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Local view: Expanding trail system costing our parks, youth-serving agencies

Tom O’Rourke

The mountain bike trail system in Duluth has expanded dramatically over the last five years. Thanks to the impressive efforts of Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores, or COGGS, in close partnership with the city of Duluth, the vision of the Duluth Traverse has taken shape.

New trails link formerly disparate parks and green spaces to create a mountain bike trail network spanning the length of the city. Existing multi-use trails in many city parks have been rerouted and rebuilt to better serve as trail hubs for mountain bikers and to attract out-of-town mountain-bike tourists.

Much has been said lauding these efforts, and rightly so. For some residents, our trail renaissance has improved Duluth as a place to live, work, and play. For some, I imagine Duluth is now a more desirable place to visit as well.

Thanks to COGGS' effective fundraising and the community's generosity, 28 percent of the cost to date has been privately funded. Thus far, the city, via the Parks Department budget and the "half and half" tax, has borne 47 percent of the cost of the Duluth Traverse. (State and federal grants have accounted for 22 percent and Spirit Mountain 3 percent.)

What has been less discussed, and generally not known, is the taxpayer cost for the Duluth Traverse, especially as it relates to the outlay from the city's Parks Fund budget. This is the same pot of money that also needs to support neighborhood parks, critical youth programming, and ongoing maintenance across the entirety of Duluth's aging park system.

This community conversation, long-overdue, is timely.

Though 82 percent of the original vision of the Duluth Traverse has been completed to date, the Duluth City Council today will be voting to approve a recently completed Mini-Master Plan for the Duluth Traverse, the vision and budget of which has expanded to include a projected $6 million to $7 million of additional bike-related infrastructure spending.

Before examining the projected cost of the expanded Duluth Traverse vision, it may be useful to hone in on the city's costs thus far. According to the Traverse Master Plan, 24 percent of the project cost has been funded from the city's Parks Fund budget, totaling more than $700,000 to date.

The Parks Fund, created by public referendum in 2011, represents the city's entire budget for park maintenance and youth programming across 129 parks. The Traverse project has received $100,000 annually from this fund.

When compared to support given to youth-serving agencies delivering critical programs to some of our most vulnerable citizens, it is clear the city's spending priorities disproportionately have served the desires of mountain bikers above others.

Valley View Youth Center, the Boys and Girls Club, Neighborhood Youth Services, Myers-Wilkins Community Collaborative, and (recently) the Gary New Duluth Recreation Center each receive $20,000 annually for programming. That's $100,000 in programming support from the Parks Fund, spread out over five agencies, compared to $100,000 annually for mountain bike trail development, which, at an average cost of $55,000 per mile, could fund under two miles of new trail construction.

The expanded vision of the Duluth Traverse going in front of the City Council includes $2.3 million for additional trails, $462,000 for signage, and between $400,000 and $800,000 for trailhead improvements. These projections do not include annual management or maintenance costs, although the plan indicates that 33 percent of the ongoing maintenance for the Duluth Traverse shall be the city's responsibility.

While the exact funding mechanisms to realize this enlarged Duluth Traverse vision haven't been pinpointed, it's worth questioning how long the city's limited budget can support such an effort.

The city's Parks Fund budget will remain fixed at $2.6 million annually, despite inflation and the increased maintenance costs from additional parks and trails infrastructure. In the meantime, there are neighborhood parks and existing park buildings in desperate need of refurbishment and repair, youth-serving agencies in need of additional program support, and a host of worthy park partners and projects left unrealized as the city continues to prioritize its limited grant-seeking, planning, staff, and project resources toward the ongoing expansion of an already robust trail system.

There is much to celebrate with regard to the Duluth Traverse. But it's important to recognize these gains have come at a cost.

Tom O’Rourke is executive director of the Hartley Nature Center.