The Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail committee met Monday to discuss its next steps, having secured $2 million in bonding from the Minnesota Legislature.

“The appropriation is significant. It does provide an opportunity to move forward,” said Kent Skaar, senior project manager for the DNR Parks and Trails Division.

Another meaningful milestone is the purchase of a five-acre parcel at the intersection of the Heartland Trail and CSAH 4. This location is the proposed trailhead for the proposed Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail.

Hubbard County Land Commissioner Mark Lohmeier said the county has a signed purchase agreement with the landowner, “so that project looks like it is going to be going ahead. Closing date is set for some time in December.”

“We may see all this done in our lifetime yet,” quipped Vic Olson, a member of the citizens-led committee that has worked for more than a decade to secure funding for a multi-purpose, paved trail connecting Itasca State Park and the Heartland Trail.

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Skaar noted the legislation specifically states that funding is for final engineering and design for the trail within Itasca State Park and construction of a tunnel under U.S. Hwy. 71.

Skaar said engineering and construction “will likely be a contract activity.” The DNR will handle the permitting process with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

An engineering firm would be retained to implement construction on behalf of the DNR. “The eyes, ears and boots on the ground, monitoring that construction and administering it, would be a consultant,” he said.

Skaar anticipates the final design will be “cracked” in a couple months “because it will be a complex project. It’s going to take some work, there’s no question. But with that said, the preliminary engineering was done and got us to this point, so we know where and basically what it’s going to be and what’s necessary to build the tunnel itself, plus the lead-in trail.”

The DNR will complete a natural resource assessment, he added. Cultural, archaeological, environment assessments will coincide next spring and summer. Tentatively, Skaar said the construction bids could be sought late next year, with work to begin in 2022. A detour on Hwy. 71 seems likely, he noted, but that would be MnDOT’s decision.

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