To many, the question of whether St. Paul's Summit Avenue should become the route of a new regional trail comes down to a choice between healthy trees or healthy bicyclists.

Those who support city planners' pitch for a new, separated trail down the 5-mile street of stately, historic homes say it would keep Summit's multitude of cyclists safer than the current painted bike lanes.

Opponents fear the loss of what they estimate to be as many as 1,000 trees that could be damaged because of road reconstruction. More than 2,400 people have signed a petition against the plan.

Dan Marshall, who owns a toy store on nearby Grand Avenue, has had more than a few scary encounters with vehicles while bike commuting on Summit. He knows the option he'd choose — a separated trail that won't widen the road but keep cyclists safer.

"There is no safe route between the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul. It's never been a safe route," Marshall said. "We need to acknowledge that bicycles are a form of transportation and, as such, they deserve their own safe infrastructure. There's no reason we shouldn't be on Summit."

Carolyn Will, a Summit Avenue resident and spokeswoman for the opposition group Save Our Street (SOS), said she favors improved cyclist safety. But she said that can be done by narrowing traffic lanes and using brighter paint on the current bike lanes.

"Our hope is to save the trees," Will said. "We want safety, too. But is the trail really called for?"

A confluence of plans

Summit Avenue stretches for miles past churches, colleges and mansions, and the roadway itself is a heaping mess. Potholes and cracks rattle bones and axles every year on a street that has not been reconstructed since 1913, said city Public Works Director Sean Kershaw.

At the same time, regional planners and the city's Parks and Recreation Department are looking at ways to create an east-west, off-street trail corridor from the Mississippi River to downtown St. Paul — and connecting to existing trails there.

Piggy-backing much-needed infrastructure improvements with a new, safer trail on a street already used by bicyclists, runners and walkers makes sense, said Parks and Recreation Director Andy Rodriguez. The plan is being funded with state money through the Metropolitan Council.

"This plan's essentially a visionary blueprint," said Rodriguez, who agrees that a separated trail would be considerably safer than the current bike lanes. "Having a separate trail is a desirable amenity for many."

No money has been budgeted for construction, but a completed plan would allow the city to apply for financial help to build the trail. Officials do not yet have a plan to pay for the sewer, water, gas line and road portions of what could be a $90 million reconstruction, Kershaw said.

Planning process intensifying

City officials say a reconstructed Summit Avenue is many years away, but February is a critical month for the trail plan. The city will continue to collect public comments on its draft plan through Feb. 28. In March, revisions will be completed and a final plan created. In April, the City Council will review it, and in June, the Metropolitan Council will do the same.

For months, the plan has been intensely debated. Save Our Street members say they are frustrated that city planners aren't considering less-obtrusive ways to improve bicycling safety while preserving Summit's leafy vibe.

Will said Wednesday that arborists hired by Save Our Street estimate a trail project would endanger 950 of the avenue's trees — even more if curbs are pushed back in some sections of boulevard. Trees are a big part of why Summit is special, she said.

"The tree canopy is a big part of that enjoyment" of the thousands of people who walk, bike and drive the street, Will said.

Kershaw said SOS's numbers are inflated. The city estimates that as many as 221 of the avenue's more than 1,500 trees are vulnerable. Most of those would be at risk because of the street reconstruction, Kershaw said, not because of the bike trail that would run in the current right of way.

"Even if we just did general street reconstruction, there would be exactly the same impact on trees," he said.

Max Singer, a Minneapolis resident who often commutes by bike to St. Paul, agrees that the time to rebuild Summit is now. That the project can also create a safer way to bike is a bonus, he said.

"The current arrangement is certainly not awful … but there is the fear of [car] doors," Singer said. "There is the fear of impatient drivers, and there are a couple places where you need to keep your head about you. The new plan reduces a lot of that."

For more than 100 years, St. Paul has given more and more space to cars, said Zack Mensinger, co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition. A new regional trail on Summit is another step toward giving people other options, he said.

"We have made it nearly impossible for people to safely walk and bike around. This is giving people back that choice," Mensinger said.

On that point, Marshall agrees.

"At the end of the day, we can argue," he said. "But if it comes down to trees or humans, I'll take humans."