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Could opposition to the Summit Avenue bike trail plan shape St. Paul’s elections this year?

Those who support a plan to add bike trails to the avenue say they’re opposed by a vocal minority. However, the departures of three supportive City Council members present an opportunity to the plan’s critics.

Gary Todd, chair of the group Save Our Street, holding a press conference along Summit Avenue on Sept. 29.
Gary Todd, chair of the group Save Our Street, holding a press conference along Summit Avenue on Sept. 29.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes

Last May, St. Paul City Council members voted 6-1 to adopt a high-level plan for rebuilding Summit Avenue that calls for constructing new, off-street bike trails along the entire length of the iconic 5-mile boulevard.

Yet it’s still far from certain that the city will actually be able to build the trail. Even if St. Paul voters approve a sales tax increase this November that would generate much of the funding for the project, future city councils would have to vote again to keep the project moving forward.

Neighbors who oppose the plan are hoping to make those votes politically uncomfortable — and they’re giving an earful to candidates for the four vacant seats on the St. Paul City Council.

“Every single door that I knocked … almost all of them say, ‘James, this is not what we want,’” said James Lo, a candidate for the open seat in Ward 1, which represents neighborhoods immediately north of Summit Avenue.

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What’s at stake

Supporters and city officials say Summit Avenue — both the roadway itself, and the infrastructure underneath — is long overdue to be torn up and replaced. That rebuild, officials say, presents a golden opportunity to remake the boulevard to be more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists.

But critics fear the bike lanes installation would force the city to remove too many trees, jeopardizing the canopy along the route. An organized opposition campaign has even sprung up; “Save Our Street” has raised nearly $30,000 and enlisted an attorney to thwart the plan.

Now some City Council candidates have voiced objections to the Summit plan on the campaign trail, including a few — like Lo — who are among the top fundraisers in this year’s race.

If candidates are able to win, they could leave city officials’ Summit Avenue plan on weakened footing: Of the four council members who aren’t returning next year, three supported the bike trail plan.

“If the city wants to, it absolutely can revisit this,” Save Our Street attorney Bob Cattanach said at a recent press conference. “And we believe that when the dust settles, when the courts have ruled, the city is going to have to revisit it … So I think the City Council elections are going to be very important.”

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One City Council seat that bike trail opponents could win

For an example, zoom in on the Ward 1 race — where the outgoing council representative, Russell Balenger, voted in favor of the plan.

Eight candidates are running to replace Balenger, and five of them have come out against the Summit plan, including two of the top three money-raising candidates: Lo and Anika Bowie. At a recent forum hosted by the League of Women Voters, candidates Jeff Zeitler, Travis Helkamp and Yan Chen also expressed their misgivings with the project.

“There’s no need for it,” Lo said. “We need resurfacing. We need maintenance of the street. But to cut down 950 trees? … We’ve got to save the character of Summit.” (This figure comes from an arborist that Save Our Street commissioned. City officials say this estimate of tree loss is vastly inflated.)

Two Ward 1 candidates support the Summit Avenue trail. Omar Syed — the Ward 1 race’s second-biggest fundraiser — voted for the plan as a member of the city’s Planning Commission, and said on social media that he stands by that vote: “We need to fix our aging infrastructure and create safer, more accessible streets for our future.”

Suz Woehrle also supports the trail and suspects that critics represent a vocal minority, but said that their advocacy has nonetheless spooked some of her fellow candidates.

“They’re shouting from the rooftops. They’re an outsized presence at community forums for candidates,” said Woehrle. “I think a lot of the candidates maybe misunderstand the percentage of people in the ward, and how strongly the people of the ward feel about this issue.”

Bowie said she supports repairing the current road surface on Summit, and “was 100% — and still am — on board with ensuring we have more safer measures on our bike trails.”

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However, Bowie worries not only about the trees along the route, but the “feasibility” of the whole Summit rebuild, which she believes is likely to exceed the current estimated price tag of $112 million. If it does, she worries the project on Summit — which cuts through the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods — could divert funding from other critical road repairs in less-affluent areas of St. Paul.

“I want to ensure that we have an equitable investment in all of our streets,” said Bowie.

The connection to St. Paul’s sales tax proposal

Bowie’s objection points at a critical unresolved point: City officials haven’t determined how to pay for the project.

They have said that securing funding for the bike trails themselves — a $12 million chunk of the estimated $112 million overall street rebuild project — could be fairly straightforward. The Metropolitan Council has long viewed Summit Avenue as a prime cycling corridor, and city officials believe they could win a chunk of funding from that agency.

But to build the bike trails, city officials need to nail down a funding source totaling $100 million or more for the rest of the street reconstruction project. They’re counting on St. Paul voters to pass the one-cent sales tax increase to deliver funding, not just for Summit Avenue, but for a list of another two dozen street projects across the city.

Cyclists on Summit Avenue on Oct. 3, 2023.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes
Cyclists on Summit Avenue on Oct. 3, 2023.
For John Wood, a supporter of Save Our Street, the link to the Summit project has prompted some second thoughts about the sales tax proposal.

“I’m not necessarily against higher taxes automatically, but it really does depend on what they’re spent on,” Wood said. “St. Paul’s a wonderful city that has some big problems — a dearth of affordable housing, crime, homelessness issues … A bike path in a neighborhood like Summit Hill is not that important.”

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A look at other ward races

In other council races, the Summit Avenue bike trail has become a code word for candidates describing City Hall officials who — in their view — haven’t listened to feedback from residents.

“It’s a glaring example of a failure of a city government that has gotten as far as it has with as little transparency about what was supposed to be happening there,” said candidate Patty Hartmann, who’s running for the open seat in Ward 3, which covers Highland Park and Mac-Groveland, and borders Summit to the south.

Hartmann has been out-fundraised by two other candidates in Ward 3 — Saura Jost and Isaac Russell.

At a recent League of Women Voters forum, Russell expressed interest in brokering a compromise between residents concerned about tree loss, and cyclists looking for a safer route. He suggested the city should commit to a net gain of trees along the corridor if the project moves forward.

“A lot of people have not felt that their concerns have been reflected in the development of the plans,” Russell said. “That can, unfortunately, help poison the well and lead people not to trust the process.”

Jost said that Summit is like many streets across St. Paul that are “past their design life,” and which must be replaced. She said the city must replace them with “climate-resilient infrastructure,” and that foresters should be able to advise on minimizing tree loss.

“We need to build multiple types of transit for everyone in our city, no matter how you want to get around,” said Jost. “I know that we can come up with a solution that will be built to last and work for everyone.”

Woehrle, the Ward 1 candidate who said she’s running on a “Streets for All” platform, said there are ways planners can address opponents’ most valid concerns — including about street parking and access for people with disabilities — when it comes time to draw up more detailed designs for the project.

Summit “is a huge major artery that connects to everywhere else that you would want to go — and it connects to other bike arteries,” Woehrle said. “I know people have said, ‘Oh, just use another street.’ There is not another street that would do for cycling access what Summit would do.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify which candidates were the biggest campaign fundraisers in the Ward 1 race.