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Dakota County plans to speed up construction of dozens of miles of its greenway trails as demand for the popular amenity has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They're extremely popular because they connect people to where they want to go," said Jeff Bransford, senior management specialist and administrative manager for the county Parks Department.

The Dakota County greenway system — blacktop-paved trails intended for walkers, bikers and others — currently consists of 42 miles of trails, with an additional 16 miles in the works over the next four years.

Now, the county has committed to spending $80 million to $100 million over 10 to 15 years to build 77 more miles of trails, Bransford said. Altogether, officials hope the new segments also will boost the safety of the trail network.

Dakota County officials first envisioned the greenway system — linear parks of sorts — in 2008. The network goes beyond recreation and provides transportation, environmental and economic benefits, too, Bransford said.

Louis Moore, president of the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, remembers when the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis debuted and people didn't understand what it was. That has changed, and enthusiasm for the trails has spread across the metro.

"Bicycling has become so popular that we need as many bike trails as possible," Moore said.

In 2014, the greenway had 242,300 users; by 2019, that number mushroomed to 691,800. During that time, a "few key signature projects" to expand the greenway and make it safer were completed, Bransford said.

Anecdotally, he said, the number of visitors increased by 30% to 40% during the summer of 2020 as people stayed close to home and sought new ways to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

County Commissioner Joe Atkins, whose district includes Inver Grove Heights and parts of Eagan and Rosemount, said the greenways give people choices for getting around. But he said the county needs to pick up the pace of construction to increase safety for the burgeoning number of users.

Now, walkers and bikers reach the end of a greenway segment and must cross train tracks or a road busy with truck traffic, he said.

"The last thing we want, the last thing a motorist wants, is to have conflicts at grade crossings at Hwy. 52, Hwy. 3 or Cliff Road," Atkins said, noting he has heard already about crashes.

Moving construction along is "urgent" because development is quickly occurring in many areas of the county, making the necessary safety fixes more challenging, he said.

The new trails will bring the greenway system to a total of 135 miles. County officials envision an eventual 200-mile network. Before the decision to accelerate construction, the county did not have a set timeline for completing the network.

To fund construction, the county will use federal and state grant money, along with taxpayer dollars and special revenue funds — the county's sales and use tax fund, for instance, or its environmental legacy fund.

In some cases, cities will help pay for the greenways passing through their borders.

The county will use $2 million from its Environmental Legacy Fund to start the design process for the new trails next year. That will provide information on costs and the best sources of funding, Bransford said.

Trail construction also requires finding suitable routes and working with landowners to acquire the necessary property.

"[A greenway] is how you bring a park to the community, rather than expecting a community to travel to a park," Bransford said. "We're going to be touching many more people in a real way."

Mark Gilkerson, an employee at Erik's Bike Shop in Burnsville, said he enjoys riding on the Mississippi River Greenway from Hastings to St. Paul with its impressive views of the river.

"It's definitely one of the top rides," Gilkerson said.