The mayor’s committee on Parks, Trails and Urban Forestry came together last night for the first time in a couple of months, and of course, bike trails were a major element of the spirited discussion.
A map of Storm Lake pasted to the wall in City Hall quickly became a mass of Magic Marker lines - places the county wants to mark as trails on existing roads, places the city wants to develop someday on and off streets, places the committee feels would make good trails.
By the time they were done, the thing looked like a junk drawer full of tangled old shoelaces of various colors. Trails here, there, everywhere.
It’s a good discussion, and setting plans and goals is an important step, if you ever want to achieve any action.
But it’s also going to be important to be realistic. Barring some billionaire riding to the rescue with an eight-figure checkbook and a desperate need for tax deductions, funds are going to be quite limited for Storm Lake in the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything, but it does mean we are going to have to carefully prioritize.
Painting bike lanes on existing streets can be done fairly economically, and signing bike routes, as is being done in the county, is something.
Beyond that, building new trail is as expensive as a first-lady-elect shopping excursion - it can set you back up to a million bucks a mile. Trail that is, not Melania.
There are some stretches of right-of-way that the city already has access to without having to break the bank to buy up private property, and that might be the low-hanging fruit in terms of new trail development.
Of course, what nearly everyone under the sun wants is a trail around the lake. But that’s easier said than done. A few key landowners don’t want trail running through their property, and obtaining prime farmland isn’t cheap. At one point county supervisors had approved a bike lane added to the county road south of the lake, ahead of a major reconstruction, but then the board turned over and the plan was forgotten. The road was rebuilt to the current width and the opportunity was allowed to pass us by.
At this point, if one were to build dedicated trail on the south side, it would likely have to follow the ditchline of the road, and you don’t even want to know what it would cost to connect the two ends of the existing LakeTrail at Lakeside and Frank Starr Park. That’s a whole mess of concrete or asphault, friends.
The mayor’s committee role is to address trail needs within the city limits, although possibly hooking into countywide or regionwide networks for the future.
Interestingly, the discussion began to turn in a new direction at this week’s meeting.
Trail discussion in the past has been largely driven by recreation needs and to some extent, the lure of attracting recreation tourists.
But now, it seemed to me, committee members are picking up on pedestrian and safety needs, and that could bring a whole different look to planning that map for the future developments.
Public Works Director Jason Etnyre wisely mentioned that there is a lot of foot traffic from the Rose/Tulip/Violet lanes neighborhoods - from children playing in the street to students bound for schools to adults walking to work at the meatpacking plants - in areas where there is a lot of traffic and no access to sidewalks.
Members of the committee too, noted that there in no sidewalk around the high school and in some key areas that children travel when walking to or from the various schools and bus-change locations, or accessing the Field of Dreams sports complex.
Also, Mayor Jon Kruse revealed that there is a possibility for a major residential development coming to the north-central part of the city, and with other recent apartment complex additions, there may be a need to connect trails with existing walks.
It was noted that some of these areas are not the prettiest, and trail work there would not attract starry-eyed eco-tourists by any means.
But, our first responsibility as local governments is to local people. And as important as recreational biking may be, safety for our families is an even higher priority.
New developments in the city are generally required to build sidewalks, but it’s hard to force walks to be installed on private properties that were “grandfathered in” before such policy existed.
That leaves us with a number of problem areas, from the entire Milwaukee-Flindt corridor to little stretches of a couple of blocks between stretches of sidewalk.
Committee members note that in some of these areas, children can be seen walking in the streets or on the railroad tracks, which is a concern.
We would all love to see miles and miles of beautiful, wide and butter-smooth new trail, circling the lake, serving every neighborhood, encouraging us all to be fitter, and connecting us with the Lakes, central Iowa and even surrounding states. Someday, maybe.
For now, we don’t have those kind of resources.
And that means you can expect this committee at some point to be asked to take that map full of its colorful, optimistic tangle of colored lines, and pare it to a couple of modest projects that could be shoehorned into the next fiscal year’s budget, or the one after that. Even painting bike lines on streets would probably take a couple years.
Practicality already seems to be seeping into the vision, and that is as it should be. Safety is job one, and if we can creatively bend projects to have some recreational appeal also, so much the better.