A trail to nowhere? NB council approves grant app for debated walking path

What seemed on the surface to be an innocent grant application request turned into an hour-long discussion about the merits of placing a second walking/biking path along County Road 30, culminating in a split, 3-2 vote in favor of applying for the grant.

While nobody on the council objected to the city applying for the grant itself, which is part of the Minnesota Safe Routes to School Infrastructure Program, the project that would be attached to the application was questioned by council members Patrick Meacham and Amanda Darwin.

The proposal would be to construct a walking/biking path along the east side of County Road 30, running from Maple Street to 379th Street, ending in front of the North Branch Library. While there is already a path on the west side of CR30, there is no definitive way for pedestrians to cross the road, which has a speed limit of 55 mph at 379th Street. With the lack of a clear-cut crosswalk, people wishing to use the path to get to/from the library have resorted to blazing their own makeshift paths and crossing the busy road at their own peril.

According to GIS Planning Specialist Nate Sondrol, this new path was specifically suggested as part of the collaborative efforts of the city and school district to find safer routes for children to walk or bike to school or other prominent locations within the city. Some of the reasons cited for needing this project included an estimated 4,400 cars that use CR30 daily, traveling between 40 and 55 mph. He said over the last 10 years, three collisions have occurred between vehicles and pedestrians at some point along this stretch, “which is a pretty significant number,” he said. 

Based on this feedback, engineering plans were created for the project. Those plans were already approved by the city and a preliminary application was sent in, which verified that all of the criteria for receiving a grant were met.

On the flip side, Sondrol stated that during a public meeting on the project, four residents whose properties would abut the new path spoke out against the proposal, citing privacy and safety concerns, along with questioning what kind of financial impact it would have on their properties. Additionally, a petition against the project was signed by 18 residents.

Sondrol said the total project would cost approximately $421,704. The grant being applied for would total just short of $366,700. The difference between the two would be paid for out of the Parks, Trails and Open Spaces budget, meaning this project wouldn’t increase the city’s general levy and there wouldn’t be any special assessments imposed on residents.

Darwin and Meacham’s concerns

Councilmember Amanda Darwin called into question a few items from the mentioned informational meeting, including that it took “51 minutes into the meeting before a key piece of information (the fact this would be a 10-foot wide path instead of a standard width sidewalk) was presented.” She also questioned that “10,000 people wanted this trail” when she knew of no formal survey. Of the information presented, she felt like much of it was outdated, considering it was initially generated more than 12 years ago.

She also questioned how this project could qualify for a SRTS grant when the path runs parallel to the schools. “To me, it’s like my son asking for money for a snowboard and getting a car stereo,” she said.

“It feels like we’ve been sitting on a really good project, and all of a sudden we’re going to ram it through in overdrive and not really include the right people,” she concluded. 

To that last point, Sondrol said that it fits all the criteria, including it being within 1 mile of the schools and was specifically identified in the city’s “Safe Route to School” plans.

Councilmember Patrick Meacham questioned how many people would actually use the trail and asked why alternative plans weren’t presented for streets that are more direct routes to the schools that he thinks are already used more frequently.

“381st (Street) is not finished. People utilize that and will continue to utilize that more to cut over to school. There’s no safe path on that route, and this plan does not fix that,” he said. “Same thing with Greenway. There’s more homes that would utilize Greenway than would utilize this.

“I’ve walked 378th, 377th, through Williams Park to get to schools, hundreds of times. I’ve wanted to bring my kids across 30 to the (existing) path, I couldn’t,” he continued. “And I’m not going to walk the mile-and-a-half up and a mile over to get to the path. And I don’t think it’s realistic that people would once there’s a path on the east side either.

“There’s the Simpson’s episode where they build an escalator to nowhere, because you have the money to do it, and I feel like that’s a little like what this is,” he concluded.

Councilmembers Kelly Neider and Kathy Blomquist, and Mayor Jim Swenson all mentioned that making the city as a whole more pedestrian- and bike-friendly has been a goal of theirs for a long time now, and this grant would help the city advance towards that goal without directly raising taxes through the general budget levy or by imposing assessments.

It was also mentioned by those three and City Administrator Renae Fry that this one trail is only part of a larger plan that would include other trails connecting the city, especially in new developments being built where the city is requiring the developers to pay for the costs.

“We have a plan, and it all connects to those homes going in on the west side,” Mayor Swenson said. “Part of when I ran for office was ‘we want trails.’ And we’ve worked hard to come up with a comprehensive plan.”

Swenson specifically mentioned that once an expected development goes in directly across from the library, there would be a road that would create a four-way intersection, making it easier to also construct a safe crosswalk. 

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