Two years after the City of Saint Paul launched the ambitious, forward-thinking and ultimately controversial Summit Avenue Regional Trail project, the plan has passed the final stage of the approval process. On October 25, the Metropolitan Council approved the plan as the city submitted it. The vote was 13–2.
The events leading up to this point brought us one circus after another. The Save Our Street opposition group that was formed under the aegis of the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association (SARPA) organized early to oppose improvements to bike infrastructure, in whatever form it would take. The group spearheaded a petition drive, and opponents took advantage of every public forum, open house and listening session, in some cases occupying front row seats in green T-shirts (“for the trees”) and waving signs that declared: Not True.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of SOS succeeded in drawing legal scrutiny to the city’s data practices but failed in its effort to derail the plan’s approval process. The St. Paul City Council meeting on May 24 consisted of over five hours of impassioned testimony from both proponents and opponents, after which council members approved the plan by a vote of 6–1, with outgoing Ward 7 City Councilmember Jane Prince as the lone dissenter.
After the plan moved to the Metropolitan Council, there were more limited opportunities to address the Parks and Open Space Commission. The whole Met Council allowed just 15 strictly enforced minutes of public testimony on October 11. This time, opposition seemed more muted, with only two people present to testify against the plan (as opposed to the five allotted to speak in favor, with more in the wings). Met Council members convened one last time on October 25 and after some discussion, approved the plan on a voice vote.
A Regional Linking Trail Through the Heart of St. Paul
The Met Council discussion highlighted the tension among members who showed an ideological preference for or against the plan. Dr. Gail Cederberg and Wendy Wulff both spoke against the plan. Cederberg expressed misgivings about a lack of attention given to winter trail maintenance, both in terms of cost and the long-term impact to trees from exposure to road treatments. She also doubted whether the plan will be ADA compliant, given the loss of parking east of Lexington Avenue.
Wulff stated that the proposed Summit Avenue trail would function more as a “city trail” than as a regional trail, based on the council’s definition. Regional trails, according to the Met Council, “traverse several municipalities and connect regional parks, park reserves and the greater trail network in the region.” Wulff noted that with all of the street crossings and institutional points of interest such as colleges and churches, as well as downtown St. Paul, Summit Avenue works better as a transit corridor, and therefore should be funded by the city. She said that as an east-west link between sections of the Mississippi River Gorge, it duplicates the Ayd Mill Road trail, which runs approximately north-south between Jefferson and Selby Avenues.
Met Council members Toni Carter and Susan Vento both spoke in favor of the off-road trail. Vento cited the Met Council’s 2040 parks plan, asserting that the city staff was diligent in its compliance to the plan’s specifications. There will be plenty of time, she said, to conduct a more detailed environmental review and to work out the “nitty gritty.” Carter seconded that point, and asserted that the Summit Avenue Regional Trail will function as a link both within and beyond St. Paul, as it connects to both the Mississippi River Gorge Regional Park on the western edge of St. Paul and the Sam Morgan Regional Trail that runs parallel to the river on the eastern edge and past downtown.
Council member Wulff’s objection to the Summit plan based on a perceived redundancy opened up a discussion about long-standing definitions of both a regional trail and this search corridor in particular. In its own planning process, the Met Council proposes “search corridors” that would connect regional trails to one another. Several members pointed out that the Met Council specifically singled out Summit Avenue as a potential regional trail as far back as 2005.
Council Member Peter Lindstrom asserted that the council has had many opportunities since then to revise that search corridor, but never did. He added that, while a regional trail links users to natural amenities, it also specifies human-made points of interest — buildings of architectural, cultural and educational significance. “Summit Avenue is the poster child of a linking trail,” he added. A “linking trail,” per the Met Council’s language, “provides linkages between components of the regional parks system. When feasible, a linking trail should attempt to connect to population, economic and social centers along its route.”
A Win for Children, and the Future
Throughout the past two years of public meetings, open houses and City Council proceedings, there have been “the regulars,” people who show up to support or oppose trail improvements, as well as city staff from the departments of Parks and Recreation and Public Works who present the proposal and defend their work. But there is another, little-mentioned group of citizens who may have tipped the scales in favor of approval.
