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Paving the way for the Dakota Rail Regional Trail
April 2, 2012

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

CARVER, McLEOD COUNTIES, MN – The Dakota Rail Regional Trail from Wayzata to Mayer is a popular attraction for bikers, hikers, and in-line skaters in the area, and it just keeps getting better.

The former railroad corridor, which extends 44 miles from Hutchinson to Wayzata, is paved through Mayer, St. Bonifacius, Minnetrista, Mound, Spring Park, Minnetonka Beach, Orono, and Wayzata.

Trail construction from Hidden Crossing (a street in the Hidden Creek Development in Mayer) west to the Carver/McLeod county line is planned for this spring, according to Carver County Parks Director Marty Walsh.

The project will consist of 5.5 miles of paved trail, rehabilitation/retrofitting of two trestle structures, and implementing a Crow River bridge for bike/pedestrian use, the Carver County website states.

Along Carver County Road 30 in New Germany, this includes a 34-car parking lot facility, as well as a kiosk with a trail map and history, Walsh said.

Walsh anticipates that the project will be substantially complete by November.

The construction cost estimate is $1.7 million.

Planned funding sources include federal transportation enhancement funds, Carver County Regional Railroad Authority funds, and county program aid of parks and trails funds.

“County general funds, which are supported by property taxes, are not proposed for the project,” Walsh added.

In the Dakota Rail Regional Trail’s master plan, which was developed in 2007, Carver County explored three ending options for the Carver County segment of the trail.

The current plan is to end the trail at the county line, so that if McLeod County’s section is paved in the future, there will be a seamless transition, Walsh said.

Another option involved connecting the trail to Carver County Road 30, which would have allowed users to continue into Lester Prairie on the roadside shoulder. Carver County also discussed the possibility of coordinating with McLeod County to extend the trail into Lester Prairie.

However, McLeod County and the city of Lester Prairie were not able to secure funding for the two-mile McLeod County portion of the trail this year.

Legacy grant funding
In 2011, the McLeod County Regional Rail Authority, which owns the portion of the former 44-mile rail corridor in McLeod County, applied for $467,000 in grant funds through the state Parks and Trails Legacy Grant program.

The Lester Prairie City Council, the Hutchinson City Council, and the McLeod County Board all adopted resolutions of support for development of the trail.

“Last year, the reason we were pushing so hard was because Carver County is going to pave to the Carver County line. It will be our own project now,” Koglin said, explaining that a simultaneous project could have provided a potential cost savings.

Also, having the trail end in a city, rather than in a rural area, would have provided additional usability.

“We didn’t want the trail to stop in the middle of nowhere,” Koglin said. “We are planning on applying for that two miles again this fall.”

After reviewing and ranking applications, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will announce grant awards in the fall/winter of 2012.

Legacy grant funding was approved by Minnesota voters as a Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in 2008, according to the DNR website. The amendment, which increased the general sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.875 percent, funds projects for outdoor protection, clean water, parks/trails, and arts/culture.

Grant funding totaled about $35 million in fiscal year 2010 and $39 million in fiscal year 2011. About 14 percent of that was dedicated to the parks and trails fund.

For fiscal year 2013, $7,686,000 has been appropriated to the parks and trails fund.

According to Lester Prairie Parks Commission member Chris Schultz, Legacy funding is highly competitive.

“We were very close last year,” he said.

Koglin said that each application question is given a certain number of points, and that although the McLeod County Rail Authority lost a couple points by not having a dedicated local match funding source listed, it was not a major factor in the application.

He explained that the grant application was completed correctly, but other projects throughout the state took priority.

When the rail authority originally applied for the grant, a local match of 20 percent was required. However, before the grant was evaluated, the local match requirement was reduced to 10 percent, so everyone seeking grant money had to resubmit their applications.

This year, Koglin said that some groups are pushing for no local match at all, while others want some type of match.

“It’s not decided,” he said.

Before applying for the grant this year, Koglin said construction costs will need to be revised, and a bridge in McLeod County (located near the Carver County line) will need to be updated. Koglin said they are still working on getting a cost estimate for the bridge project.

New opportunities
If funding is approved for the two-mile stretch, it could benefit the local economy, according to Koglin.

“My personal feeling is, I think it would be immense for Lester Prairie,” he said.

