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Survey will help Duluth determine fate of LS&M line

The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad train crosses a short bridge on a causeway across Mud Lake on the St. Louis River in June 2015. (file / News Tribune)

The city of Duluth is looking to the public for direction as it considers what should become of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad corridor after the line is torn up to allow for the cleanup of the former U.S. Steel Duluth Works property in Morgan Park, anticipated to occur in 2018.

Three options are on the table, and just one of them includes returning the volunteer-operated sightseeing railroad to the scene, according to Lisa Luokkala, project coordinator for Duluth's parks and recreation department.

Luokkala said the city knows for certain that it wants to extend its Western Waterfront Trail westward to Chambers Grove Park in Fond du Lac. Part of that trail could run next to a reconstructed LS&M rail line. But the city also is exploring the possibility of a rail-to-trail conversion or reusing just a portion of the existing rail bed to create a more meandering recreational trail.

Duluth launched the survey Jan. 9 to seek input on what it calls the St. Louis River Corridor Western Waterfront Recreation Plan.

In a bid for survival, the LS&M Railroad has been urging its supporters to weigh in on that survey and also contact city officials.

"We've been out there for 36 years. Now all a sudden, they want to put a trail in out there — which we subscribe to, because we advocate for a rail-trail option — but they're doing this survey by the users or the people or the citizens of Duluth or from wherever. It kind of seems like a referendum on whether we should exist or not," said Andy Webb, president of the LS&M..

The city's survey will continue through Jan. 26 — just 17 days from start to finish.

"It seems a little short," Webb commented.

But Luokkala said the city will continue to consult with various stakeholder groups and accept public comment outside the survey period. A public meeting likely will be scheduled in late January or early Friday to lay out three different options for consideration.

Luokkala said parks and rec staff will take the feedback they receive into consideration before making a recommendation in April. But the decision as to what will ultimately be done will be made in consultation with the parks and rec commission, the Duluth City Council and Mayor Emily Larson.

The survey now underway will just provide one more piece of information, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration.

"This unscientific survey is just one of many sources of input that will contribute the decisions of the parks commission, the City Council and the mayor," he said, acknowledging that the results "will not provide a portrait of community wishes and values that accurately reflects the opinions of the entire community."

Filby Williams said: "We will give the results of the survey due weight but in the larger context of multiple avenues for public input."

"We really want to get all voices at the table and hear what people have to say about this really important trail and the idea of the extension and being able to access more of the riverfront," Luokkala said.

With the help of special legislation, Duluth has earmarked $18 million in sales taxes to be invested in enhancing recreational opportunities throughout the city's St. Louis River corridor.

"With all of the development around recreational amenities, this is really the spine of a lot of the other recreational activities that are happening along the corridor," Luokkala said of the proposed Western Waterfront Trail extension.

Webb said he believes there's room for both a recreational trail and a railroad along the banks of the river.

"What we're talking about is something similar to the Lakewalk, in terms of rail and trail. And I think it would make a wonderful addition to West Duluth to have both of them. They would complement each other, especially considering that there are people out there who cannot walk or ride a bike, but we provide them access to that area through our service," Webb said.

To take part in the online survey regarding the emerging waterfront recreation plan, visit surveymonkey.com/r/WesternWaterfrontTrailMP.

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