Saturday, March 17, 2012

Article on the Mill Towns Trail

Note: The following is an article I wrote about the Mill Towns Trail for the Faribault Daily News' annual Profile publication that came out today. Consequently, the story and photos are property of the Faribault Daily News (as opposed to normal blog entries, which are my own intellectual property). I would normally just post a web link to the story on the right-hand column of my blog. However, because we are only posting the PDF files of Profile pages (instead of individual stories), I concluded that this was the best way to get the article itself on the web. Besides, I think the article has relevance for people outside of Faribault and I spent WAY too much time writing it for nobody to read it. So, enjoy!

Slow & steady builds the trail: The Mill Towns Trail project is still years away from completion, but it’s making progress 

Map of the proposed trail system
in Southeastern Minnesota,
including the Mill Towns Trail.
By Alex Voigt

Forgive Carol King if her answer seemed unrealistic when she was asked to guess when the Mill Towns Trail would be completed.

“2008,” the Faribault city council member said with a laugh.

Obviously, King’s estimation isn’t going to happen. 2008 is long gone and the trail is still years away from completion. However, given the twists and turns the project has taken, it is easy to understand King’s humor toward the topic.

Making adjustments

Since planning began for the Mill Towns Trail in the early 1990’s, just about the only consistency has been the hopeful end result. Once completed, the trail will run from Faribault to Cannon Falls, connect the existing Sakatah Singing Hills and Cannon Valley trails and be the final segment of more than 80 miles of continuous recreational trails from Mankato to Red Wing. Mill Towns will also be part of an eventual planned system of state trails in southeastern Minnesota, including the Prairie Wildflower Trail from Faribault to Austin and the Stagecoach Trail from Owatonna to Rochester.

The more finite details of the Mill Towns Trail, however, have not been as constant. Many planned segments of it have been revised over the years as trail planners have had to adjust to both changing economic times and a shift in the priorities of city officials and organizations.
“We’ve had to reevaluate our plans a lot because the communities are constantly changing,” said King, who has served on the  Mill Towns Trail advisory board through city council since 2000 and was involved before that through the parks department. “Roadways and city plans have all gone through transformations and a lot of the businesses we’re dealing with now weren’t here 10 years ago.”

The Highway 3 portion of the
Highway 21/Highway 3 underpass
project was completed last fall.
The rest of it is slated to
be finished this spring. 
The Highway 3/Highway 21 underpass currently under construction is an example of that adjustment. The underpass was initially intended to be a pedestrian bridge over the highway, as mandated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. However, city engineers came up with the idea of the underpass as a more cost-effective and aesthetically-pleasing option that still accomplished the goal of providing safe passage for pedestrians.

King says the switch saved the trail project at least $500,000 and allowed the trail planners to work with other city officials on overhauling the intersection.

“Timing has been everything with this project,” King said of the underpass, “This isn’t just an opportunity to build the Mill Towns Trail; it’s a chance to build a completely different roadway and improve a dangerous intersection.”

Aside from the underpass, other improvements planned for the intersection include turn lanes, traffic signals and a complete realignment of Park Avenue. Total cost of the project comes out to $3.12 million, with $1.53 million of that going toward trail improvements and the vast majority of it being paid for by federal and state funding.

The Highway 3 portion of the underpass has already been constructed and the Highway 21 underpass is slated to be built this spring. If all goes smoothly, it will likely be completed in late June or early July.

Other aspects of the trail’s development aren’t as forthcoming, as the governmental processes associated with such a project are always lengthy and funding has been especially tight with the economic downturn. However, King and other trail planners have learned to take setbacks in stride, think positive and keep moving forward as plans evolve.

“Trail projects are always a work in progress,” said Steve Hennessey, an acquisition and trail development specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.  “There’s a lot of components to it and there’s multiple groups involved. You’re going to hit a road block from time to time and you have to be willing to change your plans when that happens.”

 “This has been a rewarding experience for me as an elected official because it has put me together with people I probably would’ve never interfaced with otherwise.” King said. “It’s a collective effort and we all have to work together to get this done.”

