To pave or not to pave? That is the question for the Minnesota River Bottoms trail

Over the decades, the Minnesota River Bottoms trail in Bloomington has become a natural holy land for mountain bikers, dog walkers, and hikers.

Over the decades, the Minnesota River Bottoms trail in Bloomington has become a natural holy land for mountain bikers, dog walkers, and hikers.

In the summer of 2015, Ann Lenczewski, then a Minnesota DFL House member whose district included portions of Bloomington, slid a small item into an appropriations bill that carried implications for the Minnesota River Bottoms trail.

Snaking through flats and tunnels of trees along Bloomington's southern belly, the trail represents a natural holy land of sorts, 12 miles of dirt-packed bliss beloved by mountain bikers, dog walkers, and hikers.

Lenczewski's plan to pave the trail isn't going anywhere in the Legislature, where Republicans hold the purse strings and are loathe to spend money on the metro area. 

Lenczewski would retire from the statehouse within months of authoring the legislation. She fast became a lobbyist for the powerhouse firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen. But a career change hasn't changed Lenczewski's passion to pave. She currently toils as a lobbyist for the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota, which pushes for more paved paths throughout the state.

Two other things haven't changed either. There remains no groundswell of public support in the southwest suburb to pave the trail. The project lacks an estimated $10 million to get the job done. 

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 costs in annual maintenance. 

Since earmarking taxpayer cash to blacktop dirt trails isn't job one for GOP lawmakers holding the purse strings in St. Paul these days, paving proponents have gotten creative in their search for cash. 

They've enlisted the Met Council.

In a flanking maneuver that circumvents state lawmakers, the council's Transportation Advisory Board today will consider approving almost $2 million to develop a "12.5-mile dual treadway pedestrian and bicycle trail along the north side of the Minnesota River." 

The request's author is Brandon Helm of the Minnesota DNR.

Last summer Helm submitted the initial paperwork, asking for almost $1.9 million. The funds would come from a federal program that invests in regional projects. The application also says that almost $500,000 in matching state funds have been secured. 

According to minutes from a March 6 meeting, the board has about $21 million it can dole out over three years. Five different "transportation improvement" programs, the River Bottoms trail among them, have been identified as the worthy benefactors.  

Met Council spokesperson Bonnie Kollodge says the trail project qualifies because it will provide an "east/west route for bicycle commuters."

But hanging over the project are unanswered questions.  

Among them: Where will the remaining capital come from to see the project through completion? Why are proponents hellbent on constructing a paved trail in the flood plain where annual maintenance and repairs are guaranteed to not come cheap? Why pave when there's plenty of public opposition against it?   

"… To lose the [trail's] natural state would surely be a shame," wrote Bloomington resident Michelle Leonard to the city council in 2015. "… Annual flooding closes the trail for several weeks every spring and when the water recedes, the trail always requires work. The cost of these annual repairs to a paved system seems to be an unnecessary burden for taxpayers.… Paving the trail would take away the joy of being able to escape from the city and value the land in its natural state."

Opponents also point to the fact that the area has been deluged by high waters nine out of the past ten years, and that it now needs no public monies because volunteers maintain it. Moreover, the Twin Cities boast a network of existing paved trails, and they want this one to stay an unpolished gem that deserves to be left alone. 

But a paved trail means access for more people -- ie., the elderly, people in wheelchairs.

"The important part that folks need to understand is this is not a displacement of an existing use," says DNR spokesperson Ken Skaar. "It's an enhancement of all uses, for more folks to appreciate what the valley has to offer."

If the Met Council approves the additional funds, the trail can be built, according to Skaar. A previous $2.5 million bond appropriation plus the new infusion would cover construction, which he estimates to be between $4.5 and $4.7 million.

Skaar downplays flood plain concerns, saying, "A paved trail in a flood plain is certainly sustainable, certainly more sustainable than a gravel- or aggregate-surfaced trail." 

At the same time he acknowledges the department's $2.5 million annual budget for maintenance of existing trails: "Does it fall short of current needs? Certainly."   

As for those who don't want the trail paved, Skaar characterizes the opposition "as a relatively small group that's voicing an exclusive opinion."