by CHRIS ROGERS
Imagine bicycling on designated trails all the way from downtown Winona to the Wisconsin Dells. By this time next year, that dream will be very near reality.
This fall contractors will begin constructing a bicycle bridge over the BSNF railroad in Winona’s Aghaming Park, as well as a new bike trail that will trace Wisconsin Highway 35 from the railroad crossing to the Town of Buffalo Park. The new bridge and trail should be finished next summer, according to Buffalo County economic development consultant David Schmidt. A future, second phase is planned to extend that new trail all the way to the Marshland entrance of the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge. From there, the existing bike trails lead all the way to Trempealeau, La Crosse, Wis., and Reedsburg, Wis., near the Wisconsin Dells and Devil’s Lake State Park. In the more distant future, Buffalo County leaders hope to construct a trail tracing the Mississippi River Valley through Fountain City, Cochrane, Buffalo City, and Alma and connecting with more existing trails outside Alma.
This project will be a great benefit to the Wisconsin trail system, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Recreation Specialist Cameron Bump said. “It connects the two states so trail users can get from one to the next. You’re crossing the Mississippi River and you’re crossing a significant railroad. Those are both huge,” he stated.
However, getting to this point, Bump said, “It’s been a long road.”
Buffalo County leaders and Wisconsin state officials have been working for over a decade to secure funding and nail down all the details on the $3-million bike bridge and first phase of trail development.
At one point, the project was fully funded, but then the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) revoked funding because Buffalo County did not begin construction soon enough and the project languished, Buffalo County Board member Nettie Rosenow reported. Later, she added, the bridge had to be re-engineered multiple times to meet the railroad’s requirements — not to mention getting permissions from utility companies, acquiring right-of-way, and checking for endangered frogs. “It’s just been a very long, bureaucratic process, but finally I think we’ll get there,” she said.
“There’s a woman we’ve been working with at the consulting firm,” Schmidt said, referring to a company that helped design the bridge. “She’s had two babies in this time.”
Despite the delays and setbacks, Buffalo County did not give up. Rosenow and fellow County Board member David Danzinger pushed for the county to get the project across the finish line, and with Schmidt’s help, the county won grant funding for the entire first phase: $2.1 million from the DOT and the rest from the federal government.
Hiring Schmidt helped, Rosenow said. “The county never had anyone in charge of the project, and it really takes someone watching all of the details. If some little thing happens, it holds up all of the big things … Without him, I don’t know if we would have gotten all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted,” she explained.
The second phase of the project — to connect the trail to the refuge — is estimated to cost $1 million and a fundraising campaign is already in the works, Schmidt said. Eventually, some county leaders and the local Flyway Trail organization hope to extend the trail all the way to Alma. That 20-mile stretch is estimated to cost $24 million, Schmidt reported.
This first phase was a key step toward showing that the Flyway Trail can happen, Rosenow said. “You need to get that [first phase] done to show you can get something done. You’re not going to get money to go through Buffalo County if you couldn’t connect to that,” she stated. Raising the money for the third phase will take a long time, Rosenow acknowledged. “It’s really hard when you’re just a little group, and it’s not a real prosperous county. So it’ll be a long-term thing, but it’s a good idea, a good project.” She added, “There are a lot of people who don’t believe in a project like this … They don’t have a vision of the long haul. It’ll benefit everyone.”
“There’s a high price tag to this, but the value that will come to both Wisconsin and Minnesota will be significant,” Bump stated. “Right now, it’s hard — unless you’re in a vehicle — to get across the river and to have that trail access. With the growing trend of cycling for tourism, [this trail] will be the funnel that people go through to get from one side to the next.” That will bring tourism dollars to the communities along the trail, he stated. “So the long-term benefit is going to be significant for both the Winona area and the Buffalo County area,” he added. “It’s just the beginning of the trail network.”
The city of Winona has budgeted money to improve the abandoned concrete roadway in Aghaming Park that will connect the bicycle bridge to the Wagon Bridge road.
A contractor’s low bid for the construction project was accepted, according to Bump and Schmidt. Bump said that once the contractor prepares a construction schedule, a more detailed construction timeline will be available.