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In a first for the area, a continuous 5.25 miles of the Dakota Rail Trail, from Wayzata to Mound, will be kept cleared this winter after Orono, Minnetonka Beach and Spring Park signed on to get it done. (Elizabeth Hustad/Laker Pioneer)

The thin orange and white wands already sprouting along a certain favored trail in Orono have caused a stir among those who would don their Yaktrax and brave the chill this winter: 5.25 miles of the Dakota Trail, from Wayzata to Mound, will be kept cleared of snow from now to mid-April.

That unbroken mileage has slowly been pieced together mile by mile over the past month and a half as Orono, Minnetonka Beach and Spring Park each added their sections of the trail to the total. Orono led the push with its decision in late September to plow its 3.5 miles (as well as just over 1.75 miles of the Lake Independence Trail), but the bigger goal was to keep it cleared beyond Orono.

Minnetonka Beach breaks up the Orono section of the trail for about 1.5 miles, and without an agreement to plow there it would have been a case of loading up the Tool Cat at the Arcola Bridge, driving through Minnetonka Beach and hopping back on the trail at Navarre—tedious, sure, but also hardly a good jaunt for those gaining momemtum under their feet only to be rebuffed by an insolent pile of snow.

So city officials were optimistic that in taking the lead on plowing this year that other cities would follow suit.

Indeed they did. Minnetonka Beach agreed Nov. 9 to have Orono keep on the trail through its own section instead of standing witness to that stop and start of plowing at its borders. Spring Park then decided a week later to keep its 1.2-mile section plowed as well.

It was welcome news to folks like Duane Glew, for whom zero degrees is still good for a 5K. Glew, who is retired from the Long Lake Fire Department and lives in Orono, said that in past winters he would drive to Shorewood to get those miles under his feet - the reason being, that city plowed.

Orono has historically maintained only a half-mile section of the Lake Independence Regional Trail, running parallel to Crystal Bay Road from County Road 6 to Wayzata Boulevard and serving as a sidewalk between its middle and high schools. The contract submitted to Three Rivers at the end of September would extend the plowed section south by an additional 1.23 miles, to connect with the Luce Line Trail.

The city will prioritize plowing on arterial and residential streets, but the Dakota and Independence trails will be maintained weekdays with the goal of a full clearing within 36 hours of snowfall. The one caveat is that there is a 2-inch minimum for plowing the trails, according to Orono’s revised winter management policy.

Minnetonka Beach expects to shoulder only a $1,200 payment to Orono, an amount far below what officials have budgeted as a $2,500 “place holder” for winter maintenance in the city this year. Steve Howarth, council member for Minnetonka Beach, also noted what he viewed as a win-win for the betterment of public safety, commenting that “With Orono’s solution of providing the service for us, this is a significantly de minimis cost for what I believe to be a huge benefit to citizens for safety” for how it might encourage people to walk on the trail, not the streets.

The cost of trail maintenance will be significantly more in Orono where the investment in additional snow removal equipment was made. The city quoted a $66,700 outlay for the Tool Cat in addition to an estimated $6,490 in additional labor costs this year for just its own portions of trail. Three Rivers does give a $500-per-mile reimbursement to cities that maintain trails in winter, which will alleviate the burden by about $2,660. The remaining costs will be taken out of Orono’s general fund.

Dan Tolsma, Spring Park city administrator, said that it hadn’t yet been decided how Spring Park will manage its plowing, but that subcontracting to Orono (as Minnetonka Beach intends to do) or having the city’s regular contractor do it were both options still being considered.

Discussion around maintaining the trail over winter isn’t new. Officials with both Orono and Minnetonka Beach said they’ve received a flurry of requests for the trail’s plowing in recent years but that equipment shortages had prevented either city from getting after it. In Spring Park, winter trail maintenance had always been dependent on what bordering Orono and Mound ended up doing, said Tolsma.

The cost-to-benefit ratio has also been a factor in years past. Prior to the 2018 winter season, Three Rivers didn’t offer any reimbursement to cities for winter maintenance. Danny McCullough, regional trail systems manager for the park district, said that only about 30-40 miles of regional rails ever got plowed before that incentive was offered.

Winter use of the trails is also more localized—think walking the dog, not destination bike rides—and is only about 25 percent of summertime trail use, added Marge Beard, Three Rivers’ district one commissioner.

In short, investing tens of thousands of dollars in the right equipment for a mile or two just didn’t make sense, which is why the three-city partnership was important from the start, said Orono council member Aaron Printup.

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