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Gitchi-Gami Trail battle overshadows miles state could add elsewhere

November 23, 2018

We have news this day on the states lumbering pursuit of an uninterrupted bike path between Minneapolis and St. Paul and the Canadian border.

As of today, the route consists of random chunks of paved path totaling maybe 130 miles scattered across the 300 miles between the Twin Cities and Grand Portage. The portions of that route without a path range from pleasant, generous highway shoulders to harrowing lanes of traffic shared with roaring semitrailer trucks.

The news? Within two years, dear readers, the paved bike path portion of this route could increase by as much as 1 percent, which would be considered a significant leap of progress.

This idea a bike path connection from the metro to the North Woods is not fanciful; it is state policy. The Minnesota Legislature has enthusiastically and officially authorized virtually the whole big project. The legislature has not, however, committed most of the money to pay for it.

But the idea is, again, not at a complete standstill. The Department of Natural Resources is in the final stages of design for a 3-mile path south from Grand Marais along Lake Superior to Cut Face Creek and the rest area on Hwy. 61. That would be the 1 percent progress, scheduled to open in 2020.

The 3-mile stretch is part of the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, which is also known as the Slowest Bike Project in Recorded History. Authorized by the legislature in 1999, during the Clinton Administration, the trail is supposed to stretch 89 rugged and beautiful miles from Two Harbors to Grand Marais.

So far, just 29 of those Gitchi-Gami miles are paved, partly because of legislative inattention, but also because the spectacular North Shore landscape creates unique engineering and political challenges. Case in point: The budget for the 3 miles of bike path south of Grand Marais is $5 million.

And even this small victory on the Gitchi-Gami is getting mixed reviews. The DNRs plan included a bridge to cross the Fall River as it cascades toward Lake Superior on the east side of Hwy. 61. The bridge, however, is right in front of the falls that are the rivers final plunge toward the lake, obscuring the grand view from the beach. Scores of people at a public hearing last summer, and hundreds more on petitions, thought that was a bad idea. But the DNR has not yet budged.

If the legislature and the DNR are looking for a more popular, productive use of time and money to fulfill their stated commitment, the single most efficient, big-impact investment in northbound bike travel would be simple: Pave roughly 34 flat miles on railroad rights of way between North Branch and Hinckley. That would connect the 26 miles of the Hardwood Creek and Sunrise Prairie regional trails between Hugo and North Branch with the Munger State Trail, creating a 130-mile stretch of riding from the edge of the Twin Cities to the Duluth waterfront.

The legislature already has authorized and partly funded this project with $350,000. Its called the James L. Oberstar State Trail, named for the late, bike-friendly Eighth District congressman. The trails master plan is now complete, with tantalizing possibilities. One option for the Oberstar would create an extension of the Gateway State Trail from its current terminus near Stillwater, up the St. Croix, and connect with the extended Munger creating, in other words, the mythical, uninterrupted bike path connection between the lanes and paths of the Twin Cities and Duluth.

Despite the master plans colorful maps and detailed schematics, the DNR confirmed last week that it has no money for that work either. The agency probably wont have it soon, as long as bicycle infrastructure development in Minnesota is a series of random events overseen by disconnected bureaucracies.

Consider the overlapping jurisdictions on the Twin Cities-North Shore route: The state Department of Transportation has, without investment, designated the highways and trails as U.S. Bicycle Route 41, or the North Star Route, all the way up to Grand Portage. The DNR, for its part, oversees the scattered state trails. And Washington and Chisago counties built and maintain the Hardwood and Sunrise Prairie trails. They are like uncoordinated carpenters, each building separate parts of a house that no one is assigned to assemble.

The result is plain to people such as Laird Mork, the Chisago County park director. His county would love to extend their trail from North Branch to the Munger at Hinckley. But hes seen no hint of coordination or progress.

From my experience, Mork said, I dont think anyone should hold their breath on any of this.

Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. Reach him at mplsbikeguy@gmail.com. His column appears twice a week. Read archived columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.

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