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Duluth's Lakewalk gets its last link

The newest section of Duluth's Lakewalk won't officially open until noon Friday, when Mayor Don Ness cuts the ribbon on a bridge spanning the Lester River.

New Lakewalk tunnel
Cyclists emerge from the new tunnel on the Duluth Lakewalk that runs beneath Congdon Boulevard near the Lester River on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. The newest and final section of the Lakewalk officially opens on Friday. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The newest section of Duluth's Lakewalk won't officially open until noon Friday, when Mayor Don Ness cuts the ribbon on a bridge spanning the Lester River.

But local walkers and bicyclists have wasted no time in testing out the new bridge and a recently completed tunnel to Brighton Beach.

"We were out there paving, and people were right behind us, bicycling on hot blacktop. They were really ready to go," said Patrick Loomis, a project engineer for the city.

Eager to put the bridge through its paces, people have been skirting barricades at either end of the structure for days.

"It's been a construction zone around here all summer, and we've all been watching to see when the Lakewalk would be completed," said Carol Peterson as she took her first stroll across the new Lester River bridge Sunday morning.

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Her son, Matt Peterson of Hunters Park, pushed a baby carriage containing his 6-month-old twins, Brynn and Alec.

He praised the Lakewalk extension, including a tunnel that allows walkers and bicyclists to cross the often-busy London Road.

"It's good to be able to get to Brighton Beach without having to deal with all those cars and logging trucks," Peterson said, noting that the tunnel should provide much safer access, particularly for children.

"Some of my friends were skeptical about the cost, but the safety benefits are immense, and it makes the shore that much more accessible. It's a wonderful addition," said John Schifsky, who lives just north of Duluth and was walking the new extension for the first time Sunday.

The city picked up roughly one-third of the $2.52 million tab for the project. Federal and state grants covered the majority of the cost.

City spokeswoman Amy Norris said the Lester Park extension completes the Lakewalk, but the larger vision for a city-wide trail network won't fully be realized until work on the Cross-City Trail is completed. That paved path will link the Lakewalk to the Willard Munger Trail in West Duluth.

"In the near future, we should have a path that will allow walkers and bicyclists to travel from the city's east to west sides in a very safe manner," Norris said.

The first phase of the Cross-City Trail will stretch 2.9 miles from Lake Avenue to the Heritage Center at 30th Avenue West. Loomis said construction of the segment was expected to cost about $1.55 million, but initial bids for the project came in higher. He said specifications for a fence separating the trail from the freeway have been reworked and the project has been put out for a new round of bids, in hopes that they come back within budget. Those bids will be opened Sept. 12.

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Some of the project could be completed yet this fall, but Loomis said the work easily could stretch into next spring, given the need to rebid the job.

He said the total project probably will take a couple more years to complete.

"This trail network will definitely be an asset for the city. Especially because it's connected, it should be valuable for more than just recreational use," said James Gittemeier, a transportation planner with the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission.

Although he doesn't have statistics yet to back up his hunch, Gittemeier suspects traffic on the Lakewalk and Cross-City Trail will only build. He said the city will conduct a count of bicyclists and pedestrians this month that should provide a baseline for comparison. In addition to human monitors to count people, the city also will use an automated system that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is testing.

He said the trail could take traffic off city streets and increase public health by encouraging more physical activity.

Gittemeier predicts the benefits will be manifold.

"Paths like these add to the livability of the city," he said. "They make for a more people-friendly environment where people can move around without being in a car. When you provide a path that is safe and comfortable, you encourage people to use it."

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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