Within the next couple of years, St. Paul will take the first steps toward building a downtown off-street bicycle loop and completing a 27-mile bike route circling the city.

Those projects are the top priorities in the city’s new bicycle plan, which the City Council unanimously approved Wednesday to applause from a chamberful of avid cyclists — and groans from downtown merchants who fear the bike loop will remove 150 parking spots and make it tougher for drivers to stop at their stores.

“It’s a big day for the city to finally be moving toward having a bike plan,” Council President Russ Stark said. “In some ways we’re behind, [but] in other ways we’re making a lot of progress quickly, and that’s an exciting thing.”

Council Member Dave Thune, who represents downtown, acknowledged that some businesses will be badly hurt if they lose parking to the bike loop. He voted for the bike plan anyway, expressing the hope that different routes will be tested before they’re chosen.

“We have to look out for everybody, but I think that’s exactly what we’re doing going forward with this,” he said.

The plan would more than double the city’s existing 153 miles of bikeways, resulting in a total of 350 miles — split about evenly between on-street and off-street paths.

The cost of building the additional 197 miles is estimated at $107.9 million, although that figure probably is high, because much of the work will be combined with other roadwork. Once the 350-mile system is fully built, the estimated annual cost to maintain it will be $3.6 million.

The plan, which has no time frame but would take at least a couple of decades to implement, aims to put on- or off-street bikeways within a quarter-mile of every St. Paul resident to encourage more cycling for work, errands and recreation.

It doesn’t offer many details on the controversial 1.7-mile downtown loop, leaving decisions on where it would run — and whether it will be higher than the street, as proposed — to hired consultants and a citizens advisory group.

But it does commit the city to implementing biking improvements whenever key streets are repaved or rebuilt.

That work will begin next year, when the city plans to make Jackson Street the first leg of the downtown bike loop as part of the street’s overall reconstruction. It will be paid for with $27 million from the city’s 8-80 Vitality Fund, established by Mayor Chris Coleman to invest in recreation and entertainment amenities.

To launch work on the citywide Grand Round route, the city will take a close look this year at connecting several segments in the route’s northern half, stretching from Pelham Boulevard to Johnson Parkway.

Wheelock Parkway improvements will begin next year, when the street is rebuilt from Como to Phalen lakes.

The city is spending $3.7 million on consultants to help design both the downtown loop and the Grand Round. Coleman also is seeking volunteers for two advisory committees for the projects.

By 2025, the city hopes to have bikes used by 2.5 percent of its commuters and in 5 percent of all trips made. The key to increasing cycling, officials said, is to make it safer and more convenient — the bottom-line goals of the new bike plan.

The plan, in the works for four years, was presented to the public last year at seven open houses. It since has been revised to address other issues such as bike parking, lockers and showers.

Merchants worried

At Wednesday’s council meeting, 13 people testified against the plan and 17 testified for it. Several opponents were downtown business owners who said they will take a hit if drivers can’t stop out front.

Jim Crockarell, a building owner who chairs the Wabasha Street Partners, a group of downtown businesses, condos and churches, said a survey of merchants and building owners found that more than 100 opposed the bike loop if it took out on-street parking.

“We like bicycling, we like babies, we like apple pie,” he said. “But when it comes to the point of trying to hurt the economy of downtown St. Paul, there’s a lot of people … [who] do not favor an elevated bike path.”

The St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce backed the plan, spokesman Scott Beauchamp told the council, but with a couple of caveats.

“If done properly, the downtown loop will increase the vibrancy of downtown,” he said. But he encouraged the council to be open to other routes and even to consider reducing vehicle lanes to maintain on-street parking.

“We urge the city to use very careful study when choosing the final route for this loop,” he said.