The Itasca-Heartland Trail Spur has a new name, a preliminary engineering design and revised wording for a state bonding bill.

For a decade, a citizen-led committee has been developing a multiple-purpose trail connecting Itasca State Park with the Heartland Trail.

When the Minnesota Legislature’s 2020 session begins Feb. 11, the committee will ask for a $3.8 million appropriation for the first phase of the project: a 1.75-mile trail from the Itasca State Park contact station to U.S. Hwy. 71, a tunnel under the highway with a retaining wall and a 1.96-mile trail east of the tunnel toward Emmaville, where it would connect with an existing snowmobile trail. Any remaining funds would be used for a trailhead at or near the proposed trails’ southern junction with the Heartland Trail.

In March, they plan to hold a “Park Rapids Legislative Action Day at the Capitol” to urge legislators to support the bonding request.

State Sen. Paul Utke (R-Park Rapids) has agreed to sponsor the Senate bonding bill, while State Rep. John Percell (DFL-Bemidji) will sponsor the bill in the House.

A doable plan

Last fall, the committee initially planned to request $10 million to construct a 17-mile trail from Itasca State Park to Emmaville, then seek additional funds for the project’s next phase: extending the trail from Emmaville to the Heartland Trail junction on County 4 and building a new trailhead access there.

That $10 million estimate made “a serious impact on our chances for full funding through a bonding bill,” warned committee member Vic Olson, calling it “extremely unlikely.”

“No paved trail project of that amount has ever been passed by the Legislature. In fact, in the 2018 session, the total bonding awarded to trail projects was about $7.5 million,” he said.

The committee met Monday, Jan. 13 to discuss the “more palatable” request of $3.8 million.

They also reviewed a preliminary engineering plan drawn up by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff has drawn up a preliminary engineering plan for the proposed 17-mile trail from the Itasca State Park contact station to Emmaville.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff has drawn up a preliminary engineering plan for the proposed 17-mile trail from the Itasca State Park contact station to Emmaville.Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

DNR engineering specialist Dean Sether studied the terrain of the entire 17-mile route. The 200-plus-page plan includes detailed topography and cost analysis.

The segment from the park contact station to Hwy. 71 is anticipated to cost $504,694. The tunnel is the most expensive at $2,310,079. The two-mile portion beyond the tunnel is estimated at $543,567. All together, this totals $3,358,340.

Committee member Deane Johnson asked if there was a recommended cushion, in case bids ended up higher than the estimates.

Sether said they could add 10 to 15 percent.

The committee decided to ask for $3.8 million.

The remaining 13 miles to Emmaville are projected at $4,607,804 – for a total project cost of $7,966,146 – but those funds are not being requested at this time.

Kent Skaar, senior project manager for the DNR Parks and Trails Division, said the plan is “significantly more advanced than it normally would be at this stage of the game,” reflecting the division’s commitment.

If funding was awarded, Hubbard County commissioner Char Christenson asked if the plan was workable.

Skaar replied it would form the basis for a formal resource review, including wetlands, and it makes Americans with Disabilities Act grades. Skaar said it’s possible there are natural and/or cultural resources that could be impacted by the route, but he and Sether did not have any concerns at this point.

That said, a recent modification to the minimum requirement for wetland impact could affect this project and other trail projects for years to come, Skaar said. “What I understand from the language, one acre of wetland impact will trigger a formal EAW (environmental assessment worksheet). We’ve never triggered that in the past. That will become a significant design criteria moving forward.”

New moniker

The committee also agreed to rename the project the Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail.

“Now that we are going to ask for a bonding bill, all state legislators need to know where and what we are seeking. Heartland Spur or Itasca Spur does not explain it,” Olson said.

The bill’s new language reflects a change in strategy, he said. By describing the project as an extension of Itasca State Park, he said it will be seen as a benefit to a popular and profitable destination.

“Itasca is seen as a statewide attraction and, bluntly, one of the parks that generates a lot of income. That should help legislators see the project as good for the state, not just the Park Rapids area,” Olson said.

Letters of support will be sought prior to the March legislative action day. Those interested in going to the Capitol to advocate for the proposed trail should contact Park Rapids City Planner Andrew Mack at city hall for more information.

Olson speculated it could take a couple tries to get Legislature approval.

“We hope for your success,” Skaar said.