Trails, trails, trails.

Let me open with: I’m an overweight man who wonders whether he’s being dishonest when he clicks “stocky” on dating websites. I’m not a hiker. I’m an occasional walker-off-pavement.

A story about paving the Minnesota River Bottoms trail in the Twin Cities makes me think about trails in Duluth and about trails in general. Apparently, paving a trail is very expensive, and for that reason, people don’t want to do it.

Critics say costs to take the trail from dirt to asphalt could ultimately run between $13 and $15 million, an estimate based on other completed trails, which come in as much as $1 million or more per paved mile.

I wonder how much it costs to build a dirt trail, how much it costs to maintain one.  Duluth has some public-private partnerships that sustain our trails. I don’t know how that affects overall costs to the taxpayer to maintain them. But I am guessing there is no trail, paved or dirt, that is zero-cost to the taxpayer. John Ramos, arguably one of the Duluthians I learn the most from, has written about the trail system in Duluth. Updated signage alone will cost the city $400,000.

I get so mixed about things like this — so mixed about taxpayer dollars being spent on trails that are intentionally exclusionary (to people with disabilities and mobility issues in aging). I get that paving your trail makes it feel less natural (as if earth packed by pressure of thousands of footsteps is natural). But if you are so committed to an inaccessible form of recreation, then I’m not sure it should be taxpayer funded.

I have two anecdotes that help me explain why I feel this way.

Anecdote 1:
Students of mine worked on a project to design braille and audio signage for a nature trail in St. Paul. When they asked staff about what visually impaired users did, they said “We don’t have any. I’m not sure we need any signage for the visually impaired.” It was cluelessness incarnate. Maybe you have no visually impaired visitors because there is no way to navigate the trails.

Anecdote 2:
If we believe the popular mythology, Robert Moses built bridges over some roads intentionally low enough that buses could not pass under them — structurally keeping the poor out of some neighborhoods. We look at his plans as an exclusionary classism and racism built into concrete. Why is maintaining a dirt trail with tax funds not similarly exclusionary?

I don’t know. Maybe the kerfuffle in the Twin Cities would never happen here, maybe I am complaining about a non-issue. Maybe I’m venting about this because something else is stressing me, and I need to talk to my therapist to discover what is really bothering me.

But these are my thoughts today.


Ethan Perry

about 7 years ago

By this logic no taxpayer money should go toward building or maintaining stairs in public buildings because some people can't use them. Of course making accessible trails is important, but not every public trail needs to be accessible to everybody. I have no intention of ever climbing a cliff, but I don't mind if taxpayer money goes toward improving the ice climbing at Quarry Park.


about 7 years ago

Pavement wouldn't just feel less natural, it absolutely would be unnatural. Concrete and blacktop are not natural materials. Foot traffic is fairly natural. Animals create and follow trails. If we stop using unpaved trails, they'll grow in within just a few years.

What trail/s would you propose paving in Duluth? Many (most?) of the hiking trails are cross-country ski trails, thus couldn't be paved, and are funded by the Minnesota ski pass. Other hiking trails are SHT, and are maintained by that group. The bike trails are intended to have an off-road feel. Other trails are only maintained by constant use. There's no way you could make the trails 100 percent accessible.

We've got miles of paved Lakewalk, the Munger Trail ... is the Western Waterfront trail paved?

I'm not sure whether you're complaining about a facility you admit you don't bother using as it is, or just trying give us something to think about.

David Beard

about 7 years ago

"By this logic no taxpayer money should go toward building or maintaining stairs in public buildings because some people can't use them. "

We require spaces in a public building to be accessible (ADA-compliant).  I would not fund (and I don't think tax funds could be used to pay for) repairs to a  staircase if there were no elevator or ramp.  (Only a few buildings, even historically significant ones, get away with fixing noncompliant features of a building before installing the compliant ones.)

So your analogy falls apart, for me.  Build all the stairs you want, after you have installed the lift or the ramp.

"What trail/s would you propose paving in Duluth? " 
None.  Maybe I'm questioning $400,000 in tax revenue to update signage for a partially inaccessible public service.  Maybe that should be funded by a user fee, too?

"I'm not sure whether you're... just trying give us something to think about."
Totes that.  My taxes fund all sorts of things I don't want them to fund.  But there are few things they fund that I might want to use but may not be able to, as I age.  That bothers me some, just enough to think about here.

Ethan Perry

about 7 years ago

You're right that my staircase analogy doesn't quite work.  And I have no opinion on the particular trail in question. But the implications of a policy to withhold public funds from anything that is not universally accessible would be troubling. The Forest Service, for instance, spends money maintaining campsites in the Boundary Waters, which are purposefully inaccessible.

User fees do often make up a portion of the funds for these kinds of things, but raising them too much runs the risk of making places accessible only to the wealthy.

Thanks for bringing up the issue. There are lots of interests to balance in public spaces. I pay a user fee for cross country ski trails, and while I appreciate that they're kept clear, most of the fee goes toward big trail grooming machines. I'd prefer ungroomed trails--speed not being my goal, but I'm outnumbered.


about 7 years ago

As far as the trail situation in the MN River Valley, I think you only have part of it right.   I live very close to part of the trail system, and use the trails frequently, for dog walking, exercise, and wildlife photography.

