Southwest, downtown needs collide as Lakes-area bike trail connects to river

A final piece of a major bike route between the Chain of Lakes and the Mississippi River isn't the safest and most efficient option, some bicycle enthusiasts say.

The new $2.7 million Cedar Lake Trail section would allow Southwest cyclists a dedicated path through downtown. They could go on to West River Road -- and the University if they wish -- with less traffic hassle.

The Cedar Lake Trail now runs roughly 6 miles from Hopkins through St. Louis Park and into Minneapolis north of Cedar Lake. It connects with the Kenilworth trail and ends on the southwest side of downtown near the intersection of Glenwood and Royalston avenues and North 12th Street.

The new section will follow the Burlington Northern railroad tracks most of the way and connect to West River Road. It is slated to open in 2005.

Where the problem is

The criticism has focused on a stretch between Washington Avenue and River Road.

Members of the Cedar Lake Park Association (CLPA) want to keep the trail in the rail trench all the way to River Road, a safer, faster route.

As now designed, the trail would take cyclists out of the railroad trench on the south side of the Washington Avenue Bridge. They turn north, crossing the bridge on a dedicated bike lane. They loop under the bridge and back up to street level at North 2nd Street and 4th Avenue North. They bike to the river along 4th Avenue, hitting stop signs at North 2nd and North 1st streets and the West River Road.

"Recreational bicyclists and in-line skaters benefit from an unimpeded, secure ride," wrote CLPA Secretary Neil Trembley in the association's winter newsletter.

Traveling on downtown streets not only creates safety problems, he wrote, "but motorized traffic flow would be impeded by an ever greater stream of recreational users whose agenda would be very different from theirs."

However, city staff says the proposed trail allows better access for downtown users, costs less and doesn't require buying right-of-way.

"There are some undesirable things about the at-grade alignment, including the number of at-grade crossings," said Donald Pflaum, a city Public Works transportation engineer. However, "we felt that alignment better served the growing North Loop neighborhood."

North Loop includes downtown west of Hennepin Avenue to Washington Avenue, and then downtown west of 3rd Avenue North.

Added Pflaum, "We are not building the at-grade crossing to prevent a future trench alignment. You can do both."

A million dollar mistake?

Some say the convoluted, stop-and-go path would slow cyclists and deter use.

Billy Binder, former aide to ex-City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, said he is torn by the bike path choices. He has served on the Minneapolis and Hennepin County bike advisory committees and watched the project closely.

He would like the trail to stay in the trench, he said.

"It is our premier and first bike freeway," he said of the Cedar Lake Regional Trail. "Why wouldn't that be given the gold standard for biking? This is an historic connection. To scrimp and save for $1 million, it is discouraging."

The street-level and trench alignments have similar construction costs, Pflaum said. But the trench path east of Washington Avenue would require the city to buy a strip of parking owned by Colonial Warehouse, 212 3rd Ave. N., at an undetermined cost.

Pflaum added that the at-grade alignment is designed, approved and ready to go. A second trench-alignment design and engineering would cost $300,000 to $500,000, Pflaum said, a figure CLPA President Keith Pruessing called high.

Further, the county already invested $300,000 in the new Washington Avenue Bridge to accommodate the bike route as proposed, Pflaum said.

Former Councilmember Dor Mead chaired the council's Transportation and Public Works committee when the city requested the federal money for the project. There were too many questions about acquiring right-of-way and potential light-rail station conflicts to keep the trail in the trench, she said.

"The thinking was, at least this would provide a better connection than what we have had," she said, and hopefully land for the trench trail could be acquired later.

Paying the bill

The federal government is paying $2.1 million, or 80 percent of the cost for the Cedar Lake Trail extension from Glenwood Avenue to the river, Pflaum said. The city's 2001 federal application had the trail at street level east of Washington, and "you have to do what you say you are going to do," he said.

The trench path also poses safety issues, Pflaum said. The trench narrows and could put bikes too close to the tracks.

Members of the Cedar Lake Park Association said they are meeting with Burlington Northern, and believe safety issues could be addressed.

City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) said he thinks it is "a no-brainer" to keep the trail in the trench. He tried to get the city to revisit the issue a year ago, "but I didn't get very far," he said.

An aide to City Councilmember Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward), chair of the Transportation and Public Works Committee, said no one had approached her recently to change the route.

In the long run, planners may need to reroute the trail's downtown stretch anyway, Pflaum said. Light-rail transit or commuter rail could eventually displace the bike trail. Putting the trail at-grade east of Washington would mean less to fix in the future.

Steve Durrant, CLPA treasurer, said he did not want to stop the street path, but "it doesn't serve users of the Cedar Lake Regional Trail well. It makes an inefficient route for a number of users who might have taken a detour to the Cedar Lake Trail to get downtown and to the University."