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Paul Bunyan Trail closer to completion

Mayor Richard Lehmann, left, and Bemidji City Councilor Jerry Downs listen as U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, center, praises Terry McGaughey for his 26 years of work in developing of the Paul Bunyan Trail. Oberstar and 50 cyclists rode Thursday the new 11.5-mile paved section of the trail to Guthrie. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Work begins Aug. 17 to pave the Paul Bunyan Trail from Walker to Guthrie, making it a nearly contiguous 110-mile trail from Brainerd to Bemidji.

A ribbon-cutting was held Thursday for the latest complete segment -- from Bemidji to Guthrie -- featuring U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District.

Oberstar joined nearly 50 bicyclists for the fifth annual Paul Bunyan Trail Ride, which rode 13 miles out to Guthrie from the Hampton Inn and Suites, and 13 miles back. Riders were able to see the traffic snarls trying to get across state Highway 197.

The city is working with Oberstar, chairman of the U.S., House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the state Legislature to build a bike/pedestrian bridge over the highway, thus completing another segment of the Paul Bunyan Trail.

Oberstar has included $800,000 for the bridge project in his six-year transportation funding bill.

"From a federal perspective we want to deal with the bridge over 197/Paul Bunyan Drive," City Manager John Chattin said prior to joining the trail ride. "We're seeking funding for that several ways, with the DNR seeking funding in the state bonding bill and of course we'd like Rep. Oberstar to help us out with that, too."

The project cost of $2 million would seek state bonding on a 50 percent match, meaning the $800,000 in federal funding be used for the match and leaving $200,00 for the city to fund, Chattin said.

Another segment is being worked out between the city and the state Department of Natural Resources, with the city selling a portion of its new property at the southeast Lake Bemidji shore for the DNR to extend the Paul Bunyan Trail by water's edge.

"The land acquisition with the DNR is pretty well taken care of," Chattin said. "We've been working on our joint powers agreement with them, which will be executed at the same time that we close on that property, and hopefully that will be sometime yet this fall."

The DNR is seeking funds from the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources for the acquisition, said Steve Linnell, DNR trails acquisition and development manager.

"The number of times Congressman Oberstar has come here -- I don't know how you'd ever thank him just for the exposure that he gives us when he comes here," he said. "It really makes Bemidji stand out as a community of note in northern Minnesota, let alone all of Minnesota."

"I'm for it," Oberstar said of the bridge funding in his bill, that the Bemidji bridge is designated in the bill now before the House floor, a bill he wants to see pass before Oct. 1.

The bill itself makes a large commitment to bicycle trails and facilities, which Oberstar says even a 10 percent reduction of car travel in each state in favor of bikes would reduce the need of 550 million barrels of oil annually -- the same as the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia.

From 1971 to 1991, the U.S. spent $40 million, all 50 states combined, on bicycling facilities, he said. He became involved with the issue in 1991 when his wife, Jo, died of breast cancer. Since then, he's worked to see $3.5 billion invested in bicycling facilities, with 35,000 lane miles for bikes.

A proponent of healthy lifestyles, the bill also creates an Office of Livability to house all programs related to bike facilities and trails, including a Federal Highway Administration national coordinator of bicycle facilities, Oberstar's Safe Routes for Schools, land use planning and Rails to Trails program.

"We would concentrate all of those in one place and combine the resources -- human, physical, financial -- that are needed to elevate the quality of life that we expect from our transportation system," Oberstar said. "Bicycling will be a centerpiece of that."

Not only will more people bicycling to work or to shop save the use of foreign oil, it will also promote healthier lifestyles, he said.

He cites a Centers for Disease Control study on obesity that Type II diabetes had doubled in five years, that 75 percent of children 15 and under do not bike or walk. "They are driven to and from activities. We have an epidemic among children and this is an opportunity to change an entire generation."

Safe Routes to Schools involves establishing bike routes for elementary kids to take to school without crossing major traffic. Some $500 million has been invested in the program, with 6,300 school districts participation.

"They are changing the habits of an entire generation of young people," Oberstar said. "That's probably the best thing a person could do in a career of public service."

He said that 16 million bicycles were sold last year, more than the 9.5 million cars and light trucks sold.

"We need to move from the hydrocarbon society to the carbohydrate society," he said.

He disputes Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said Thursday that such spending diverts from critical transportation projects.

"Bicycling is a mode of transportation," Oberstar said. "Bicycling is going to become an even greater mode of transportation. The contractors who build the bike trails are the same ones who build the roadways and the bridges. They get the jobs either way. .. We're also taking carbon out of the atmosphere, we're reducing health costs, we're creating healthier lifestyles and more options for children to get to and from school than being driven."

Bemidji City Councilor Jerry Downs, who coordinates the Paul Bunyan Trail Ride, presented this year's Wheels of Progress Award to Terry McGaughy of Brainerd, who has worked since 1983 to see the trail completed from Brainerd to Bemidji.

Downs also announced that the Paul Bunyan Trail Ride in 2010 will be held in conjunction with the annual Ride with Jim event that Oberstar participates in June, and will held from Walker to Bemidji.