Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Re-evaluating Faribault's bike trails

I feel that I owe the city of Faribault an apology.

While working for the Free Press in Mankato, I wrote a column a couple of years ago criticizing the Sakatah Singing Hills Trail for being a subpar trail and that it had the potential to be so much more. Among other critiques in the column, I wrote that Faribault did a poor job accommodating visiting cyclists on the Sakatah.

It made sense at the time. I had ridden the Sakatah trail on numerous occasions at that point and the only lasting memory I had of Faribault was the Dairy Queen located on Highway 60 near the outskirts of town. When I did a 2-day bike trip from Mankato to Red Wing (the inspiration behind that column, by the way), my experience with Faribault involved navigating busy roads to get to Highway 3 and narrowly avoiding the wrath of an oncoming semi (ok, it probably wasn't THAT narrow, but still).

The town hardly seemed bike-friendly and there was nary a local eatery or point of interest to be found. I didn't even know that Faribault had a "historic downtown" area until I looked it up on the Web after that trip.

It definitely wasn't the best impression to have about a town and it certainly didn't aid my enthusiasm about moving to Faribault for a new job. When I accepted the position, I chalked up the lack of bike friendliness as an acceptable drawback of the town. I figured I could make regular trips to the Twin Cities if I wanted to bask in a cycling culture. Besides, after last summer's back roads adventure to Lanesboro, I'm convinced I can make any town accommodating to my biking addiction (provided it isn't comprised entirely of interstate roads).

However, after settling in at Faribault for a couple months and doing some research  on bike trails for a story I wrote for the Faribault Daily News' annual Profiles publication (coming out this week!), I've come to discover that a lot of the stuff I wrote in that column was uninformed and misguided.

For one thing, the notion of charging a daily fee for riders on the Sakatah (a suggestion I made in the column after spending some time on the wonderful Cannon Valley Trail) is an impossibility because the Sakatah is a state-ran trail and thus gets maintained by state funding. The Cannon Valley Trail, on the other hand, is a privately owned trail and is maintained almost entirely through those daily rider fees, meaning they don't have to wait in line with other state projects for funding.

For another thing, I've come to discover that the Faribault isn't so bad when it comes to cycling. As a matter of fact, it more than holds its own.

I came across the Straight River Trail during a cold winter run in January near the downtown area. I didn't think much of it at the time, mostly because my extremities were freezing and I wanted to get home. But after browsing through Google Maps (a great starting point to find bike trails, by the way), I discovered that the trail was a lot more than a brief pathway connecting a few city blocks. It encircles nearly half the town, stretches more than four miles and runs right past several downtown restaurants, the Rice County Fairgrounds and the local disc golf course.

While out biking the other day, I also discovered that one of the side extensions of the trail links up with some of the paths on the south end of the River Bend Nature Center. I didn't take the time to explore the park's trail system extensively, but judging by the maps,  the RBNC will definitely be seeing a lot of me this spring/summer. Aside from the Straight River Trail, I've also found a few other smaller recreational trails in town, most notably on the north end of town between Hulett and Park Avenue.

Really, the infrastructure is in place for Faribault to be a great cycling town. There's good scenery, good points of interest and a logical mapping to avoid the traffic of major roadways. I don't see it topping Mankato as the best cycling town on the Sakatah Trail (sorry, I have a soft spot for that town), but with a little work it could easily turn itself into another Northfield, a town that has made cycling and pedestrian-friendly walkways a point of emphasis in its downtown area.

The biggest step forward from here for Faribault is to link up its in-town trail system with the Sakatah in a way that invites cyclists to spend some time downtown. As I've learned from both my research for the story and getting a general feel for the town, that step is already in progress.

According to an article last fall in the Faribault Daily News, the construction of a pedestrian underpass between Highway 21 and Highway 3 is in progress and will be completed sometime this summer. The project also includes linking the underpass with the trail near Hulett Avenue and overhauling the intersection with a traffic light, turn lanes and a realignment of Park Avenue.

Once that project is complete, city planners will turn their attention to linking the underpass with both the Straight River Trail and the Sakatah Trail. Future projects related to those goals include building a trail through North Alexander park (funding is already in place for it) and constructing a bridge over the Cannon River to reach the Sakatah Trail facility (no funding in place, but I'm told its in the "design phase").

Beyond their goal to link all the trails of Faribault together, these projects are also tied to the Mill Towns Trail, a planned recreational trail between Faribault and Cannon Falls that will eventually link up more than 80 miles of trails (factoring in the Sakatah and Cannon Valley trails).

At the risk of rehasing the story I wrote for Profiles (I'll either post a link to it or post it directly on my blog after it's published) and making this blog entry longer than it already is, I won't go into too much detail about Mill Towns.

Still, after taking all of this into account, it's pretty safe to say that my first impressions of Faribault were incorrect.

So Faribault, I hope you can accept my apology. Your town definitely isn't a black hole for cyclists that I thought it was, and I look forward to exploring more of you in the future.

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