It's been five years since a master plan for the Lake Elmo Park Reserve identified the need for lights on its cross country ski trails. Now it appears they might finally get installed.

Park Manager Peter Mott said he has been given the go-ahead to seek bids for the project, which is among $1.5 million in improvements planned for this summer at the 2,000-acre park.

Mott said he will work with a consultant over the next few weeks to draw up bid specifications, then in March will seek vendors to carry out the project, which calls for lights to be installed on up to 5 miles of trails. If he gets favorable bids and the Washington County Board signs off, he could award a contract as soon as April and construction could begin in May.

"It's quite exciting," said Mott, who was around when the idea first surfaced in 2006. "It's all about the waiting game when you are a planner, and often you don't get to see plans carried out. This is quite rewarding."

The prospect of having lights on the trails has skiers excited, too.

Mark Fournier, 40, of Woodbury, said he tries to squeeze in some time on the wooded trials three to four times a week after work, but it does get difficult because of the limited amount of daylight.

"It would give me more ski time," he said while using the trail on a recent late Friday afternoon.

Janet Bergmark, 55, of St. Paul, occasionally visits Battle Creek Regional Park in St. Paul, where there are lights on some trails, but she said she prefers skiing at Lake Elmo because there are more flat trails that cater to beginners and intermediate skiers. It's also easy for her to get to the park at 1515 Keats Av.

"They are not as hilly as those at Battle Creek," Bergmark said. "If I could come out here at 6 or 7 p.m. and get an hour of exercise, it would be great."

Lights for next winter

Mott is cautiously optimistic that trails will be illuminated in time for the 2011-12 ski season.

A lot will depend on the bids he gets.

Mott said it's not easy to find people who install the type of lights that the park wants: LED lights that would be durable and focused on the trail so light does not radiate into the darkness.

But the bigger wildcard is the fact that the lighting project is tied to other upgrades at the park that include construction of a new heated warming house and restrooms, and the exact cost of lighting the trails is unknown.

"We do have a project budget," Mott said. "We didn't want to do this last and find out we could not do it. We are unsure what the numbers will be."

It's possible that the lighting project could be scaled back and that maybe only 3 miles of trails would be lit instead of 5 miles. Or if bids that come back are "unfavorable," the project might have to be pushed off another year.

If all goes well, though, Lake Elmo would become one of the few places in the east metro where skiers could hit the trails after dark. In addition to Battle Creek Regional Park, there is a 1-mile loop with lights at St. Paul's Como Park.

"We've seen an increase in demand for ski trails, but there is a limit as to when people can use them during the season," said Mott, referring to the fact that the park's three ski trails close around 4:30 p.m., when the sun sets.

"Folks are anticipating this. We've had high school groups who want to schedule meets here, and ski clubs want to come. The calls are already coming in."

Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824