Currently, the McLeod County Rail Authority leases 19 miles of the corridor in McLeod County to the DNR. If the two-mile section is paved, that area would most likely be removed from the lease, but future ownership and maintenance hasn’t been determined.

“We don’t know the answers until we have to work through it,” Koglin said.

Future enhancements to the Dakota Rail Regional Trail and Luce Line State Trail would provide new recreational opportunities for users around the state, according to Koglin.

Although the trails would not connect directly, users could travel along McLeod County Road 1 between Winsted and Lester Prairie until they reach the other trail. In Hutchinson, the trails are only a block or two apart, Koglin added.

No snowmobiling
“Right now, snowmobiling is not permitted on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail,” Walsh said. “There are people both strongly in favor and strongly opposed.”

A year ago, several people attended open houses in Mayer, Camden Township, Waconia Township, New Germany, Cologne, and Chaska to discuss the issue.

The events, which were organized by the Carver County Parks Department, gave citizens an opportunity to ask questions and share comments with park staff.

Those in favor of allowing snowmobiling mentioned recreational interests, access to Lake Waconia, and providing a connection between other permitted trails.

The opposition expressed concerns such as proximity of the trail to homes in some sections, noise issues, wear and tear on the trail surface, signage, and limited pedestrian use of the trail during the winter months.

“It [snowmobile use] is something the county could consider in the future, but it’s not something [Carver County] is actively considering currently,” Walsh said.

If the Dakota trail is constructed in McLeod County, a separate snowmobile use determination would need to be made.

“In initial meetings, Lester Prairie has not been opposed to snowmobile use and would prefer to allow snowmobile use on the Lester Prairie or McLeod County portion of the trail,” Schultz said.

Trail surveys
Biking appears to be the most popular activity on the Dakota Rail Regional Trail.

On the 12-mile Hennepin County part of the Dakota trail (owned by Three Rivers Park District), bikers make up 84 percent of the trail’s use, according to Three Rivers Park District research and evaluation manager Jon Nauman.

The data, which was based on observing 8,000 people on the trail, showed 9 percent hiking/walking, 4 percent in-line skating, and 2 percent running. The remaining 1 percent were placed in an “other” category, which could include activities like skateboarding or wheelchair use.

“The most recent numbers we have are from 2010,” Nauman said. “The 2011 numbers will most likely be released in lake April.”

For the Three Rivers Park District section, staff conducts 18 counts, two hours each time, throughout the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day).

Each regional trail agency collects its own data, and then submits it to the Metropolitan Council for tabulation, according to Nauman.

“[Metropolitan Council] uses a sophisticated formula,” he said, adding that this formula helps determine the Metropolitan Council’s funding distribution to each agency. Money is not allocated to a specific trail or park, however.

The formula takes into account the total volume of users, as well as the percentage of non-local visitors.

“The hope is that it’s drawing more people than just those in local communities,” Nauman said. “That’s probably oversimplifying it, but those are two fairly large variables they take into account.”

In 2010, the Metropolitan Council estimated the Three Rivers Park District portion of the Dakota trail at 156,200 visits throughout the summer. The annual visit total was estimated at 363,900.

In 2009, estimated summer visits were 153,800. Since the trail wasn’t open the entire year, an annual total was not calculated.

The bridges in St. Bonifacius opened for trail use in 2011.

For the Carver County portion of the trail, from the east county line to Mayer, user data will not be available until May, according to Walsh.

Last summer, Carver County staff performed 50 counts, two hours each time.

Although he wasn’t able to provide specific data, Walsh said that biking is probably the most common activity on Carver County’s portion of the trail, as well.

According to Mayor Chris Capaul, Mayer has responded well to the new trail.

“I haven’t talked to anybody who hasn’t been happy with it,” he said.

Capaul has also observed that the trail parking lot is used frequently, and that people are on the trail for a mix of activities, such as walking, biking, and in-line skating.

Capaul said the impact of the trail on the local economy hasn’t been tracked. However, “business owners have said that people have stopped in after using the trail,” he added.

To learn more about the Dakota Rail Regional Trail, follow the links on the Herald Journal website, www.herald-journal.com.

This is the last article in a three-part series about local trails. The first two articles were printed in the March 19 and March 26 issues of the Herald Journal.

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