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The Bike Guy: Paths are murky in search for answers on rails-to-trails land

October 11, 2018

When last we left the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, it was being coy about the precise location of the 222 miles of potential new rail-to-trail bike paths it claimed exist in the state of Minnesota.

We now know that the group was being shy on purpose. Such a public list of potential projects would be highly sensitive because, it now says, actual public unveiling of where these lines are in detail could potentially cause political and public jeopardy to those projects.

That is from Eric Oberg, director of Trail Development for the national nonprofit that works to expand the mileage of multiuse trails in America, particularly those that convert abandoned rail beds to biking and hiking trails. Minnesota has 74 such trails covering 2,107 miles, second-most miles in the nation after Michigans 2,437.

His reserve only heightened the question: Where will Minnesota get its next great bike path?

Oberg, by the way, said the 222-mile estimate of potential new Minnesota trails is very conservative; it could be double that. But the conservancy isnt releasing any maps. When Oberg was asked if such information would, in essence, provide valuable information to opponents of rails-to- trails development, he said, That I think would be accurate.

Across the country perhaps less so in Minnesota coalitions of adjacent land owners, property rights activists and random bikeophobes have fiercely opposed new biking and hiking paths on old rail lines.

Complaints about conversions from rails to trails usually lament the loss of commercially viable rail lines (even though the federal government has to designate the line unnecessary before it can be abandoned), and broader allegations that the arrival of cyclists and hikers would bring an unacceptable onslaught of crime, litter and Subaru station wagons. At one point in Kansas, for example, opponents law suits held up development of 300 miles of trails.

The conservancy has learned, generally speaking, to tiptoe up to abandoned rights of way, organize redevelopment and then try to close the deal through local and state governments before the alarmists can hire lawyers and light torches.

So the question remains where will the next Paul Bunyan or Munger trail will be built? Where in Minnesota will we find the new bike path projects and adventures?

The search for answers inevitably leads to the offices of the federal Department of Transportations Surface Transportation Board (formerly the Interstate Commerce Commission), which archives and must ultimately approve the abandonment of rail rights of way before they can be converted to other uses. This is where, hidden in a mountain of administrative proceedings, we find tantalizing clues about future new bike paths in Minnesota.

And indeed (there!), under Filings on the Boards website, dated just days ago on Sept. 17 (and later amended as recently as Sept. 26), is what could be Minnesotas next great bike trail: 5.8 miles of Minnesota Northern Railroad track in Norman and Polk counties north of Moorhead in the Red River Valley, between the towns of Nielsville and Shelly. The railroads filing makes the case that, since a bridge on the section is failing, and no train has run on the track for almost three years, it should be able to salvage its rails and equipment and walk away.

Notably, the filing reports, The Rail Line may be suited as a recreational trail. And a footnote includes this information: An adjacent segment of the rail line between Shelly and Perley, MN, was abandoned in 2009.

Pearly is 20 miles from Shelly. That means, pending federal approval, Minnesota is about to have 25.8 miles of vacant rail corridor, from Perley to Nielsville, sitting there, waiting for vision and leadership.

Oberg said the conservancy was in fact aware of the potential Shelly-to-Nielsville abandonment, but he was not sure if it was on their official 222-mile state estimate.

At the moment, local enthusiasm for a grand new bike path in the Red River Valley appears muted. The Shelly-to-Perley segment has been vacant for nine years without obvious progress. And when Norman County and state legislative officials were left messages requesting comment on potential development of the trail, they declined to return the calls.

But a case for the trail could be strong. The area has no paved bike trails, just the gravel, 52-mile Agassiz Recreational Trail to the east, which is open to ATVs. (The Department of Natural Resources asks that ATV drivers, Please watch for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.) And the setting for this potential new 25.8-mile bike path is unique. From a sheer marketing-and-tourism-promotion perspective for the Red River Valley, the Nielsville-to-Perley project could legitimately be promoted as: The Flattest Bike Trail in the World.

Bike note

Notice for all of Minnesotas snowbirds: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported the other day that two of the three most dangerous places to ride a bike are Florida (6.2 deaths per 100,000 residents) and Arizona (3.5).

Minnesotas overall numbers were out of the nations top 10 most dangerous and were unlisted. But, for cities, the federal agency said bicycle deaths per 100,000 residents in 2016 were: Twin Cities (1.3); Duluth (0.7); Rochester (1.9); and St. Cloud (1.0). Compare those numbers to Tampa-St. Petersburg (7.0) and Jacksonville (6.0).

Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at mplsbikeguy@gmail.com. See an archive of his columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.

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