The fight over the River Bottoms Trail nearly derailed the Minnesota Legislature

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Longtime Bloomington resident Dennis Porter braves the rising floodwaters of the Minnesota River along the River Bottoms Trail.

The miles of dirt trail enjoyed by hikers, dog walkers, and mountain bikers is now, as usual this time of year, flooded.

The Minnesota River will crest soon, and the River Bottoms Trail along Bloomington's southern belly is unoccupied, save for the trillions of mosquito larvae waiting to take bloody flight.  

It's this stretch of verdant real estate that almost single-handedly derailed the Minnesota Legislature's special session.  

Last week Stephen Boyd, a member of Save the River Bottoms, a citizens group opposed to the current push in St. Paul to pave the trail, received an email from fellow anti-blacktopper Dennis Porter.

Porter, a longtime Bloomington resident, had big news. House Republicans, led by none other than Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown), planned to attach language to the massive bonding bill being hammered out that would eliminate the words "must be paved" from current state statute.

Those words, which are at the center of the controversy over the River Bottoms Trail, were slid into a monster appropriations bill during 2015's special session.

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The full passage reads: "That portion of the trail on the north side of the Minnesota River, lying between the Bloomington Ferry Bridge pedestrian crossing and the Cedar Avenue Bridge, must be a paved trail...." 

That would be the River Bottoms.

The language was the handiwork of Ann Lenczewski, the then DFL legislator representing Bloomington, who retired just a few months later to take a lobbying gig with powerhouse Lockridge Grindal Nauen. 

The following month, the Park & Trails Council of Minnesota, which pushes for more paved paths throughout the state, announced that Lenczewski had been hired to lobby on its behalf at the Capitol during the 2016 legislative session. She remains the Council's lobbyist to this day.    

When Boyd got the call last week, he well knew this was the moment the trail preservationists had been working toward.

"If [GOP lawmakers] were successful," he says, "it would be a huge win for the so many people who want this trail left alone as it should be."

The next night Boyd took to Twitter. He couldn't believe what he was reading. According to various Twitter exchanges, existing agreements between DFL and GOP lawmakers were coming close to crashing and burning because Daudt wanted to take out the language that would require paving the river trail. 

The fight would even spin off in a weird trajectory before the battle was over. Democrats, led by Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk (D-Cook), accused Daudt of injecting a "poison pill," their term for Daudt taking the hard line that "must be paved" be stricken.

But Dems calling out the GOP offered an ironic twist. 

It was Lenczewski two years earlier who had surprised fellow lawmakers when she inserted "must be paved" on the sly. Among the flummoxed had been Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar).

"This is the first I've seen of this," he said during a House Ways and Means meeting. "Rep. Lenczewski, I didn't know you put this in this bill or how you got this in here."

Hackbarth had good reason to be peeved. Until June 2015's surprise, the longtime Republican and Lenczewski had been working together on legislation that allowed for the Bloomington stretch not be paved.

But calling out Daudt's move an as suicide surprise wasn't good enough for Bakk. He'd manufacture further justification for the push back.

In a statement, he said the trail is “adjacent to land of a number of wealthy Minnesotans,” implying Republicans were doing this as a favor for some nameless rich folks, who were supposedly opposed to paving the trail.

Who these wealthy landowners are, nobody is saying. Messages left for DFL spokesperson Rachel Boyer were not returned.

Daudt would cave to Bakk's demands. Early Friday morning, legislators passed the $46 billion state budget.  

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Boyd is amazed how their fight to save the trail almost derailed the legislative process. Despite the fact "must be paved" remains on the books, he's jazzed their cause has gained newfound attention.

"It's wacky as hell that this trail almost took the whole thing down," he says. "More importantly, it showed that others, especially people in the legislature, are becoming aware that this push to pave is a boondoggle. The trail is in a floodplain. And right now as it's been for decades, it costs taxpayers nothing because volunteers maintain it.

"Ann Lenczewski has said the money is already there to pave it. We know that's not true. Not only do they not have the money, they don't even know how many millions the project would actually cost."

Lenczewski's home in Bloomington abuts Central Park. If the River Bottoms Trail were to be paved, a connector path in Lenczewski's backyard would likely be earmarked for blacktopping soon thereafter. 

Lenczewski didn't respond to repeated messages seeking comment.    

 


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