More than 40 citizens participated and listened in on a virtual public meeting late Tuesday afternoon to discuss the next phase of Duluth's Cross City Trail.
The proposed next phase of the project — called "segment 3" — would stretch from an already-constructed section of the trail in Irving Park to Keene Creek Park, where it would join another existing length of paved path installed along the bed of the former Duluth Winnipeg and Pacific Railway.
Dick Haney, a long-time Duluth resident, didn't mince words when it came to his opinion of the circuitous route, saying it "just does not make sense."
"I'm close to 80 years old, and I've been working on the Cross-City Trail since the freeway came in," he said. Haney recalled meeting several times with the late Congressman James Oberstar to discuss the project and described their original vision for a direct route for the path that would serve as a useful transportation corridor, stretching from east to west through the whole of Duluth.
Haney suggested the city should instead make building a trail below Grand Avenue to connect Irving Park with the Munger Trail its top priority.
But Matt Andrews, trails coordinator for the city of Duluth, said that at least a portion of the proposed segment 3 would need to be built to provide a connection with the piece of trail Heaney supported — "segment 6."
"So, it's not an either-or situation," he said. "We need both of these pieces of the puzzle in order to make segment 6 a reality."
Andrews said city staff continue their efforts to obtain the needed property and easements required to extend the Cross-City Trail below Grand Avenue but said the endeavor has been complicated by railroad-controlled key pieces of land in the area.
To date, 17 years of work have been invested in the Cross-City Trail, and project planner Kris Liljeblad said city staff are hard at work to secure the land needed for the proposed segment 3. Duluth has secured $600,000 in federal transportation funding for the next phase of the project and will be expected to provide another $210,000 in funding as a local match, with the actual construction expected to begin in 2023. He said that timeline represents the amount of lead work involved in putting together a route.
Jessica Peterson, manager of Duluth's parks and recreation department, said of talks with the railroad: "Of course, we will continue to try to negotiate the necessary easements that are needed for segment 6. So far, the results of those negotiations have proven unsuccessful. But we will continue the conversation, because we also share the vision of the vision of the CCT (Cross-City Trail) and its value to the community."
"So, we're not giving up. But, as has been previously described, the ball is not fully in our court. We need them to come to the table in a collaborative way, so that we can collectively realize this vision that is a high, lofty goal with great return for our community and will require significant negotiations that may take some time," Peterson said.
However, Mike Casey, chair of Friends of Western Duluth Parks & Trails, called on the city to focus its efforts more fully on the segment of trail below Grand Avenue. He noted that the trail configuration currently proposed would force users to cross the busy street at two points and climb a hillside en route to an eventual roundabout connection with the Munger Trail.
Casey said he doesn't consider any of the trail network north of Grand Avenue to be even related transportation.
If the Cross-City Trail is put together along a convoluted route, Denette Lynch questioned whether the path below Grand, which she believes most residents would prefer, will ever be built.
"My concern and probably others' concern is that if the city keeps working toward segments 3, 4 and 5, they will not focus on 6. I know for myself, and probably for others, that's the concern is: If we keep investing in the other route, 6 will be left behind," she said.
Liljeblad assured the public that there would be ample opportunity for further discussion and additional public meetings to discuss evolving plans for the path, calling Tuesday's online exchange just "a kickoff meeting."
The meeting ran over 90 minutes, and as it drew near its close, Liljeblad said: "I want to thank everybody for participating, and I'm perfectly willing to hang around a little more if there are more questions that people want to ask. But I guess I don't want to hear more about why we're doing the wrong thing, because, as we've repeated a number of times: We have a mission here, and at least part of it is important to get further west. And that's what we intend to focus on here. So, I don't really want to argue more about doing the wrong project."