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Tapping into the Luce Line’s potential
March 26, 2012

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

McLEOD, CARVER, AND WRIGHT COUNTIES, MN – Although paving 25 miles from Winsted to Cedar Mills (west of Hutchinson) is the current proposal for the Luce Line State Trail, it’s not the first investment that’s been made in the system.

“The Luce Line is one of the original state trails, and a lot of work has already been done getting it ready to be paved,” Hutchinson Mayor Steve Cook commented. “It’s time to finish it.”

As a state trail, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is responsible for development of the Luce Line, but many cities along the trail have worked to make the Luce Line more attractive locally.

In Winsted, for example, local businesses, along with support from the city, spent $4,431 in 2009 for Winsted Byway signs, according to Winsted City Administrator Brad Martens. That same year, a short trail was installed in Southview Park, connecting to the Luce Line.

Silver Lake has also dedicated funding to improvements related to the Luce Line.

“We have made a huge investment into a recreational area located just across the highway from the Luce Line,” Silver Lake Clerk/Treasurer Kerry Venier noted. “The area within one block of the Luce Line has an aquatic center, volleyball, basketball, tennis, horseshoe, and softball facilities, as well as a large shelter for gatherings.”

Silver Lake has three access points to the trail, with parking available throughout the city.

Venier said the city is planning to place signs in town featuring a walking trail map linking to the Luce Line, as a way to promote healthy lifestyles.

In the Hutchinson area, Cook estimates that the Luce Line has seen nearly $8 million in direct or associated improvements, including the paving in town, the base gravel upgrade to the trail from Winsted to Cedar Mills (added several years ago), three new bridges installed recently, the underpass below Highway 7 east of Hutchinson, the overpass above Highway 22, the bridges and underpasses below Adams Street, Main Street, and School Road, the pedestrian overpass by ShopKo, the Highway 7 underpass by School Rd., and various other associated improvements.

“This has been done through a combination of funding sources, but has been driven in large part by local interest and the guidance of the plan,” Cook noted, explaining that improvements have been made with donations, grants, federal, state, and local dollars.

The three miles of paved trail through Hutchinson was funded primarily with a grant, for example.

“Unfortunately, no one is seeing the full return on that investment because the trail surface outside of town is so rough that it discourages use of the trail,” Cook said.

The bonding bill

The 25-mile paving project (estimated at $2.5 million) from Winsted to Cedar Mills is currently included in the Minnesota House of Representatives state bonding bill, House File 2389. Its companion bill is Senate File 2276.

State representative Dean Urdahl of District 18B and other legislators have also introduced a second bill, House File 0919, which includes more specific language related to the Luce Line State Trail.

House File 0919 states, “up to $2,373,000 is for paving the Luce Line Trail and developing a parallel horse trail between the city of Winsted and city of Cedar Mills. The trail between the city of Winsted and city of Cedar Mills must be available for multiple uses, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and in-line skating.

“Notwithstanding Minnesota Statutes, section 84.8712, subdivision 1, snowmobiles with metal traction devices may be used on the portion of the Luce Line Trail paved with this appropriation.

“The commissioner of natural resources shall ensure that all drainage tile passing under the Luce Line Trail can be maintained and shall provide for adequate crossing locations for farmers with construction standards that allow for large machinery to cross the trail.”

Before a bill becomes a law, it goes through a formal process, and is discussed in one or more committees. It also needs to secure enough votes in the House and Senate, before it goes to the governor for a signature.

According to State Representative Ron Shimanski (R-Silver Lake), a certain amount of money will most likely be appropriated to the DNR for trails, and the DNR will make the final determination of which trail projects will be completed throughout the state.

No Legacy funding

Although the nearby Dakota Rail Regional Trail receives its funding through the DNR’s Legacy grant, the Luce Line State Trail is not able to take advantage of this program.

“State parks and trails are not eligible,” Legacy grant coordinator Traci Vibo said.

A letter to the editor in the Jan. 30 Herald Journal submitted by Cook, Winsted Mayor Steve Stotko, Silver Lake Mayor Bruce Bebo, and McLeod County Commissioner Bev Wangerin further explained the intent of Legacy funding.

A portion of the letter states, “. . . it is important to remember that the constitutional amendment creating the Legacy program specifically included language that states that Legacy funds ‘must supplement traditional funding sources for these purposes and may not be used as a substitute.’ This language was included to help ensure that new and expanded improvements to water quality, the environment and natural resources, arts and culture, parks and trails, and outdoor heritage are provided for, rather than just replacing existing and traditional funding and thus simply maintaining the status quo.”

According to Cook, the Luce Line paving project has been proposed in state bonding bills “basically every year going back at least until 2006.”

