Jan. 21--In the 1880s, a student disciple of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted envisioned a giant figure "8" encircling Minneapolis and St. Paul, crisscrossing the two cities with a continuity of trails.
In time, Minneapolis embraced the idea, creating the bicycle-friendly Grand Rounds, Midtown Greenway and Chain of Lakes trails. St. Paul has been a slower study.
That might be about to change.
St. Paul planners are to unveil on Tuesday a 20- to 30-year bike plan that would complete H.W.S. Cleveland's vision of Grand Rounds trails encircling the city. In addition, the plan adds a 1.7-mile trail loop, or square, within downtown St. Paul, one of the largest holes in the city's existing bike system. And it more than doubles the number of on-street, off-street and designated "bike boulevard" routes throughout St. Paul.
"As a city, we've struggled with how to accommodate bikes downtown for a number of years," said Reuben Collins, a sustainable-transportation engineer and planner within the St. Paul Department of Public Works.
The Grand Rounds improvements would add new cycling amenities along Pelham Boulevard, Raymond Avenue, Como Avenue and Wheelock and Johnson parkways. A new off-street path for casual riders along Johnson Parkway would complement the existing on-street bike lanes, which typically draw faster riders.
Wheelock Parkway, which has no bike path, could gain both types of lanes as well. The already popular trails along Mississippi River Boulevard would be expanded. The net result is a giant trail ring around much of St. Paul.
The Grand Rounds concept, which spans 51 miles of hiking, biking and drivable trails in Minneapolis, "has been hugely popular," Collins said. Minneapolis neighborhood parks receive 5 million visits per year, and the city's regional parks receive 15.4 million visits, numbers that are no doubt buoyed by their accessibility and the trail connections between them.
Downtown St. Paul also would see changes. Modeled after the popular "Cultural Trail" in downtown Indianapolis, the plan recommends a 10-foot bike path at sidewalk elevation along St. Peter, 10th and Jackson streets and Kellogg Boulevard in downtown St. Paul, forming a rectangular loop. Curb, trees, plantings and marking would likely separate the 1.7 miles of biking paths from both pedestrian and street traffic.
Each side of the new bike square will lead to an existing bicycle and pedestrian trail, such as the Sam Morgan Regional Trail, Gateway Trail, Bruce Vento Trail or Indian Mounds Regional Trail. Until now, city officials have wondered how to make those trails connect in ways that invite casual and not just hard-core cyclists.
"The trails that we have are wildly popular, but getting to them through downtown has been the challenge," said Anne Hunt, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's environmental policy director.
FUNDING A CHALLENGE
As with any ambitious street project, funding could be a challenge. The downtown loop alone will cost an estimated $18 million. The first phase, a connection along Jackson Street between the Sam Morgan Regional Trail and the Gateway State Trail, will cost $5 million for streetscape improvements.
The plan is sure to get a close review from biking enthusiasts. Andy Singer, co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, said "there are some aspects of the Grand Rounds which are useful for commuters, but it's largely a recreational trail."
Rather than adding lane miles, Singer said, he's more concerned with "trenches" in the bike system that separate neighborhood cyclists from downtown St. Paul, or make it difficult to get across highways such as Minnesota 280 and railroads.
Approaching downtown from almost any direction, "it's really hard to cross the I-94/I-35E freeway trench," Singer said. "All of the various ways across it are also used by a lot of traffic. And usually, where traffic and bikes are competing, bikes lose."