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Coalition co-founders, from left, Tim Witzmann, Mark Vanasse and David Mandel pose in their biking shirts at a Highway 35 closure point in the town of St. Joseph. (Submitted photo)

Bike, pedestrian trails coalition sees a two-wheeled future

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A new county advocacy group has a vision for the future, and it involves a LOT of bikes.

Lots of runners and walkers too.

“I think we’re kind of like Madison was 20 years ago when it comes to bike and pedestrian trails,” said Mark Vanasse, a co-founder of the St. Croix Bike and Pedestrian Trails Coalition.

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“Actually, we’d more like to compare ourselves to what the Twin Cities have been doing for the last 20 years. I think they’ve been pretty good.”

In fact, the entire state of Minnesota has been ahead of the curve where bikes and pedestrians are concerned, Vanasse said in a Star-Observer interview last week with co-founders Dave Mandel and Tim Witzmann. The three also identified Susan Heuser as a key organizer.

With the River Crossing project providing a flashpoint opportunity to capitalize on the economic, recreational, health and safety benefits of bike and pedestrian trails, the coalition set out about a year ago to spread the good word to St. Croix County’s municipal and county governments, and to the public as well.

The coalition also wants to become a central clearinghouse for all things involving bike and pedestrian trails in the area and to work with existing groups as a unified team.

“I wouldn’t say we want to be a political force; I’d say we’re more of an advocacy group,” Witzmann explained. “We want to support all the various entities here to build an entire network of bike and pedestrian trails in the area over the next several years.”

Added Mandel, the coalition’s chairman: “We really wanted the coalition to have not only community leaders and board and council members, but also voices from all the bike groups in the area. They’re the ones that will be using the trails.”

Some 15 St. Croix County communities are represented among current coalition members, with others expected.

Ahead of the pack

Said Vanasse of the task ahead: “Stillwater, for example, was already gearing up for a lot of new bikes and pedestrians coming through, long before the River Crossing project was even approved.

“But on our side of the river, here the St. Croix County area’s got a $600 million bridge coming through, and they hadn’t even come up with a solid economic impact yet where bikes and pedestrian trails are concerned.

“So, yeah, when it comes to bike and pedestrian trails, Minnesota’s a lot further ahead than Wisconsin. We think it’s time to catch up – and fast.”

Voted “Best Trails State” by American Trails in 2010, for example, Minnesota boasts 25 state bike trails alone, accounting for more than 1,300 miles in 2013, including 625 paved miles and 698 natural-surface miles, according to state Department of Natural Resources figures.

Wisconsin, meanwhile, reported more than 2,400 miles of bike trails in 2010, but that figure included both open trails and those that require state passes.

More importantly, the estimated economic impact of recreational biking in the two states: more than $1 billion in Minnesota in 2013, compared to $532.8 million in Wisconsin in 2010.

Wisconsin has upgraded its trails presence since 2010, but there has been relatively little activity in Western Wisconsin, Mandel said.

Humble beginnings

The coalition “started around a kitchen table with three or four people asking, ‘What can we do?’” Mandel explained. It’s come a long way since, working hard to establish links at both the county and community level.

County parks and recreation, economic development and planning officials have already started working regularly with the coalition. Links have also been established in communities from Hudson to Somerset, Star Prairie and New Richmond.

St. Joseph and Hudson townships are among local communities whose boards have formally approved letters of support for the coalition’s efforts.

“We’re still trying to build on that base,” Mandel said.

The first order of business: obtaining federal/state Transportation Alternatives Program grants for a $160,000 master plan to guide future trails’ planning and construction.

The River Crossing project includes a $10 million Loop Trail for bikes and pedestrians. The new bridge itself will feature bike and pedestrian access, and Stillwater’s old lift bridge will be devoted solely to two-wheeled and foot traffic once the new structure is complete.

The coalition hopes many more trails will be built as well, especially Loop Trail extensions south to the city of Hudson and Interstate 94, for starters. The master plan will help the county and the group chart out others over the next 20 years.

Is it too late to catch up?

“Absolutely not,” said Vanasse, who cited an explosion of bike enthusiasm in recent years, both in the St. Croix County area and statewide.

“Really, we haven’t encountered any resistance at all so far,” he added. “And that’s because more people are starting to recognize how valuable bike and pedestrian trails are. You do have to explain this further sometimes, because some communities still haven’t heard about all this.

“But once you do, they tend to understand.”

More information is available on the coalition’s website: www.stcroixtrails.com. Mandel can be reached by email: scbptc@gmail.com. The group also has a page on Facebook and is in the process of developing a presence on other social media.

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