At the October 11 meeting of the Met Council, the agenda carved out a small portion of time for comment on the Summit trail plan. Only a handful of speakers was allowed to address the council. They included Andy Singer, a noted cycling advocate in St. Paul; Hugo Bruggeman who chairs the transportation committee of the Macalester-Groveland Community Council; and a few other notable trail proponents (and Streets.mn contributors), as well as Gary Todd, the steering committee chair of SOS.
But then there was Faith Krogstad, a climate and energy coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. She approached the mic with her 10-year-old son, Espen, to whom she gave her time slot. Espen read from notes prepared on a sheet of spiral notebook paper about his desire that Summit should be a “better and more comfortable place to play and bike, as opposed to an unwelcome, busy bike lane. So I say, vote yes to the Summit Avenue bike trail, because it would be a safer, over-the-curb place for the next generation.” His remarks lasted all of 30 seconds.
Espen’s comments echoed those of another 10-year-old, Dylan Stewart, who spoke at the City Council meeting in May (actually, he wrote the testimony that his mother, Sarah Stewart, read aloud). Parents of young children queued up to describe the hazards of riding with young children on the in-street lanes, enough so that Council President Amy Brendmoen invited them to speak earlier than their allotted time, to accommodate the children’s dinner and bedtime schedules. Like the child who testified at Met Council, Dylan and his mother decried the lack of a safe venue for children and families to bike to school. He noted obstacles such as dumpsters in the bike lane and speeding, swerving cars encroaching on him and his friends as they rode to school. “With a separated bike lane,” he said, ” we will be far from cars and safer.”
Dylan’s remarks clearly resonated with City Council members. Representatives Mitra Jalali (Ward 4), Chris Tolbert (Ward 3) and Nelsie Yang (Ward 6) spoke to their own misgivings about facing the hazards of riding in close proximity to vehicle traffic and other obstacles, especially with children. Jalali thanked the children “who came and shared their voices and the parents who spoke for their children.”
Which brings us back to Espen, who may have had the last word in supporting the Summit trail, before the Met Council’s vote. In her comments before the vote on October 25, Met Council member Susan Vento mentioned him and his mother and their remarks that day. “That’s who this bike trail is for,” she said. “It’s not for any of us. It’s for the future.”
With passage of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail plan at the Metropolitan Council, the approval process is complete. According to Parks and Rec Director Andy Rodriguez, “all the hurdles for approval have been met.” Based on objections voiced by the opposition groups, some lawsuit may be brought against the city — though likely not until a construction plan is in place.
There is also the matter of an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, or EAW. Members of SOS filed a petition to halt the vote at the Met Council in August, until an EAW could be conducted. However, the City of St. Paul, which would have been responsible for conducting the EAW, rejected the petition, on the grounds that it was unnecessary for a plan at that stage.
The city also contested the petitioner’s assertion that the Summit Trail plan would lead to irreversible damage to trees, asserting that its own forestry practices are sufficient to maintain or replace existing tree canopy.
However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ordered St. Paul to provide further evidence that the EAW was not necessary. According to Emmet Mullin, manager of Regional Parks and Natural Resources at the Metropolitan Council, an EAW is conducted after the long-range process has been completed. During the discussion portion of the Met Council’s meeting on October 25, members suggested that an EAW conducted at some future date would guide the city in crafting mitigation measures to minimize harm from construction and maintenance of the new trail.
According to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, “the EAW…helps identify ways to protect the environment. The EAW is not meant to approve or deny a project, but instead act as a source of information.” If that process leads to a reduction of harm to boulevard trees, greater access to parking for people with disabilities and sustainable maintenance practices, that could be a win for everybody.
Attention, St. Paul Residents!
All seven seats on the St. Paul City Council are up for election or re-election today (Tuesday, November 7). Only three current members — Jalali, Rebecca Noecker (Ward 2) and Yang — are running for re-election, and all three voted to support the Summit Avenue Regional Trail plan back in May.
With competitive races in Wards 1, 3, 5 and 7, candidates are being watched for their stance on the Summit Avenue issue. According to reporting by Fred Melo in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, seven candidates attended an anti-trail rally in late October. None has the city’s coveted DFL endorsement.