If anyone today points a bicycle north from downtown St. Paul, and then pedals a series of streets, bike paths and highways to the Canadian border at the Arrowhead, he or she would tell you they just rode 300 pretty amazing miles from the State Capitol to Grand Portage.
Riders this fall will be able to follow the same exact route, in the same exact, pretty amazing conditions, but they will probably tell you they rode U.S. Bicycle Route 41, Minnesota’s proposed second contribution to the fledgling United States Bicycle Route System.
Bicycle Route 41 is part of a largely aspirational, budget-challenged national and local effort to create touring bike “routes” using whatever paths, lanes, shoulders, and sometimes-scary, sometimes-inviting highway lanes are already in place. The hope among state officials and private advocates is that marketing these routes will create a valuable asset for the cycling public and also inspire legislatures to spend money on actual bike routes.
“We are combining existing facilities that we know need to be improved,” said Liz Walton, a landscape architect in the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Bicycling and Pedestrian section of Route 41. “We are not building anything yet.”
Minnesota’s first contribution to the national bike route system was the Mississippi River Trail Bikeway (aka U.S. Bicycle Route 45). It’s a collection of roads, lanes and paths that runs 620 miles along or close to the river from Itasca State Park to the Iowa border. It is part of 11,200 miles of such routes in 24 states that their managers — notably the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials — hope will become a kind of bike-touring interstate highway system.
This fall, MnDOT hopes to have a precise route for Minnesota’s new contribution, as well as a detailed, accessible map, and a name with more marketability and local flavor than Route 41.
The route, however, is close to set, based on limited options and obvious assets.
Walton said Route 41 will connect to Route 45, the Mississippi River route. Given the likely northbound bike corridors from St. Paul, that makes the city’s Union Depot a potential starting point. Then it’s a matter of choosing either the Bruce Vento Regional Trail (which starts near the new CHS Field ballpark in Lowertown) or the Gateway State Trail (with a trailhead north of the Capitol) to point the cyclists north beyond White Bear Lake to Hugo. That is where riders will likely catch two connected smaller paths — the 25 miles of the Sunrise Prairie and Hardwood Creek regional trails. They end at North Branch.
It’s all highway riding from there to Hinckley, and the beginning of the Willard Munger State Trail. However, Andrew Korsberg, a state trail and snowmobile program consultant with the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said a plan to create a bike trail along the 36-mile section between North Branch and the Munger should be complete this year — emphasis on “plan.” The department currently has no money to pay for the construction of the plan.
The heart of Route 41 appears to be the Munger Trail — a largely flat 70-mile ride all the way to Duluth. From there, Old Hwy. 61 (or Scenic 61) with most traffic drawn off to the parallel four-lane highway — is a likely route up the North Shore to Two Harbors. Then Route 41’s planners face what they agree is the grand mixed blessing of 100 miles of Hwy. 61 along the North Shore above Lake Superior — an often-spectacular two-lane road that, in places, puts cyclists in the lanes of the highway with heavy summer traffic.
The North Shore does have a bike path — the state’s partly completed Gitchi-Gami State Trail — and it is a vivid example of the ambition, potential and reality of outstate bike infrastructure these days. Creating bike-friendly lanes, shoulders, and paths is an overlapping jurisdiction of the MnDOT (lanes and shoulders) and the DNR (paths).
The Gitchi-Gami was designated a state trail in 1999, and planned as an 89-mile paved path from Two Harbors to Grand Marais. As of this summer, fewer than 30 miles of the plan have been paved in seven separate sections. Another five miles have at least partial funding, according to the DNR, and are scheduled to be complete by 2018. MnDOT has improved some shoulders in recent years as part of general maintenance. But, according to the Gitchi-Gami’s 2016 Plan Update, “MnDOT will not be constructing any sections” of the trail in the highway right of way “in the foreseeable future.”
Which means this, in the foreseeable future: Minnesota’s newest designated bike touring route will include some of the most beautifully dangerous riding — busy, recreational vehicle-heavy, shoulderless sections of highway above Lake Superior.
Literature for the Gitchi-Gami Trail Association, a nonprofit group that champions the use and continued construction of the trail, points out that sections of Hwy. 61 that have shoulders “are relatively safe for bicycle travel.” But, too: “Other portions, however, have very narrow shoulders and limited visibility, and riding on those stretches is not recommended.”
“That is one of the challenges,” MnDOT’s Walton said of North Shore’s alternating sections of accommodating and dangerous riding. “We have to acknowledge that this is more for experienced cyclists and probably isn’t for recreational cyclists.”
That is the kind of information that can be included, this fall, on the Route 41 map — which, if similar to the Mississippi River route, will be online, printable in sections, and include available resources.
The map and marketing will be the end of the route’s development. Wrote Tim Mitchell, director of MnDOT’s bicycle program, in an e-mail: “We (MnDOT) don’t have any plans to request additional funding for new road improvements or trail development related to US Bicycle Route 41. Right now we are solely focused on the planning aspect and identification of the route.”
Mitchell said the department also has no current plans to even create and install signs on the Route 41 corridor, as it did with the Mississippi River trail.
But there remains the matter of a name. In June, the department convened public hearings and distributed surveys in search of public preferences for routes, map design and names. Walton said that between three and five potential names will be chosen and forwarded for review by Explore Minnesota, the state’s tourism office, “so we end up with something they can work with.”
Any favorites emerging?
It seems cycling Minnesotans remember their noted federal benefactor, the late Rep. James Oberstar, whose Eighth District will be spanned by Route 41.
“The Oberstar name,” Walton said, “has come up more than a couple of times.”
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.