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Paul Bunyan Trail bridge could soon become reality

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been allocated $1.8 million in state bonding dollars to construct a trail bridge over Highway 197 in Bemidji. This graphic depicts what the bridge will look like when it is built. Trail users will soon be able to safely cross the busy highway as they commute along the trail that connects Brainerd/Baxter to Lake Bemidji State Park. Submitted Photo

The last segment of trail that would officially complete the 110-mile Paul Bunyan Trail could be constructed as early as this fall. This is good news for snowmobilers, bikers, walkers and tourists visiting Bemidji.

After several years of the trying to secure funding to build a trail bridge over state Highway 197, city staff found what they were looking for. The state Legislature approved a list of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources projects to be funded.

In the city's weekly newsletter, City Manager John Chattin stated as part of the state's final budget settlement, Gov. Mark Dayton negotiated a $500 million bonding bill which included $5 million for Minnesota DNR trails.

Chattin said he was notified by Kent Skaar, an acquisitions specialist for the Minnesota DNR, who told him the proposed Paul Bunyan Trail bridge is the DNR's top priority for those funds and the city was allocated the full $1.8 million to complete the project.

The proposed trail bridge will consist of a three-span, steel truss-style superstructure with a 12-foot-wide concrete deck. The center span will be arched, and approximately 140 feet long with a 60-foot approach span on each side.

The bridge would complete the Paul Bunyan State Trail as one of the last remaining segments connecting Brainerd/Baxter with Lake Bemidji State Park. The trail bridge would allow users to safely cross a six-lane segment of Highway 197 in Bemidji.

According to a brochure created by Craig Gray, the city's director of public works/city engineer, this section of the highway sees about 23,900 vehicles per day with motorists traveling 35-40 miles per hour in both directions.

The DNR Parks and Trails Division estimates the Paul Bunyan Trail east of Lake Bemidji accommodates approximately 21,000 trail users over the summer months and heavy snowmobile use extends the trails' season throughout the winter.

With the Sanford Center and relocation of the Paul Bunyan Trail along the south shore of Lake Bemidji now completed, the number of the trail users could increase.

"I'm very happy," Gray said. "I'm very surprised. We really want to connect the south shore development with the trail on the other side of Highway 197 with a nice above-grade crossing like that."

The Paul Bunyan Trail weaves around the shores of 21 lakes and more than nine rivers and streams. It intersects with several planned or existing trail routes including a network of more than 2,200 miles of snowmobile trails that directly access the Canadian border and Voyageur's National Park.

One year ago the Bemidji City Council authorized the design of the bridge to be completed in case funding should become available in the future, Gray said. The council took a risk and spent $90,000 to have engineering plans and specifications for the design of the bridge completed. The money for the design was paid for by the city's parks sales tax.

"This was an idea that was around long before I arrived," Gray said. "I've been working on it with the DNR and the city council for last three years trying to get bonding money for it. But it hasn't happened until now."

In 2010, Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut the funding from the state budget funding for the bridge. But the city went ahead and prepared the project to be "shovel-ready" in case funding ever became an option in the future.

"It's ready to go," said Councilor Ron Johnson. "This is probably one of the reasons the state is designating money for it. It would be great to have it in place for the snowmobile season."

Gray said he will meet with DNR officials Thursday, July 29, along with Widseth Smith Nolting, an engineering and architectural services firm. Craig said he heard from one DNR official that the project could still be completed sometime this year, or possibly this fall.

City planners had previously questioned whether the proposed Paul Bunyan Trail bridge would obstruct the view of the Sanford Center/South Shore Development marquee sign located at the intersection of First Street Southeast and Highway 197. They worried the sign would not be visible for travelers heading south.

"We made sure when we started to do the design that we laid out location of the Sanford Center sign so that the two projects would not conflict with each other," Gray said.

In the newsletter, Chattin stated, "We can all be proud that this long awaited project is going to be completed and we thank the DNR for partnering with the city to make this happen."