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How the new Summit Avenue bike trail depends on St. Paul voters passing a sales tax hike

The project will likely cost at least $112 million, and it could take years for construction to begin.

Summit and Lexington Avenues in St. Paul
If city voters approve it, the sales tax increase would generate nearly $1 billion over 20 years for road repairs and parks improvements starting in January 2024.
City of St. Paul

Last week, St. Paul City Council members voted 6-1 to approve a plan for rebuilding Summit Avenue with elevated off-street bike paths, narrower driving lanes and fewer parking spaces.

“It’s a huge milestone,” said Andy Rodriguez, director of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, which led the planning effort. “It really sets us up for the future.”

But after more than 18 months of dramatic and bitter debate, last Wednesday’s vote was also a little anticlimactic: City officials haven’t identified how to fully fund the project, which will likely cost at least $112 million.

“I’m the worst person in the world to use a sports metaphor, but … we certainly didn’t win the game. It is more like the break you take at halftime,” said Sean Kershaw, director of the Department of Public Works.

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When will construction work on Summit actually begin?

The short answer: Years. It’s hard to be more specific than that.

The more-detailed answer is closely tied to the fate of a question almost certainly headed for the November ballot which would raise sales taxes in St. Paul by one cent. 

If city voters approve it, the sales tax increase would generate nearly $1 billion over 20 years for road repairs and parks improvements starting in January 2024. That’s a game-changing amount of money for a city that typically spends around $22 million per year on street improvements.

The proposed sales tax is Plan A for securing the bulk of the funding needed not only for the Summit rebuild, but also 23 other street projects throughout the city. The sales tax wouldn’t be the only funding source, but if voters reject it, officials said there isn’t a Plan B yet for making these projects financially viable.

C’mon, give me some kind of timeline

The process isn’t that linear. Remember — city officials say Summit Avenue is long-overdue for a complete rebuild, from the road surface down to the sewer pipes. The idea behind the Summit trail plan is that, while the street is already ripped up, the city should reconstruct the corridor with new bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

This means the city’s parks and public works departments would need to align timelines for different parts of the project that will be funded separately.

“These projects take so many pots of money and really intentional planning to get it all to come together,” said Alice Messer, a design and construction manager for the parks department.

Following the City Council’s vote, parks staff can now work on securing funding for the bike trail portions of the project. The first step involves asking a body of the Metropolitan Council in July to add the city’s Summit proposal to the Regional Parks Policy Plan, which would make the project eligible for future rounds of regional funding for trails and parks.

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Meanwhile, Kershaw’s public works staff are responsible for street reconstruction aspects of the project. 

If the sales tax does pass, Kershaw said that planning work on the package of 24 street projects would likely consume much of 2024 and perhaps stretch into 2025. In that scenario, construction could conceivably begin in 2026.

But the projects also would likely be completed in phases — and the Summit project itself would likely be completed in segments, adding another layer of complexity to the challenge of aligning funding sources and timelines.

And if the sales tax does not pass, throw all of the above out the window — and tack a few extra years onto the timeline for the Summit Avenue bike trail.

In that case, “identifying consistent funding sources for road reconstruction outside of sales taxes is essentially the question we’d be asking,” Rodriguez said.

Meanwhile, the political fight over the trail may not be over. In a newsletter, the anti-trail advocacy group Save Our Street asked followers to “pay attention” to the candidates running in contested City Council races and to ask “how/who will pay for this trail?”

“We can keep pushing for accountability,” the Save Our Street newsletter update said, “as this visionary plan pushes closer to reality and the shovels move into position.”

Will property taxes go up for people along Summit?

Also not clear. Kershaw noted that St. Paul officials are revisiting their policies following a judge’s 2022 ruling that the city was wrong to tack special charges onto property owners’ tax bills to pay for routine street upkeep — but a street reconstruction is likely an allowable use for a special assessment, Kershaw said.

What will this mean for the trees?

Any street reconstruction will inevitably kill some trees with roots that have grown under the road; the question is how many trees would need to be removed on Summit.

Many opponents to St. Paul’s redesign plan believe the city has badly underestimated the effects the project will have on Summit’s tree canopy.

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City officials estimate that the rebuild could put around 200 of the 1,500-plus trees along Summit at risk for removal — in line with other street reconstruction projects, which typically claim 15% of existing trees.

Save Our Street commissioned an outside assessment from an arborist who concluded the Summit project might jeopardize more than 900 trees, but city officials have rejected that estimate. 

If the project moves forward, the city’s urban foresters would work with construction crews to identify high- and low-value trees and pick out trees for removal, but it would be impossible to say which ones right now.

Between 2009 and 2022, the city removed 448 trees from along Summit and planted another 330 new trees, said Rachel Coyle, a forester with the city.

“We’re removing trees every year and planting trees every year,” Coyle said, “so I can’t identify trees that are going to come out today, in five years.”