The first step toward Minnesota's newest state trail will begin this month when a contractor pays to remove railroad tracks from the Browns Creek State Trail between Stillwater and the city of Grant.

Crews pulling rails and ties from the route followed by the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train will set in motion a series of changes that will attract an estimated 75,000 walkers, runners and cyclists each year. Paving of the trail will begin next year.

The route belonged to Zephyr owner David Paradeau, who sold it to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for $4.25 million. Washington County contributed $1 million of that amount from voter-approved Land and Water Legacy funds.

"I remain as excited today as I think I was the first day I was approached by Mr. Paradeau," said Kent Skaar, a DNR acquisition and development section leader. "We're going to see some opportunity for public use next year. Right now it's going forward a little slower than we hoped, but it will make a better product in the end."

The track removal comes several months later than DNR estimates, but Skaar said the delay had nothing to do with waiting for the Zephyr to vacate tracks at Stillwater. Instead, he said, the DNR took extra time to figure out how to remove rails and ties, which railroads often do themselves.

"There's value in this deal. The money is in the rails," he said. Tie Yard of Omaha, Inc., a Nebraska company, will remove 12 miles of track -- the 5.9-mile track times two -- as well as plates holding the rails to the ties and 12,000 ties.

In exchange, the DNR will receive $273,000 because the steel can be recycled, Skaar said.

"I've never used the term 'high bidder' before, but that's what this was," he said. "We usually say 'low bid.' It's very unusual for us."

The new Browns Creek trail -- asphalt and a standard 10 feet wide -- will connect with the Gateway State Trail in Grant. The 18-mile Gateway trail, extending north into May Township and southwest to St. Paul, is the busiest state trail in Minnesota.

The Browns Creek trail already is being touted as a jewel because of its strategic connections.

"We really can't overstate the importance of this addition to our state trail system," said Courtland Nelson, director of the DNR's parks and trails division. "State trails often have to be acquired one small parcel at a time, so we're excited about being able to purchase this entire 5.9-mile segment from a single landowner all at once."

Next year, the portion of the trail from downtown Stillwater to the Brown's Creek Park and Nature Preserve at Neal Avenue will be paved. A new bridge over Brown's Creek at the Oak Glen Golf Course will be built, and an existing bridge over state Hwy. 95 in Stillwater will be updated.

Further development of the trail, including a proposed bridge over Manning Avenue, will depend on available money, the DNR said.

Purchase of the Brown's Creek corridor was completed in February. Paradeau, who operated the long-running Zephyr train until 2008, sold the land to the state last summer. He continues to own the train, which is for sale nationally, and the shuttered depot and restaurant at the north end of downtown Stillwater.

The eight train cars and locomotives were moved from Stillwater on flatbed trailers in July. Skaar said the rails along the Browns Creek corridor were in place with an old railroad long before the Zephyr came along, and they "probably wouldn't function as a mainline railroad."

The legacy of that old railroad, he said, is that the DNR has an instant trail without facing lengthy negotiations with individual owners.

"There aren't many of those opportunities left," he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles