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."
Collins said that in 2008, the city council adopted amendments to the city's Comprehensive Plan, or master planning document, that emphasized promoting cycling as a transit option for casual riders, and not just for cycling diehards.
In all, the city's existing 144 miles of off-street paths, in-street bike lanes and "share the road" street routes would more than double, with 214 additional miles of bikeways added over the next two or three decades. A grid of bike routes situated about every half-mile throughout the city would allow cyclists to travel east-west or north-south with ease.
Some aspects of the proposal already are underway.
The city plans to designate 47 miles of "bike boulevards" by identifying residential streets with low traffic volumes and driving speeds as official bike routes, without adding bike lanes. Instead, medians, street markings or small roundabouts could discourage cars from using streets such as Charles Avenue, Griggs Street and Jefferson Parkway as alternatives to busier arterial roads such as University Avenue.
"You really don't need a dedicated bike lane in the street ... because there just aren't that many cars to begin with," Collins said. "But the challenge is, when you're traveling east-west across the city, you get to Snelling and say, 'What do I do now?' "
To answer that question, the city recently closed a median opening that used to allow drivers heading south on Snelling Avenue from Roseville to turn left onto Charles Avenue, two blocks north of University Avenue and the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line, or Green Line. A hole in the median remains large enough for cyclists to cross, but not cars. The median now allows cars to turn left onto Sherburne Avenue, between Charles and University avenues.
Collins said the city currently has one mile of official bike boulevard in place, but bike boulevards along Charles, Griggs and Jefferson are in various stages of construction and should be complete by the end of the summer.
The goal is to have the final plan ready for adoption as an amendment to the city's Comprehensive Plan in June. To solicit public feedback, Collins said the city will hold four open house events, with the first on Feb. 11. Afterward, city officials will present the plan to neighborhood district councils. A question will be posed on the "Open St. Paul" website.
The plan must also be presented to the St. Paul Planning Commission's transportation committee, the city council and then the Metropolitan Council, with public hearings before each body. Dave Hunt, a spokesman for St. Paul Public Works, said the comprehensive plan amendment will help guide city planners and Public Works staff as they go about designing street improvements.
A wide variety of coordination already has taken place with the city's Planning and Economic Development Department and St. Paul Parks and Recreation, Hunt said. Cycling advocates such as St. Paul Smart Trips, Women on Bikes St. Paul and the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition have yet to review the proposal.
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo.
ON THE WEB
-- St. Paul's bicycle trail proposal: stpaul.gov/bikeplan
-- Minneapolis' Grand Rounds: minneapolisparks.org/grandrounds/home.htm
-- Downtown Indianapolis trails: indyculturaltrail.org
Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.