The Three Rivers Park District may change its policy of not clearing snow if demand is great.
How many people use the west metro regional trails to walk, bike, ski or run during the winter?
Three Rivers Park District, which is based in the suburbs of Hennepin County, decided last week to study the demand for its 10 regional trails this winter as it reconsiders its 20-year policy of letting trails fill with snow unless cities step up to maintain them.
Some cities have begun to chafe at the cost and responsibility of clearing segments of the regional trails and they question why Three Rivers doesn't maintain them itself year-round. Without agreeing to make a change, park district board members said they will look into it.
"I think we should at least look at what the cost would be and whether we have the resources to do it," said Board Member Barbara Derus Kinsey.
Since the mid-1990s, when the first regional trails were opened in Hennepin County, the west suburban park district has maintained the trails between March 31 and Nov. 15 but has never gone to the expense of keeping them free of snow and ice during the winter.
Because residents in many communities want to use the trails for winter walking, biking, running and skiing, about 16 cities -- including Minnetonka, Excelsior, Eden Prairie, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center -- each year have agreed to add the trails to city plowing routes.
In that fashion, about 55 miles of the 130-mile regional trail system are maintained in the winter. That patchwork approach creates uneven access and can make it difficult for winter bikers to use them for commuting.
Cities ask why
Over the past couple of years as Three Rivers has worked with cities to plan new regional trails, officials from Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Richfield, Bloomington, Edina, Minneapolis, Spring Park and Golden Valley have questioned the district's practice of not maintaining the trails in the winter, said associate superintendent Margie Dahlof.
The popular Dakota Rail Regional Trail from Wayzata to St. Bonifacius is not plowed by any of the cities along its 13 miles in Hennepin County. The Lake Independence Regional Trail from Orono to Corcoran is likewise left to the elements, with signs alerting people to use it at their own risk. Golden Valley also leaves its segment of the Luce Line Trail unplowed.
"It's not our trail, and we don't want to pay for the cost and liability," of winter maintenance, said Carlton Moore, public works director for Mound, which is on the Dakota Rail Trail. Clearing it for winter is "up to Three Rivers," but, he said, even left to the elements the trail is used for skiing, snowshoeing and walking.
St. Bonifacius declines to plow its segment of the Dakota Rail Trail because snowmobiles would use it and damage it and then the city would be liable for the damage, said Mayor Rick Weible.
If Three Rivers wanted to keep it clear, pick up the garbage and patrol it, "I would be supportive of it," Weible said.
Golden Valley has asked Three Rivers to maintain the 4.8 miles of Luce Line trail through that city.
"We have heard from people who would like to see those trails maintained and be usable year around, and so we forward that on to Three Rivers," said Golden Valley Mayor Linda Loomis. The city maintains 43 miles of city trails and sidewalks and has neither the money nor the staff to maintain the regional trail, too, Loomis said.
Trails have changed
Questions about the policy will continue until Three Rivers re-addresses it because "regional trails are something different than they were 20 years ago," when the winter policy was set, said park board chairman Larry Blackstad. Use of the trails has increased and people have a higher expectation for their maintenance, he said. "The regional trails are a regional benefit. We can't segregate them to individual communities any longer."
Research this winter will be necessary to see what kind of use is being made of the trails, where use is heaviest and how much the cities spend on maintaining them, he said.
Many board members are worried about taking on the extra cost.
"We definitely want to encourage winter activity," but at this point budget control is the top priority, said Board Member Sara Wyatt.
Board Member Joan Peters said: "I don't know if the park district can take on one more thing. I am very concerned about our money."
Board Member Dale Woodbeck cautioned that it might be difficult for the park district to live up to high standards for quick snow removal set by individual cities that have done the plowing.
Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711