Are USBR’s In MN Redirecting Our DOT’s Focus to Advance Bicycling

If you can remember my last post, I talked about the focused efforts to extend the long-stalled Bruce Vento Regional Trail. This is a rail-to-trail conversion, at least the part that is in place from Downtown St. Paul to Buerkle Road on the edges of White Bear Lake. BNSF did not abandon the corridor after Buerkle preventing an immediate extension of the same solution to the trail’s envisioned ending at the Ramsey-Washington County border.  Plan B is engineered, approved and out for Federal funding; at least a major part of it.

Regional trails like the Vento are one of the many layers that make local bicycle and walking connectivity really work. In this case, Ramsey County is working in concert with a range of stakeholders to provide a ribbon of walking and biking equity between Downtown and out-lying suburbs. The range of diversity, lifestyles and the like covered by this trail is immense. The Vento’s of the world become backbones to other local networks and when viewed in their totality a network for people of all abilities to use their bike for transportation and recreation or walk with friends in a secure place begins to take shape.

One more trip back to the previous post to make my point. The final line of my previous post offered to connect the regional trail above with the idea of walking or biking between St. Paul and the Canadian Border.  There is a connection. At the time I wrote that our state DOT was in hot pursuit of finalizing the initial alignment of USBR 41. US Bicycle Route 41 connects St. Paul with the Canadian border ( Grand Portage, to be exact). An earlier USBR, #45, follows the Mississippi, hence it’s marketing moniker Mississippi River Trail ( MRT). USBR 41 is being fast tracked. It’s initial alignment will be submitted to AASHTO in Washington DC this fall to acquire the official USBR 41 designation. The route will be added to the other 21+/- routes in the U.S. totaling over 11,000 miles in a network aiming to achieve 50,000 miles. All good, right?

Implementing a national highway for bikes is a big idea. Implementing federal and state non-motorized and equity laws at the project level state-by-state is an even bigger idea.  One has a lot of gloss, the other is a daily slog. But here’s the first twist, the glossy one can help the local one. By assigning the USBR designation to a local project like the Vento, efforts to fund its completion are enhanced. We will find out soon if the Vento, having been extended this designation, gets an advantage in the competitive world of bike/walk infrastructure funding. Why does this designation matter? Because the Adventure Cycling Association, the non-profit that manages the the USBR program, is a problem solver. The demographic for touring cyclists is a white guy 50+ who makes $75,000 or more a year. By extending the USBR designation to local projects to get needed federal funding, the ACA is increasing the odds that usable infrastructure for its national routes is built and these same routes will provide the training grounds for a more diverse demographic by providing a way to get to the store for milk, or ride a bike to a job. All good.

The other twist. The subtle shifting, or inclusion, of a  DOT’s focus to a state-based contribution for a national trails model might redirect state level bike and ped resources and slow a much more highly needed equity model to address infrastructure changes serving the requirements of diverse local populations. We’ve yet to see decades of painstakingly created federal and state laws, created to direct DOT’s in the building of an equitable and balanced transportation system, proactively used by them to shape our roads and intersections.