Bonding bill failure puts Northland Trail in limbo
The Heartland State Trail project and its supporters thought they were getting a boost from legislators early this past week, when the Minnesota Senate introduced a capital investment bill that includes $3.3 million for the planned trail extension between Detroit Lakes and Frazee.
However, the failure of the bill by a narrow margin on Thursday has put in doubt the fate of construction projects across the state this year – including the Heartland Trail.
The push to include the local Heartland Trail connection in the Senate’s capital investment bill, or “bonding bill,” was led by local senators Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) and Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley), as well as Capital Investment Committee Chair Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer).
“I want to thank Sen. Eken, Sen. Skoe and Sen. Stumpf for supporting the Heartland Trail extension,” said Frazee Mayor Hank Ludtke. “The cities of Frazee and Detroit Lakes have been working on this project for a long time and we are looking forward to when it will finally be done.”
“Trails are extremely popular with our visitors – we’re always fielding questions about what trails are available in our area,” said Cleone Stewart from the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau. “A multi-use, year-round trail like the Heartland Trail will play a huge role in drawing tourists, athletes, outdoors enthusiasts and other visitors to our community. Everyone is excited for the trail connection to come into fruition.”
However, the project faced yet another setback after the Senate bonding bill was narrowly defeated on Thursday, and it’s unclear what this latest wrinkle will mean.
The additional funding would have helped move forward a project that has been in development since as far back as 2004, said Detroit Lakes Alderman Bruce Imholte, who praised Ludtke and former DL Mayor Larry Buboltz for their efforts during the project’s early stages.
In 2014, the Minnesota Legislature invested $2.7 million in the Heartland Trail project connection. However, the project faced a major setback when unexpected costs arose that required additional funding before construction could be completed.
“It more than doubled the cost,” Imholte said, pointing to two major factors that have contributed to bringing the original $3 million price tag to an estimated $6-7 million: A change in the trail route from Frazee to Highway 10, which was originally planned to run on the north side of County Road 10 leading toward Acorn Lake and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor; and unforeseen design complications on the portion of the trail that was to run alongside Acorn Lake.
Imholte acknowledged that the lack of cooperation from BNSF Railroad, which reversed its initial decision to allow the trail to run along the railroad right-of-way north of County Road 10, was “a little frustrating.”
It forced the DNR to alter its design plans and move the proposed trail to the south side of CR 10, which runs through wetlands, residential areas and business properties that will require additional land acquisition and design modification costs, to the tune of about $1.5 million. A tunnel will also need to be built to connect the trail along the south side of County Road 10 to the rest of the trail.
Another $1.5 million was added to the cost due to design complications caused by a steep dropoff into a wetland area alongside Acorn Lake, Imholte added.
Like Ludtke, Imholte also praised senators Eken, Skoe and Stumpf for their efforts, along with state representatives Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth) and Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) for trying to get similar funding included in the House bonding bill (which had yet to be released as of this newspaper’s publication deadline).
“They’ve been fantastic – very helpful to us,” Imholte said. He wasn’t as complimentary of Rep. Steve Green (R-Fosston), whom he said has been less than supportive of the trail committee’s efforts to obtain bonding money for the project.
“He doesn’t support using (bonding) money for trails,” said Imholte, adding that he doesn’t understand why a legislator from this area wouldn’t support using tax dollars for local projects rather than spending the money in other areas of the state.
Governor Dayton’s bonding proposal was released in January and does not include funding for the Heartland Trail; however, the unexpected costs did not arise until it was too late to be included in his proposal. The Heartland Trail was one of the Governor’s top parks and trails priorities back in 2014.
Once the Heartland Trail is finalized, it will stretch from Park Rapids to Moorhead, Imholte said, but it is unclear what this latest setback will mean for the project.