West St. Paul officials and residents have long debated building a bike and pedestrian tunnel beneath bustling Robert Street, which would make it easier to cross the road and link segments of the River-to-River Greenway trail.
"This is the only place along the River-to-River that's not connected," said Jim Hartshorn, West St. Paul's community development director.
Now the $2.39 million tunnel, which would pass under Robert Street just north of Wentworth Avenue near Crawford Drive, is bubbling up as a local campaign issue as the city and Dakota County move toward a joint agreement.
The County Board approved the agreement, which spells out each jurisdiction's responsibility, in mid-September. The West St. Paul City Council will likely vote on an agreement soon, said City Administrator Ryan Schroeder.
If no agreement is finalized by the end of the year, $2.2 million in state bonding that the city received in 2014 may be in jeopardy, Schroeder said. The balance of the funding would come from a $660,000 federal transportation grant obtained by the county and other potential funding sources.
West St. Paul City Council members demonstrated their general support for the tunnel with a resolution last November, with some stipulations. For instance, the city can't use taxpayer money on the project, Schroeder said. Council members also have been clear that the trail must enhance nearby development rather than hinder it, he said.
But redeveloping the area near the proposed tunnel could prove complicated and take a long time. To the east is the shuttered Thompson Oaks golf course; some envision housing there, but that would require cleaning contaminated soil on the site. Several other parcels nearby also are ripe for redevelopment, officials said.
City Council Member Anthony Fernandez, who is running for mayor of West St. Paul, said that he first would like to see the trail's exact path confirmed and other details ironed out with developers who have committed to nearby projects before proceeding.
"Plunking down a tunnel and then developing around the tunnel is not necessarily the best use," he said. Redevelopment plans should take priority, he said: "There are other things happening in the city that are just as important."
Council Member Dick Vitelli was more enthusiastic, calling the tunnel a "positive asset" for the city. Every developer they've spoken with has supported the tunnel, he said.
City Council and County Board candidates have addressed the issue, which some residents see as a step toward making the city more progressive. "It's a great project and something I'm really supportive of," Commissioner Kathleen Gaylord said at a voter's forum last month.
Her challenger, South St. Paul City Council Member Todd Podgorski, said the tunnel needed to get done.
Whether it will materialize anytime soon is an open question, but Schroeder believes it is possible.
"If all the various pieces are lined up as [the City] Council has directed, then I think we could accomplish this," he said. "We don't have all of them lined up yet."