There were also bills prior to that for Luce Line improvements, but he explained that some were earmarked for the trail in the metro area, and other times were undefined.

Impact to Winsted

According to Martens, paving the Luce Line from Winsted westward would be a long-term investment in the Winsted economy.

“Winsted would represent the starting point of a paved trail section and be a destination for people in the region,” he said. “If you spend some time in communities that are located on high quality state trails, it is pretty easy to see what the impact could be.”

In Winsted, the crushed limestone trail going east toward Watertown begins near McLeod County Road 9. Westward, the mowed grass trail (which later turns to gravel) begins off McLeod County Road 1 near the Winsted Farmers Co-op.

The local trail route continues through town, with trail users having the option to follow Winsted Byway signs, Martens noted.

However, the space through Winsted is not considered part of the state trail, according to Kristy Rice of the DNR.

“There is a gap in the trail,” she said.

At one time, it was proposed to turn Kingsley Street into a one-way for the trail byway. However, after citizen input at a community meeting, signage and striping was recommended instead.

“The park commission recently recommended an additional signage and striping plan, which will be going to the council in the next month or so,” Martens noted.

History of the gap

According to Winsted resident Gary Lenz, when the Luce Line railroad was going out of business, it sold much of its land to adjacent property owners in several communities.

The leftover portions were then sold to the state.

Typically, the railroad had about a 50- to 100-foot-wide right of way in areas of open country. In settled areas, a wider strip of land was purchased.

The McLeod County Historical Society in Hutchinson has a large map (donated by Lenz) showing the Luce Line property lines.

When the Luce Line became a state trail, businesses in many communities agreed to sell the land to the state to complete the trail, according to Lenz.

Making the connection in Winsted has been somewhat difficult, however, because of business expansion and farmer-owned property along the trail, he said.

Despite efforts of community members throughout the years, the state trail connection has remained in private ownership.

Trail user surveys

No user counts have been recorded on the part of the Luce Line that is proposed for paving in at least a decade, according to Rice.

However, for the crushed limestone portion from Plymouth to the McLeod County line, the DNR completed user surveys in 1998 and 2011, according to Rachel Hintzman, DNR parks and trail area supervisor.

Throughout the summer of 2011 (Memorial Day to Labor Day), the trail had 65,733 trail user-hours. In 1998, the summer-use hours were reported at 61,047.

“Although overall use of the trail has not statistically changed, the amount of pedestrian traffic (walking, hiking, running) has statistically increased,” Hintzman noted.

In 1998, biking accounted for 59 percent of the trail use, while 28 percent were walkers, and 9 percent were runners. Other activities (including horseback riding) were 4 percent of the trail use.

 In contrast, the 2011 survey recorded 46 percent biking, 34 percent walking, 15 percent running, and 5 percent other activities.

“We don’t have any actual reasoning for the increase in pedestrian traffic,” Hintzman stated. “Some suggested ideas included the fact that running has really increased in popularity, and also the fact that as the population ages, more people might be comfortable walking versus riding a bike.”

For the first part of the survey, the trail was divided into four sections. Each section was randomly driven during different days and times, for 32 different counts for each segment, according to Hintzman. This portion of the survey was used to document the amount and type of each use.

The second portion of the survey was conducted via mail.

The DNR collected names and addresses of trail users at different places, times, and days. Trail users were then mailed a survey to complete and mail back.

Of the 86 percent who returned the mail-in survey in 2011, 98 percent of the users lived within 30 miles of the trail, and 99 percent reported an “excellent” or “good” trail experience.

According to Hintzman, 69 percent of respondents stated that they preferred crushed limestone or natural surface.

A destination route

“Since the Luce Line is improved east of Winsted into the metro area, improving it and paving it from Winsted west to Cedar Mills would make the Luce line an attractive destination for trail users, including visitors as well as local users,” Cook stated.

The Luce Line’s proximity to the Twin Cities is also a plus, he added.

“Since we are only an hour away, or less, from large population centers, the Luce Line has a lot of potential as a destination, and I see the cities along the trail working together to market that,” he said.

According to Cook, Hutchinson is on the border of areas that are seeing a decline in population and areas of growth. The Luce Line could help attract and retain young families and young workers, he said.

Health and wellness benefits shouldn’t be ignored, either, Cook said, explaining that using the trail is something families can do together that gets them out enjoying the country.

“Outdoor recreation is very important to Minnesotans and will continue to be a priority for many years to come,” Martens said. “State funds will continue to be used for parks and trails year after year.  If this money doesn’t go to Winsted, it goes somewhere else.”

More information

This article is part two in a series about the Luce Line State Trail. The first article was published in the March 19 issue of ther Herald Journal.

For links to more Luce Line State Trail information, go to Herald Journal’s homepage, www.herald-journal.com.

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