CROSBY -- When construction wraps up later this summer on a new tunnel beneath Highway 6 in Crosby, supporters hope it spells the end of the substantial risk users experience now attempting to cross the busy road.
This week marked the beginning of the transformation of the crossing with closure of that portion of the highway and construction underway, projected to conclude Aug. 22. The trail crossing is part of the Cuyuna Lakes State Trail, used by pedestrians, snowmobilers and especially by visiting and resident mountain bicyclists. From there, trail users may continue on the paved trail, make their way to the Yawkee Unit of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area mountain bike trails or visit the city of Crosby.
But mounting concerns over the danger at the crossing led the Minnesota Department of Transportation to partner with the city of Crosby in pursuing a tunnel.
“They (MnDOT) were very concerned for safety and for traffic flow,” said Lisa Sova, Crosby city administrator, at city hall in late May. “When cars stop to let the bikers through, there is traffic coming behind them that’s not anticipating that the traffic in front of them is going to stop and that creates a safety concern.”
When a potential snag involving the relocation of a force main sewer pipe cast doubt on the $1.56 million project earlier this year, letter after letter detailing personal experiences with heart-pumping near-misses poured in. Among those were avid mountain bicyclists Charles and Susan Carlson, who said they recently sold their longtime Brainerd home to move to the Cuyuna Range because of the recreation opportunities.
“Two years ago, we were nearly hit by a car at the HWY 6 crossing,” the couple wrote. “We waited for traffic to clear before crossing but cars in both directions stopped and waved us across. As we began to cross the road, another car came around one of the stopped cars at full speed and nearly hit us both. … If left unchanged, a tragedy is waiting to happen. It is a miracle that no one has been seriously injured or killed up to this point.”
Collaboration to address top concern
Aaron Hautala, president emeritus of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, said a minimum of 30,000 visitors use the trails and may visit surrounding cities each year. This number is likely to continue increasing with at least 30 additional miles of mountain biking trails planned for the recreation area. He said the tunnel is the answer to concerns over the crossing identified long ago in a survey of cyclists -- but the benefits don’t stop there.
“It’s huge -- not only for cyclists, but people who walk and snowmobile, too,” Hautala said by phone in May. Among trail users are families with small children and others uncomfortable with the prospect of crossing a busy state highway with annual average daily traffic measured at 4,150 vehicles in that stretch, per MnDOT statistics.
“We’ve had so many friends and peers that have had near misses there,” Hautala said. “Addressing a safety concern with the network, it was a huge blessing … on behalf of not only cyclists, but it impacts the drivers as much as it impacts the cyclists.”
Improvements for all users was part of MnDOT’s calculation, according to Sova, and the state agency’s financial support of the project within city limits is what ultimately made it possible, in conjunction with a variety of other funding sources. Those include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources contributing $150,000, the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation offering $134,000 and a $100,000 grant from the Hallett Charitable Trusts -- leaving the city of Crosby with a $97,000 bill toward a project exceeding costs of $1.5 million.
“A project of this size, to have so many different entities contributing sizable dollars, speaks to how important it is,” Sova said.
A boon to the region
Crosby Mayor Bob Novak has no trouble finding the words to describe the impact the Cuyuna mountain biking trail system has had on his city and others in the region. Building the tunnel is a natural extension of this evolving economic landscape, Novak said, “not only for safety, but just continuity of the whole trail system.”
“It has become a huge economic driver for our community, and you only need to drive down Main Street today to recognize the impact that it’s having,” Novak said. “I can’t even tell you how many new businesses have sprung up since the whole biking industry has come to Crosby, and one of the great things about it is -- we like to point out -- it’s tying the city and community’s heritage past to the future, because we’re utilizing the mine pit lakes.”
These businesses include eateries, liquor establishments, retail locations, lodging accommodations and more. Among those in the pipeline is a proposed 52-room hotel, which Novak described as “beyond the rumor stage” with declared intentions to build by a developer.
Not only has the recreation area drawn new businesses, Novak said it’s led to the revitalization of established businesses in the city and supercharged the housing market.
“It’s pushing our tax base obviously in a good way,” the mayor said. “Part of what we talk about to residents and people that are here is the more we can improve our tax base, you can fund new equipment that we need, fire trucks and police cars and public works vehicles. … It’s helping with some of what I would call urban blight. I can’t even begin to say how many buildings on Main Street have made improvements. Some of them wholesale, and some of them just cosmetic. But it really has made a big difference.”
Sewer pipe temporarily muddies waters
Singing the praises of the tunnel project comes easy for city officials and a number of businesses and organizations, but that wasn’t the case for everyone. Occurring in conjunction with tunnel construction is the relocation of a force main sewer pipe owned by the Serpent Lake Sanitary Sewer District, which serves the cities of Crosby, Ironton, Deerwood and Cuyuna.
Sewer district officials noted they understand the need, but the selected location for the tunnel and a seemingly late discovery of the force main’s proximity led to headaches for the district.
Meanwhile, Novak and Sova said the location selected for the tunnel seemed to be the only possible choice when engineering work was completed and all topographical and other environmental factors were considered.
District officials learned it would be required to move the pipe after the first of the year, when the budgeting process was already complete. Concerned about the project’s potential to drive an increase in rates for users of the sewer system or thwart another planned capital project for this summer, the sewer district board at first balked at the state agency’s insistence it must move the pipe.
This led to a flurry of letters in support of the tunnel addressed to members of the sewer district board. As this took place, state Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, learned of the tension, according to Lloyd Brix, sewer district board chair. The District 10B representative also sits on the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, and played a role in helping the sewer district eventually secure matching funds from the development agency. In a stroke of luck, Brix said, another grant recipient returned unused funds, which were then approved by the IRRRB to be redirected toward the Crosby infrastructure project.
The city, which serves as the fiscal agent for the funds, and the sewer district learned of the award in June. The cost to move the force main was expected to be $226,500, with matching funds covering $113,250.
UPDATE: This story was updated to correct the Crosby mayor's name. The Dispatch regrets the error.