The newest state trail in Minnesota will take a step forward this fall when construction begins on a critical bridge crossing over a busy highway in Washington County.

Public use of Browns Creek State Trail, however, will come after the 5.8-mile corridor is paved, probably next spring.

The trail will link Stillwater with the popular Gateway State Trail, which runs from St. Paul into northern Washington County. Browns Creek trail, which parallels a creek by the same name for some of the distance, follows a route that the Minnesota Zephyr dinner train used for 23 years.

"Folks will see the trail quicker than most people expect," said Kent Skaar, a state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) acquisition and development section leader. The Browns Creek trail, he said, affords a rare opportunity to build a complete trail all at once, unlike most state trails where segments must be purchased from private landowners over years of negotiations.

"It would be nice to get it done sooner because there's so much anticipation over it," said Mike Polehna, who was one of three people to initiate the Gateway trail in 1980 when they saw potential in an old rail bed. Polehna, now a Stillwater City Council member, said he agrees that it makes sense to complete the Browns Creek trail all at once.

The Legislature appropriated money this spring for a trail bridge over busy Manning Avenue, which state and county leaders considered a necessity to prevent accidents. It didn't seem prudent to open a portion of the trail if pedestrians and cyclists couldn't safety cross Manning, Skaar said.

The trail bridge, at an estimated cost of $1.46 million, will resemble one built over Century Avenue in North St. Paul on the Gateway trail. The DNR will seek bids in late August for its construction and name a contractor in September. Construction will start in October, Skaar said.

The Browns Creek project has been greeted with joy in Stillwater, a city that suddenly finds itself enriched with eventual trail connections. The trailhead at the former Zephyr depot on North Main Street will link with a proposed city trail that will follow an abandoned rail line south to the Lift Bridge. Once a new four-lane bridge at Oak Park Heights is completed in late 2016, a loop trail will be built to cross the Lift Bridge into St. Joseph Township on the Wisconsin side of the river, and return to Stillwater over the new bridge.

The DNR and Washington County purchased the Zephyr land from owner David Paradeau for $4.25 million. The county contributed $1 million of that amount from voter-approved Land and Water Legacy funds.

The Browns Creek trail has two existing bridges, including an old railroad bridge over Hwy. 95 in Stillwater. Repairs continue on those bridges to make them safe for pedestrians, Skaar said, with estimated completion by mid- or late September. Trail paving won't begin until work on those bridges is completed, he said.

"It's still possible we'll get paving in this fall but we're butting up against a tight schedule," he said.

Some people are walking the trail already, but Skaar said the DNR discourages that. "The trail is under construction and as a result we advise folks to stay off that corridor," he said.

The Browns Creek trail won't be open to snowmobiles. Horse riders will be able to follow a western portion of the trail but not into Stillwater.

"The city was pretty insistent that riding horses in downtown Stillwater was inappropriate," Skaar said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037