those speaking were there not to talk specific projects, but "to explain the process they go through in determining what trails they think are ready for primetime."
Whether the Bloomington trail fits that description depends on who's asked.
Two separate bills are in play this session, with taxpayer dollars earmarked for turning beloved dirt into tar. Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) wants $1.5 million "to complete a 13-mile trail… in Bloomington." The other, which comes courtesy of three lawmakers, including Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL-Mpls.), is doubly generous, appropriating $3 million for trail land acquisition, design, and construction.
Coincidence would have it Wagenius and Hausman partnered with Lenczewski a year ago to pen a bill asking that $135 million be dedicated to trail construction and upkeep.
Amy Steigauf listened in January to bureaucrats and elected officials emphasize the vision of the greater Minnesota River Valley Trail, while discouraging dialogue about Bloomington taxpayers' skin in the game. Current estimates for the project from design to ribbon cutting put the state's price tag somewhere in the $13 to $15 million range.
"Of course spending that kind of state taxpayer money gives me pause," Seigauf says. "What also concerns me is nobody at the city is willing to talk about the trail's annual maintenance costs. The state will build it, but you watch. It's going to be Bloomington that's left to maintain it and do repairs."
She's right. The trail sits in a flood plain and has been deluged by muddy waters nine out of the past ten years. Paved trail maintenance expense varies wildly, starting around $2,000 per month per mile to tens of thousands for the day-to-day stuff. Major repairs caused by floods or other things has the potential to send maintenance costs into the multiple six figures and possibly higher.
That's what Steigauf is most afraid of: "The math by itself shows paving the trail flies in the face of fiscal responsibility."