When it’s nice out, Guillermo Calderón likes to take his 5-year-old granddaughter on walks to downtown Northfield, where they listen to the open-air concerts in Bridge Square.
But unlike many parts of the walking-friendly city, Guillermo’s mobile-home park in the northwest part of town isn’t connected to the east side by sidewalk or trail. To get there, residents have to cross a four-lane highway, two railroad tracks, walk through a dirt trail in the trees and, finally, cross a condominium parking lot before they can get on the sidewalk path that leads to the park.
That road, Hwy. 3, has divided the town in two since it was rebuilt decades ago. In recent years, it has become an increasing priority for Northfield to give residents safe ways to cross from the west side, a mostly residential area with St. Olaf College, to the east side, which has downtown and most of its businesses.
So in 2011, when Northfield won a federal grant to link the two sides with a bicycle-pedestrian trail at a two-to-one funding match, advocates in the progressive college town weren’t expecting much opposition.
But earlier this year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and a railroad company required the city to redesign some parts of the project — called the Tiger Trail, named after the granting Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program. The redesign bumped the cost from $1.5 million to $2.4 million. And as the cost rose, so did the frustration of the trail’s opponents.
Noah Cashman, a former city council member, is one of the residents leading that opposition. Initially supportive of the project, he claims that the project’s grant application underestimated costs and failed to plan for logistics, including railroad right-of-ways.
“It’s just been a train wreck,” said Cashman, an attorney who describes himself as politically progressive, a bicyclist and a member of the Library Board. “Everybody wants decent bike trails,” he said, but the cost has “ballooned way out of anybody’s imagination” and is taking money away from other priorities, like reopening the library on Sundays.
The opposition surprises Erica Zweifel, a City Council member representing part of the city’s northwest and a primary advocate for the project. She conceded that the project has a big cost, but “it’s going to have a big impact on the community,” from safer streets to the economic dividends that come from having a pedestrian-friendly city.
Walking along the planned route of the trail, Zweifel noted the well-worn dirt path leading across the railroad tracks. “You can see how fairly-well-traveled this is,” she said, then looks over to the neighborhoods just across the busy highway.
On the other side of the road, Calderón, a machine operator who moved to the United States 16 years ago, attests to the importance of the connection. Residents in his mostly Latino neighborhood cross the highway three to five times a week, he said, either to go downtown or to visit family and friends in apartments. His 21-year-old daughter, Zaret, said the traffic isn’t safe.
“Sometimes when we cross the street,” she said, “we look left, right, and then we’re running.”
Council Member David Ludescher doesn’t argue with the usefulness of a trail, but says anything over $1 million isn’t worth the cost. “We’ve been crossing that highway for a long time without the Tiger Trail,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant experience, but it’s certainly doable.”
In addition to its price tag, opponents of the project also have challenged the City Council’s authority to raise the project’s budget without a 5-2 supermajority. Ludescher, a lawyer, said the city is misinterpreting its charter to force the project through.
If the city charter requires a supermajority to approve reductions in a budget, Ludescher said, it also implies that raising the budget requires the same margin, not the 4-3 vote the council held.
“Governments should not interpret the law based on what they want to do at a particular time,” he said.
Opponents of the project still have some time before project bids arrive in November. Construction is planned to begin by April and finish before the end of 2014.
Cashman, who also challenges the city attorney’s interpretation of the charter, said a group is looking at ways to “stop what’s happened.”
“We’re looking at all our options,” he said.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.