Northfield trail idea takes another step

  • Article by: Graison Hensley Chapman
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • February 25, 2014 - 2:08 PM

Council members voted unanimously to advance two options for the embattled TIGER Trail, which backers hope will provide a safe way for residents to cross Hwy. 3, the state road that bisects the town. Many of the city’s neighborhoods in the west and north, including its mostly Latino neighborhoods, do not have crosswalks or sidewalks to cross the road, which in parts runs four lanes across.

But the future of the project has been in doubt since November, when bids came in an average of $1.2 million above estimates due to lower competition in the industry, a late construction start date and higher-than-expected costs for concrete and labor. Since then, proponents have supported a new version that could cut a third of the cost, while opponents have been challenging whether the project is worth pursuing at all.

Council Member David Ludescher said it would make more sense to put in a crosswalk, but that he is willing to consider the scaled-down option, which would provide an underpass trail beneath Hwy. 3 but not sidewalks connecting it to the northwest neighborhoods.

But City Engineer Joe Stapf said the pared-down option isn’t so straightforward. Because it relies on a “massive” retaining wall and engineering techniques to make the underpass work, it may not be approved by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and could cost as much or more than the revised option the trail’s proponents are pushing. That plan would have a longer trail extending to the neighborhoods, but its path has a simpler grade, making it easier to build.

The council’s Tuesday vote, which authorized staff to prepare estimates for both plans, comes after three months of gridlock over the trail. Four council members have consistently supported the longer trail that is closer to the neighborhoods. They have claimed that the three-member minority, which includes Mayor Dana Graham, is preventing an up-or-down vote on the longer trail.

The minority says the $2.46 million plan — paid for with about $775,000 from the city, with the rest coming from state money and a $1.06 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant — is too expensive. Ludescher said he will try to prevent any plan near that price, and may try to block it even at a lower price. He said the council has broken budgeting and procedural rules to accept grants and add funds to the city’s contribution.

“Those issues are still there,” he said. “There’s lots of things I think could and should derail this project.”

Erica Zweifel, a council member representing part of the city’s northwest, has advocated for the project for several years. She favors the option with longer trails, which “is a better alignment for some of our lower-income neighborhoods” and has already been cleared by MnDOT. But she said she would support either plan, calling ultimate goal a way to cross Hwy. 3 without the danger of being run over.

“I think people will use either one,” she said. “People will go out of their way to avoid crossing the highway.”

Zweifel’s biggest worry is about completing the project. If construction of the trail runs into 2015, staff members aren’t sure if the city will still be able to use the state and federal money. City Engineer Stapf said the underpass option is a particular risk, since “the chances are slim that it would be completed in 2014.”

Even with the more fleshed-out option that Zweifel and three other council members favor, Stapf said “we’re up against the wall right now” and the city would have to start advertising bids by mid-April to have a chance at finishing it this year.

The City Council finally adjourned its meeting at 10:30 p.m. last week. As council members and others made their ways to the parking lot, the mayor summed up what council members could hold up after more than three hours of debate that was often contentious and drew groans and remarks from the crowd.

“We got something done tonight,” Graham said. That’s the big thing.”


Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.

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