The Three Rivers Park District plans to hire the former acting commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation to help it land $3.5 million in federal stimulus money for two bridges on its popular new Dakota Rail Regional Trail.

Bob McFarlin -- who was second in command at MnDOT under former Commissioner Carol Molnau and served as acting commissioner after she left the department -- now is vice president of corporate, community and public affairs for the Weber Shandwick public relations firm in Bloomington.

Because MnDOT will play a large role in distributing federal stimulus funds meant for Minnesota roads and bridges, Three Rivers decided it could use McFarlin's help, said Larry Blackstad, who chairs the Three Rivers Board of Commissioners. Three Rivers will pay McFarlin about $13,000, a district official said.

"Given Mr. McFarlin's history with MnDOT, he at least understands the organization's structure and how decisions are made," Blackstad said. "He is there to make sure the appropriate people in MnDOT know about our project and the fact that it is shovel-ready and is a safety project and has substantial local support."

Three Rivers opened the first 13 miles of the Dakota Trail last year from Wayzata to St. Bonifacius along what was once a freight rail line extending 44 miles to Hutchinson. Carver County is expected to pave the next 12 miles of the trail in 2010.

The trail is studded with beautiful natural vistas as it winds along shorelines, crosses bays and skirts country clubs in the suburban lakes region west of Wayzata.

The bridges, which would carry trail traffic over Hwy. 7 and County Road 92 near St. Bonifacius, are " a safety project for what is going to be one of the most popular regional trails in the area," said Boe Carlson, associate superintendent for the Division of Administration at Three Rivers.

The project consists of three parts: a $2.4 million bridge to take the trail over Hwy. 7 near St. Bonifacius; an $800,000 bridge to take the trail over County Road 92 about a quarter mile away, and completion of a blacktop segment between the two bridges at a cost of $350,000.

Both bridges are designed and could be built this summer, Carlson said.

The park district has a state lobbyist at the State Capitol and a federal lobbyist in Washington to help with a range of issues affecting parks and park funding. McFarlin will not duplicate those efforts, Blackstad said.

McFarlin said Three Rivers is the only client seeking his assistance to try to position a project for federal stimulus funding.

"Primarily, what we will be doing is providing communications to make people aware of its benefits and that it's ready," he said.

If the bridges do not receive federal stimulus funding, Three Rivers will seek other federal funds, Carlson said, adding, "$3.5 million would be a lot for us to do independently."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711