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By the end of 2020, an off-highway bike trail could connect Winona to Wisconsin if the Buffalo County Land Trails and Trust’s Flyway Trail fundraising efforts prove successful.

The plan to connect Winona to Wisconsin by way of the Old Wagon Bridge on Latsch Island is the first stage of the $21 million Flyway trail project, which was started by the BCLTT four years ago.

BCLTT member and Alma Mayor Jim Wilkie said the goal was to develop a trail that would connect the communities along Hwy. 35.

When complete, the Flyway Trail will extend roughly 40 miles north along the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River valley and connect Nelson, Wabasha, Alma, Cochrane, Buffalo City, Fountain City and Winona with the River State Trail in Marshland.

“I think it’s great. It’s not going to be cheap, and it’s going to take a while to get the funding in place,” said Brad Walker, president of the Winona Area Mountain Bikers. “As far as I am concerned, the more bike trails the better.”

Walker sees the proposed trail as the first step to connecting the two states in a convenient and safe manner.

“That’s huge,” he said. “It really allows people to get into the Wisconsin area and get close to those trails and avoid highway traffic.”

Walker said he believed safety has stopped many novice bicyclists and families from exploring Wisconsin’s bike trails.

“I don’t think avid cyclists mind riding the highway that much, but for novice cyclists and families it is a lot safer,“ he said.

Wilkie said the goal is to develop a trail that avoids the highway as much as possible.

“We’re hoping to develop a trail that is exclusively a bike and pedestrian trail,” he said.

However, to connect Winona to Wisconsin, a $2.8 million railroad overpass will need to be constructed to allow riders to safely and legally cross the tracks.

Of that total, $2.3 million will be provided through a Department of Transportation grant, but organizers will still need to raise approximately $500,000 to get the project off the ground.

To make this happen, the BCLTT has turned to Houston-based firm Crescendo Fundraising Professionals to gauge public support and prepare a fundraising plan.

Ellen Hongerholt, founder of Crescendo Fundraising Professionals, said organizers aren’t just looking for donors. To complete the trail, they’ll need to find landowners willing to support it through easements as well.

The Winona Area Mountain Bikers are among the first groups to pledge their support for the project.

“What people have been wanting is a safer way to get over into Wisconsin,” Walker said.

The Winona bridge connection is the first set in a much larger project planned for completion sometime after 2026.

The second stage, planned for 2023, would involve the construction of a 2.8 mile-long bike and pedestrian trail connecting Winona to existing trail networks in Wisconsin that extend as far as Reedsburg, Wis. — more than 100 miles away.

The third stage of the project, planned for 2026, would connect Winona to Alma, approximately 20 miles to the north. The Alma leg is projected to cost $16.7 million, however, Wilkie said state and federal grants should pay for up to 80 percent of the project.

Walker said the Flyway Trail also has the potential to drive tourism and economic development.

“If you look at what the trails have done for Lanesboro and Rushford,” he said, referencing the Root River Trail that winds its way from Fountain, Minn., all the way to Houston, a distance of 42 miles. “It gives people more reason to jump on a bike and jump across the river.”

According to BCLTT president Dave Schams, the Flyway Trail was planned with economic development in mind.

“Our objective is to increase tourism and improve the economic viability of our small towns along the river,” he said.

Schams said the Flyway would fill a big gap in the state’s bike trails and help to bring new people into the small communities along the river.

BCLTT aims to start construction of the first stage in 2020.

The BCLTT is asking anyone interested in the project to complete a survey at surveymonkey.com/r/flywaytrail before July 31.

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Tobias Mann covers crime and government in Winona County. He can be reached at 507-453-3522 or at tobias.mann@winonadailynews.com

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