Looking to bridge a trail gap

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 25, 2010 - 9:49 PM

If plans to complete an 80-mile hiking and biking trail from Fort Snelling to Belle Plaine get a jump-start, the hope is that it could hasten efforts to fix or replace the Old Cedar Avenue bridge.

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A wooden walkway at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge leads to a view of the Old Cedar Avenue bridge, which closed in 2002.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Two years of talking about the future of Bloomington's Old Cedar Avenue bridge has done little so far to save the rotting steel span. But those conversations have sparked renewed discussion about another lingering transportation issue: the Minnesota Valley State Trail.

Bloomington officials believe that if the long-planned biking and hiking trail along the Minnesota River gets a jump-start, it might attract new funding to fix or build an alternative to the now-closed Old Cedar bridge -- and perhaps even attract a new owner for a bridge that city officials do not want.

The first 80-mile segment of the Minnesota Valley State Trail was authorized by state law in 1969, but so far exists mostly between Shakopee and Belle Plaine, with little trail development between Fort Snelling and Eden Prairie.

Now, more than 40 years later, recreational trails are converging from Hennepin, Dakota and Scott counties. The bridge, which spans Long Meadow Lake in the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is a critical link to crossing the river. Without it, there's a 15-mile gap between crossings.

"There are nice trails all around Bloomington, and then there's a hole," said Randy Quale, parks and recreation manager for Bloomington.

"The Old Cedar bridge would be a very nice connection with the trail," said Karl Keel, Bloomington public works director. While no formal discussions have taken place, he said, the city has talked with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) at least three times about the importance of finishing the trail.

The Bloomington City Council is expected to discuss the fate of the Old Cedar bridge in November.

Proposed by Floyd Olson

Until it closed to all traffic in 2002, the rickety bridge was an important north-south water crossing for bikers and hikers. Representatives of Bloomington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the DNR and others have met regularly to discuss the bridges future.

Joining the discussion more recently have been people from cities like Le Sueur and Henderson, which would benefit from the tourism that a more complete biking and hiking trail could attract.

A trail system along the Minnesota River was first proposed by Gov. Floyd B. Olson in 1934. Today the only completed parts of the trail are a paved segment from Shakopee to Chaska and a natural-surface trail that runs from Chaska to Belle Plaine.

In 2001, the Legislature approved an extension of the trail west from Belle Plaine and Le Sueur to Big Stone Lake on the South Dakota border.

Joel Stedman, DNR regional parks and trails manager, said that the Minnesota Valley State Trail has been a priority for the DNR's central region for "many, many years." Even so, he said, it's not first on the list of trail developments in the state or metro area.

Barriers to development include funding and issues with the route. Stedman said the flooding that has occurred in the river valley in recent years has DNR officials wondering if trail segments should run along higher ground rather than down near the river. And while state Legacy funds can be used to build trails, they can't be used to buy land.

Adding to the complications is the need to cross private property at the trail's eastern end. Near Fort Snelling, land owned by the Metropolitan Airports Commission and the state Department of Transportation could be involved, and the U.S. Air Force operates a gun range near the river.

"They have been open for discussion and cooperation," said Bob Piotrowski, manager of Fort Snelling State Park. "We are all working together as close partners."

Stedman said partnering with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which runs the refuge along the river where much of the trail would be built, is the best way to get things done.

Considering a berm

In the mid-1990s, officials discussed creating a river crossing in the refuge by bypassing the Old Cedar bridge by building a berm across Long Meadow Lake. That would allow access to the bike and pedestrian bridge that hangs from the side of the Hwy. 77 bridge, creating the desired river crossing.

But the berm idea died when the DNR refused to issue a permit because of concerns about the impact on the lake, said Jim Gates, Bloomington's deputy director of public works. The shallow lake, about 1,200 to 1,500 acres, is a key stop for migrating waterfowl in spring and fall.

The berm idea has come up again, and Stedman said officials are checking to see if the DNR still has environmental concerns.

Wildlife refuge manager Charlie Blair, who strongly supports the state trail, is not enthusiastic about a man-made strip of land that could inhibit water flow in the lake.

"From what I've been involved in, we've talked about repairing, replacing or restoring the bridge," Blair said. "Anytime you build a berm in a wetland there are concerns."

Questions about trail funding, routes and how to cross the lake seem to add up to big barriers. But Stedman said the steady growth of other trails that would link with the Minnesota Valley State Trail raise the possibility of collaboration rather than the DNR going it alone.

"It's already been decades, so it's difficult to say how much longer this will go on," he said. "But there's a lot of energy and interest in connecting people with the outdoors and recreational activity."

Lori Nelson, executive director of the Friends of the Minnesota Valley, also senses some momentum.

"I think there's a lot of interest in getting the trail done," she said. "There's real strong interest in linking the Mississippi River and Minnesota River corridors."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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