The love affair has been a quarter century in the making. This 12-mile dirt path summons mountain bikers, trail runners, and dog walkers alike. Old-growth cottonwoods and elms provide cover; the high ground of the river banks alternates between grassland flats and tunnels of trees. Along Bloomington's southern belly, the Minnesota River Bottoms trail is a treasure.
"You feel as if you're a million miles away," says Bloomington resident and longtime trail user Dennis Porter. "What makes it unique is the oneness you feel in the natural setting. I'm afraid that's what's going to be lost."
Porter's fears are not unfounded.
The state has set its sights on turning the Bloomington portion of the dirt trail into a blacktopped trail, starting as early as this year. This particular stretch, between the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge and the Bloomington Ferry Bridge, is located in a flood plain. It's been deluged by high waters nine out of the past ten years. And it's a section of the larger Minnesota Valley State Trail, a 72-mile route originally established by legislation in 1969 to run along the river from Fort Snelling to Le Sueur.
"It's coexisted with the natural flood plain for years at no cost to taxpayers because the mountain biking community has built and maintained it, and it's grown in popularity organically," Porter says. "There's eight other paved trails within three miles of it. Why can't this natural trail be left in its beautiful, natural state?"
That's a question for Ann Lenczewski.
The push to pave has been her baby for a few years. In 2013, the then-DFL legislator representing Bloomington authored legislation appropriating $2.5 million from bond proceeds "to develop the Minnesota Valley State Trail." The initiative immediately drew the ire of the mountain biking community around the southwest suburbs, which viewed the trail as an unpolished gem that deserved to be left alone.
Confronted with growing opposition, Lenczewski went on the offensive, declaring it was a done deal.
"You can't stop it," she told the Star Tribune in September 2014. "The money has been given to complete the trail."
That wasn't exactly true. The $2.5 million appropriation starts the trail, but falls well short of finishing it. Critics say costs to take the trail from dirt to asphalt could ultimately run between $13 and $15 million, an estimate based on other completed trails, which come in as much as $1 million or more per paved mile. The estimate doesn't include unestablished costs in annual maintenance.
"Ann Lenczewski has never been forthright about the true costs associated with paving," says natural trail defender Stephanie Johnson. "Not only did she say the all the funding for the project was there when it isn't, she's also never addressed the exorbitant costs that will come with a paved trail located in a flood plain."
Things took another turn last summer. Lenczewski, who had said previously that the trail wouldn't necessarily have to be made of blacktop, slid one sentence into a monster appropriations bill during last year's special session. It read: "That portion of the trail on the north side of the Minnesota River, lying between the Bloomington Ferry Bridge pedestrian crossing and the Cedar Avenue Bridge, must be a paved trail. ..."
Flummoxed were her fellow lawmakers, most notably Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar).
"This is the first I've seen of this," he said during a House Ways and Means meeting. "Rep. Lenczewski, I didn't know you put this in this bill or how you got this in here."
Hackbarth had good reason to be peeved. Until last June's surprise, the longtime Republican and Lenczewski had been working together on legislation that allowed for the Bloomington stretch not be paved.
The former Democratic state lawmaker added another major twist to the trail narrative in late 2015 when she abruptly resigned midterm, saying she was taking a lobbying gig with powerhouse Lockridge Grindal Nauen. The following month the Park & Trails Council of Minnesota, which pushes for more and more paved paths throughout the state, announced that Lenczewski had been hired to lobby on its behalf at the state Capitol during the 2016 legislative session.
Lenczewski responded to repeated phone messages seeking comment via email. Though the legislation only mentions one trail, and that it be paved, she says the Bloomington stretch will consist of two paths, one blacktopped, another natural surface.
Her opponents aren't buying it.
"Based on her track record, it's hard to trust what she says," Porter says. "The law reads 'a paved trail.' To me that means one paved trail. I trust what the law reads much more than what Ann Lenczewski says."
The Minnesota DNR is now in discussions with the city of Bloomington and other government entities about mapping out the trail's specific corridor. The department is also looking to state lawmakers to secure the remaining funding. Meanwhile, an online petition to stop the paved trail launched by the citizens' group Save the River Bottoms is approaching 5,000 signees. Opponents continue to lobby the Legislature and governor to deny paved trail funding.
"There's never been a poll of the general population in Bloomington to see if they're even for paving the trail," says Johnson. "This entire time, as this has gotten more attention, have we seen residents come out in favor for Ann Lenczewski's plan? Not at all. That's because it's environmentally and fiscally irresponsible, and the citizens here don't want it."
Porter adds, "The people of Bloomington have never been involved in this decision. Now we are and we want to trail to stay the way it is."