People don't want to pave the trails because:  a. it would be an unnecessary intrusion ecologically on a reasonably natural area in the Metro area; b. the trails cost the taxpayers very little now, because one of the major users of the trail, trail bike riders, volunteer to maintain them for free; c. there would be a large ongoing maintenance cost, since the area floods frequently, and running water is not kind to asphalt; d. there are all sorts of questions about where the funding will come from.  Despite the politicians in favor pf paving claiming it is fully funded, it's apparently not.  Legislators are still trying to find money sources for the initial paving, and my understanding is that the whole cost of ongoing maintenance issue is being ignored, even as the DNR is having trouble maintaining trails that already exist.

Finally, parts of the MN River Valley system are already paved.  One can go all the way from Bloomington Ferry to Valleyfair by paved trail.  But the act of paving a trail fundamentally alters its character and the character of the area around it, and changes its uses.    That's why we don't pave trails in the Boundary Waters.

mole Z

about 7 years ago

I would also consider myself an overweight man. I am not claiming to be 100 percent on track with a healthy diet but in the past five years I can say I am probably 80 percent. Around 10 years ago I noticed a bodily change that happens to many of us as we grow older, I was getting fatter by the day. I had watched extended family members gain weight as they got older and remember making several mental notes that I should start a diet and exercise program to prevent the seemingly inevitable path to morbid obesity. In my family the three-hundred mark is a rule rather than an exception but I was going to be different. I harnessed my love for the outdoors into hiking and cross-country skiing and while I would never be considered svelte, I at least managed to stay on the lower end of obese rather than plunging into the abyss of morbidly obese. In my early forties I suffered a broken limb and other medical issues which limited my physical activity for about a year, just long enough for my genetics to get a foothold and I know this isn't actually true, but the way I remember, is that one day I woke up and I weighed 299 lbs. About this time I was recovering from my injuries and got a physical. I was morbidly obese, pre-diabetic and had high blood pressure.

Today, I am at about 260 and hopefully dropping. I keep to the diet 80 percent of the time and am feeling pretty good. My blood pressure is normal and my blood sugar are still a little on the high side but are below pre-diabetic levels. I feel that if I didn't have such easy access to trails I would not have achieved these health goals. I have a ways to go but I am confident, because I am engaged in a working formula. It is easy for me to walk, ski or ride my bike every day. Today I choose the more difficult trails because they are more strenuous and provide better results, but when I started out after my health problems, there were plenty of easier and/or paved trails at my disposal.  

I would be curious to know the breakdown on how much taxpayer money is used on a given trail system but I would consider it a worthwhile investment. Certainly this is based on my personal experience but I know several people who use the trails to stay mentally, physically and spiritually healthy and I am extremely encouraged by the number of young people and families I see using the trail. Seems hard to argue that it isn't a good thing but I realize the question is -- should taxpayer money be used.

I have been involved in trails long enough to know that public interest ebbs and flows. Government entities will allow  taxpayer dollars to be used for this kind of thing for multiple reasons. Attract people to the area, promote health, attract tourism, prestige, etc. The more popular trail use becomes the more likely tax dollars are used but if the tax dollars dry up, the trails will still happen. I belong to three trail associations and I have never seen a more dedicated and motivated group in my life. People who love trails will use or own money, time and sweat to make this happen and I have seen it in every place I have lived. Portland, the cities, and now Duluth. Enthusiastic people who want to accomplish something are often rewarded which seems to be the case in Duluth with the city backing some key projects.  

As a trail advocate, here is my response to the whole taxpayer and accessibility issues. Regardless of whether taxpayer money is used, I think access to a variety of trails by those who want to experience them is a priority. However, I don't think that necessarily means paving a trail. It might mean allowing a motorized vehicle for personal transport in some cases or widening existing trails or being open to ideas from the people who have the most at stake.  

Finally, as a trail advocate, I am interested in any resources that can help create trails and promote use but I am not hung up on getting taxpayer dollars to do it. It will happen without it. I also enjoy the arts but if taxpayer dollars are not used for promoting the arts, then I am confident that myself and others will still create art and find a way to share our art with others.

Personally, in our current political climate, I think the whole "taxpayer dollars" scenario is used to pit one group against another. I am not saying that was the intention of the original post but I think we have grown accustomed to view these discussions politically and economically and often the discussion leaves out the hard work of people who will make this stuff happen whether or not government funds are available.

Ian Koivisto

about 7 years ago

As for paving trails, you would basically need to start over from scratch.  Even the smallest paver (that I know of)  is about the size of a skid steer and weighs about 5 tons.  I think there are only a few miles of trail that are even close to accessible to a machine like that without tearing through the woods with a bulldozer to create a large enough path (basically build a full dirt road, lots of impact) to haul in the machinery, not to mention dump truck loads of asphalt.

The cost of a dirt trail is basically pennies on the dollar compared to asphalt.

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