Whistleblower: Is 1-mile bike path worth $9.2 million?

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 21, 2009 - 10:14 PM

Supporters call the Cedar Lake Trail extension a final piece of Minneapolis' vision. Critics say it's way too expensive.

A mile-long bike path planned for downtown Minneapolis promises a quick, safe way for cyclists to travel separate from busy street traffic. But its estimated $9.2 million price tag has some gasping.

It's a total that, in the past, paid for nearly 2 miles of highway lane on Interstate 94 in St. Paul, or 5.7 miles of bike trail on government land for the Midtown Greenway.

Proponents say it's the final link in a century-old vision for paths connecting the city's lakes and the river. It will extend the Cedar Lake Trail, an off-street bicycle "freeway" linking western suburbs with the heart of the city. Downtown, the paved route will take cyclists next to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad, under the new Twins ballpark and to the Mississippi River Parkway -- without crossing a single street.

Others say the path has become too pricey to justify as governments consider cuts to critical services because of the recession.

At issue is a geographically difficult three-block stretch of construction to extend the path all the way to the river, a change of plans for which proponents raised an extra $4.8 million in federal and state funding in 2005 and 2006. A city plan would have put bike traffic up a ramp and onto painted bike paths along local streets at that point.

"In these economic times, it's like, to me it's like the bridge to nowhere almost," said Ron Werner, a former city Park Board employee. "Those costs just don't transfer over to, I think, the value that you get out of that three-block stretch."

Challenging urban terrain

Pricey downtown land, old stone walls and steep, ragged slopes make path construction in the railroad trench a tough task between Washington Avenue and the river.

Building there will require tall retaining walls in some spots and a cut into an existing wall in another. City staffers are negotiating with landowners for property rights.

The Cedar Lake Park Association spearheaded efforts to raise money to hire engineers and designers so they could garner support and lobby to keep all of the trail off the streets, association president Keith Prussing explained: "We, the public, got with our public servants and got the whole thing back on track to the original conception." They secured $3 million in federal money for the off-street configuration through Congress in 2005, according to a 2007 city memo. The state also agreed to pitch in $1.8 million for its share.

The $9.2 million budget includes lighting in spots, and video cameras and emergency phones under the ballpark. Plans do not connect the trail directly to commuter rail and the stadium -- something officials are still trying to work out.

It's hard to say if the challenging three-block stretch actually comes with a $4.8 million price tag, said Jack Yuzna, the city's engineer on the project. Plans, conditions and costs for the trail have changed several times and the project is budgeted as a whole, he said. Putting bike lanes on the streets instead would also require getting expensive property rights to bring the trail to street level, he said.

In a faltering economy, the overall spending isn't sitting well with some.

"I'm just speechless, really. It's almost as if it hasn't dawned on anybody: We're broke," said Annette Meeks, Metropolitan Council member and chief executive officer of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative think tank focused on local government. "I'm very supportive of trails -- I think that's very good and well and it's a nice amenity. But there just comes a point in time when you have to say, 'What do we fix first, bridges and roads that are collapsing or nice amenities like a bike trail?' ... Our needs are bridges and roads that move a lot more people than a bike trail."

The trail extension is more expensive than average, city Bicycle Coordinator Donald Pflaum said. Leaders expect it will get a lot of use. An estimated 1,010 cyclists per day used the trail near Interstate 394, according to a September 2007 count.

"It's through a part of town with a lot of challenges. Land is not cheap. Typically it does not cost this kind of money to build one mile of trail. This is the exception to the rule," Pflaum said. But keeping the trail off streets will encourage biking, he said. Minneapolis ranks second among large cities nationally for bike commuting.

Plus, trails take cars off the road, he added, pointing out that the Midtown Greenway, on an average June day last year, saw 3,620 bikers at Hennepin Avenue. By comparison, Lake Street and Lagoon Avenue at Hennepin had a daily average of 30,900 vehicles for 2008.

"That's a significant percentage of the transportation," Pflaum said. "That's our goal here, is to essentially create a transportation corridor." Over time, the path will be a good investment, he said.

The Midtown Greenway path, another off-road trail, cost $9 million for 5.7 miles, though there were no land costs because it was owned by Hennepin County, a city spokesman said. The RiverLake Greenway, 4.5 miles of lanes on city streets stretching from Lake Harriet to the Mississippi River through south Minneapolis, is budgeted to cost $2 million.

The hard choices

Arlene Fried, who scrutinizes spending as co-founder of Park Watch, said she understands the need for good bike trails and pointed out that some European cities spend a lot more. Besides that, the public is pouring millions of dollars into the new Twins stadium -- which has made the land and design needed for the Cedar Lake trail extension more expensive, she noted.

"Some things don't seem real fair to me," Fried said. "Now the trail users want something and people are saying "'Oh, that's a lot of money.'"

Prussing said plans for the trail were in progress well before the Twins ballpark and Northstar commuter rail drove up area land costs. He argues that sometimes high-quality infrastructure is worth the price.

"With certain projects, one could argue that because of their importance, significance, visibility, etcetera, they deserve a better look, if you will, than just doing the absolute cheapest thing," Prussing said.

With paths on the streets, Prussing argued, "you've got the potential for kids and cars to interact unfavorably."

Werner said he understands the safety aspect, but "at some point, you've got to get off that bike trail and face the city streets anyway."

He says he will probably use the trail someday. "If you can bike to the ballpark, I mean, it's a good deal, it's nice," he said. "But once again, I look at our economy today and ... $9.2 million for one mile of bike trail, it's exorbitant."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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