Another view of the
Highway 3 underpass.
Community-driven effort

Another reason the project has stayed on track over the years is the substantial amount of local support for it, whether it be government officials, businesses or citizen groups.

Hennessey, a 12-year veteran of the DNR, has seen community involvement in varying degrees with the other projects he’s been a part of. Still, he’s been impressed with the support shown for Mill Towns.

“The momentum for these trails often comes locally and there has definitely been a community-driven force to help make this thing happen,” Hennessey said.

Northfield resident Peggy Prowe has long been one of the most outspoken supporters of the trail. A long-time cycling advocate and former Northfield City Council member, Prowe co-founded the Mill Towns Trail Project in 1992 and was the driving force behind some of its initial developments, including the construction of the three-mile segment between Northfield and Dundas in 1998 and its designation as a multi-use trail in 2000.

“We’ve always kind of been the missing link,” Prowe said of her motivation to make Mill Towns a reality. “Connecting the two trails really just made sense.”

Since leaving the city council in 2000, Prowe has remained involved through the Mill Towns Trail Friends citizen group and Northfield Rotary Club. Those groups have contributed to the Mill Towns effort by lobbying state legislators for funding and organizing the Jesse James Bike Tour, an annual bike ride in Northfield that typically raises more than $20,000 for the trail.

Throughout the project, Prowe said her enthusiasm has been unwavering that the trail would eventually get built.

“It’s currently my life work except for grandchildren.” Prowe said. “I enjoy spending the time trying to help bring the trail to fruition. It will mean a lot to me and when it’s finished and it will mean a lot to the region.”

Prowe’s enthusiasm for the trail is shared by many other community members in the area, including Milltown Cycles frontman Ben Witt. A Northfield native and avid cyclist himself, Witt is excited for the possibility of Faribault becoming a destination for out-of-town bikers.

“I think it opens up a lot of potential for tourism in the downtown area that wasn’t there before,” Witt said. “People riding on the Sakatah trail used to be isolated on the west side of town unless they wanted to cross a major roadway. But once (Mill Towns) is finished, a lot of people who previously didn’t know how to get to the downtown area will be inclined to stop in to do some shopping or eat at a restaurant.”

Related projects

Much of the materials needed to
complete the Highway 21/Highway 3
underpass  are already on site as
construction crews await favorable
weather to complete the project.
Once the Highway 21/Highway 3 project is complete, City of Faribault and DNR officials will then turn their attention to connecting Mill Towns with an existing city trail along Hulett Ave, eventually integrating it with the rest of Faribault’s in-town trail system. The city also secured a $500,000 Legacy Grant last December to build a trail through North Alexander Park, with plans for it to eventually cross the 2nd Avenue bridge and link up with the Straight River Trail at Two Rivers Park.

As for the Mill Towns Trail, projects around Faribault that haven’t started yet but are on the horizon include building a bridge over the Cannon River along Highway 21 and finalizing a trail route between Faribault and Dundas. Rice County has designated County Road 76 as the official Mill Towns Trail route between the two towns, though the exact route is still unknown as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is negotiating with the railroad about acquiring 6-mile stretch of track that planners would like to build the trail on.

“It’s usually a pretty lengthy process,” Hennessey said of the negotiations. “We’re working with multiple organizations and a variety of different landowners to figure out the best route. We hope to have it worked out soon, but it takes time.”

If the DNR is unable to acquire the railroad property, trail planners have other options in mind for possible routes to Dundas, including having the trail run alongside Highway 3.

Other projects on the immediate horizon for Mill Towns include widening the already-built Nortfield/Dundas section of the trail from eight to 10 feet, constructing a new riverside trail from Second Street to Greenvale Avenue in Northfield and building a bridge across the Cannon River near Lake Byllesby, a project which also includes building three and a half miles of trail west of Cannon Falls.

Despite being a long way from complete, Prowe is encouraged by the recent progress of the Mill Towns Trail and excited for what the future may hold for it.

“It’s an exciting time. There’s a lot of interest in getting it done at this point.” Prowe said. “I don’t know if it’s going to get finished in my lifetime, but each piece is worth celebrating.”

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