The vision of a scenic and seamless pedestrian and bicycle corridor traversing Ramsey County from its southern reaches along the Mississippi River to its northern border is moving closer to reality.

Plans are underway to extend the Bruce Vento Regional Trail farther into the northern suburbs.

The existing 7-mile trail stretches from downtown St. Paul to Buerkle Road in White Bear Lake along the former BNSF rail corridor.

County parks officials have mapped out the next 3-mile stretch from Buerkle Road to Hwy. 96. This new proposed section — phase 1 — would pass though White Bear Lake, Vadnais Heights and White Bear Township. Its construction would cost an estimated $7 million.

"This is a longstanding commitment to our active-living community and our suburbs to build a trail system that connects us all to our incredible waterways and lakes and sharing in the great outdoors," said County Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo.

Planners have listened to community feedback, completed construction plans and are now seeking funding from state and federal sources, said Scott Yonke, county director of planning and development for parks and recreation.

"The ultimate goal is to be a more-connected community," said County Parks and Recreation Director Mark McCabe. "Building out these final segments of trail will hopefully connect more residents and businesses."

County officials hope to secure funding and commence land easement and acquisition for phase 1, which would allow crews to start construction in 2026.

The trail would eventually extend 13.3 miles to County Road J, which is Ramsey County's northern border. The county has also started planning that final northern stretch, called phase 2, which would cost an additional $7 million to $9 million. That route has not been finalized, but all scenarios show the trail running to the east of Bald Eagle Lake.

Building a north-south trail has been a three-decade odyssey.

The trail and a nature sanctuary on the Mississippi River is named in honor of former U.S. Rep. Bruce Vento, who served in Congress from 1977 until his death in 2000. Vento authored a law that created the Mississippi National River and Recreational Area.

Planning for the trail started in the early 1990s, Yonke said.

"Building out trails takes a significant amount of time," McCabe said. "We certainly want to get all the community feedback."

That feedback around the extension has been mixed.

White Bear Township Clerk Patrick Christopherson said the township board has not taken an official position on the trail extension.

"They have tried to stay neutral even, though we've heard very little in support of the trail," he said. "They support the Bruce Vento trail in concept but not in its current design."

Some township residents are concerned about the trail's impact on traffic, Christopherson said. Under one proposal for phase 2, a portion of Bald Eagle Boulevard would be converted to one-way, which has upset some residents.

Similarly, the White Bear Lake City Council has not taken an official stand on the project, said City Manager Lindy Crawford.

"The Council has written letters of support the last couple of years for the County's funding applications," Crawford said in an e-mail.

The existing trail in the southern half of Ramsey County is widely used for recreation and commuting.

In 2019, the last year data was taken, more than 491,000 people used the trail. Parks officials said they believe use has surged in the past two years as people flocked to parks and outdoor recreation areas.