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Bike commuters worry new Minnesota River bridge path will be underwater most of year

Black Dog Trail in Burnsville has been flooded for weeks on end this year.

Black Dog Trail in Burnsville has been flooded for weeks on end this year. Risa Hustad

Risa Hustad lives in Minneapolis and works in Burnsville. When they ride their bike to work, they have two options to get across the Minnesota River.

One is to ride to the old Cedar Bridge and pray the trail isn’t flooded. Last week, for instance, Hustad forgot to check the water levels and wound up soaked from the kneecaps down in near-freezing river runoff, with 10 miles left in their commute.

The other option is to bike miles out of the way and cross over the Mendota Bridge, which isn’t exactly ideal, either.

“It’s really an exceptional ask to have somebody with a bicycle go so far out of their way for a safe route,” Hustad says.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is hard at work replacing the I-35W bridge over the Minnesota River, connecting Cliff Road in Burnsville and 106th Street in Bloomington. Construction began in the summer of 2018, and it’s supposed to be complete around this time in 2021.

Hustad first heard about the project last year in a quick Star Tribune blurb and was initially excited to have a better route across the river. Then they saw maps of the future bike/pedestrian lane. The plan was to connect the new bike path to an existing recreational trail in Burnsville: Black Dog. It in turn connects to Black Dog Road, which is used mostly by employees at the nearby Xcel Energy power plant.

That’s already kind of a bummer, but Hustad is more concerned about Black Dog itself. There's a reason the city transferred ownership to Xcel back in 2014: It's a maintenance-hungry flood magnet.

When the river swells, it gushes right onto Black Dog Road—and Black Dog Trail. This year, it’s been closed for weeks on end—some 136 days, Hustad says. During one recent commute, they even found the carcass of a Northern pike caught in a nearby chain-link fence. When it’s not totally flooded, there's still all the discarded flotsam and jetsam blocking the path.

What good is a new bike lane, Hustad asks, if nobody can get to it for most of the bikeable year?

MnDOT communications director Kirsten Klein says the department has definitely received concerns from bikers and pedestrians since about July (it’s been a particularly nasty year for flooding). But it’s too “late in the game” to address them now.

“We started doing outreach for the project in October of 2015,” she says.

Any existing trail “impacted by construction” will be reconstructed, but otherwise, they’re “outside of the project limits” and will remain as is. Any further improvements, Klein says, are probably up to the city of Burnsville.

Hustad’s not satisfied with that explanation.

“They’re kind of just stuck in this silly catfight,” they say. Neither MnDOT nor Burnsville wants to claim responsibility for getting bikers out of the floodplain—not when the bridge project is MnDOT’s and the trail itself is Burnsville’s.

But Hustad thinks both are responsible for finding a better solution. By state law, city bridges funded in or after 2012 “must include bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.” Should multiple cities’ worth of bike commuters have had to attend public meetings several years ago to make that happen?

“It is not citizens’ jobs to ask MnDOT to follow its own design parameters,” Hustad says.

They’re not done talking about this; their next step is gathering other concerned biking and walking folks and sitting down with as many stakeholders as possible—both at the state and the city level. As Hustad wrote in a recent Streets MN column, they have to “make them care.”

Whether they can remains to be seen. In the meantime, MnDOT’s website says anyone unwilling to get themselves or their bikes soaking wet can take the METRO Orange Line bus.