State transportation budget renews cyclists’ hopes of Midtown Greenway-St. Paul connection

19 July 2023

It’s like the kids with their noses on the window of the candy store, only the window is a chain link fence and the kids are on bikes.

At the end of the popular Midtown Greenway near West River Parkway in Minneapolis,  cyclists, runners and skaters with St. Paul on their minds can only gaze through the barriers at a railroad bridge they can see but can’t use. Getting across the Mississippi River instead requires a meandering weave to the bridge that connects Lake Street and Marshall Avenue.

Yet there has always been a dream, at least since the Greenway was extended to the river in 2006, that someday cyclists and pedestrians could cross that bridge when they came to it. Bike advocates in St. Paul cyclists saw the fantasy as a trigger for better pathway connections on their side of the river.

There have been studies, and missteps, but no progress. So a short passage in the 2023 Minnesota Legislature’s transportation budget offers some hope that things could finally change at what is called the Short Line bridge. The Met Council is charged in the budget with planning for a river crossing and for a variety of trail connections into St. Paul and the existing north-south pathways already in place, with Allianz Field being the ultimate destination.

The planning is to include designs for different segments of an extended trail and in ways that do and do not include the bridge itself. Earlier versions appropriated $750,000 to pay for the work but as with many proposed appropriations for the Met Council, it was zeroed out when the same budget included a 0.75% seven-county sales for the council. Just use some of that money — an estimated $450 million per year — the Legislature said.

The project has increased excitement in the bike community.

“At least in St. Paul, the bike people have been dreaming about this for a long time,” said Andy Singer, co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition. “This is enormously popular among cyclists.”

“Oh my God. People would love this so much,” said Peter Wagenius, of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, who worked on the legislation. “This would be an extremely popular extension of an extremely popular trail.

“This is the time to be making plans because there is a lot of federal money available and we should be designing projects that could take these long-desired connections and turn them into concrete plans,” Wagenius said.

Sierra Club/Peter Wagenius

In presenting the budget proposal to his Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Scott Dibble said the current Greenway isn’t just a recreational path. “It is used a majority of the time by people doing their daily business. It’s like a bike superhighway.

“To be able to make the jump to St. Paul would make it even more viable for true transportation purposes,” the Minneapolis DFLer said.

RELATED: Is it the right time to extend the Greenway across the river to St. Paul?

Greenway advocates have made the case that the nationally recognized bikeway is also an economic development catalyst, pointing to  the residential construction near the linear park by developers who tout the connection to tenants.

The Met Council’s community development staff has started preliminary assessment of the budget instructions and will move ahead once the seven-county sales tax takes effect Oct. 1 and the council formally authorizes the work, said Met Council spokesperson John Schadl. It will coordinate with Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the cities and affected property owners.

One affected property owner is especially important because the stick in the spokes of this project continues to be an entity that can’t be forced to cooperate. The Short Line Bridge and the tracks on either side are owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway — or, since a merger earlier this year, the Canadian Pacific Kansas City. It, in turn, leases the right of way to a small carrier called the Minnesota Commercial Railroad that serves a few customers along Hiawatha Avenue — one regular and one occasional.

Railroad land cannot be subject to state and local eminent domain, thanks to federal laws pushed by the nation’s railroads. There have been times when railroads cooperate with conversions when their use for tracks ends with the Midtown Greenway itself being the most-obvious example.

Like the Greenway, the bridge is wide enough to accommodate two sets of tracks, or like the Greenway, one set of tracks and one bikeway. The bridge accommodates one remaining set of tracks with the downstream half-unoccupied.  In the past, however, the railway has not been thrilled about sharing the bridge — though it has shared the terra firma right of way from the bridge to Hiawatha for 17 years without incident. CP offered to sell the whole thing to the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority in 2006, but after an engineering study, the county opted out.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Short Line Bridge and the tracks on either side are owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway — or, since a merger earlier this year, the Canadian Pacific Kansas City.

One of the flour mills on Hiawatha still gets train service a few times a week. The only other commercial usage is the relatively rare instances when the Met Council has received deliveries of light rail transit cars that are transferred from freight cars to light rail tracks on a siding along Hiawatha Avenue.

An engineering study commissioned in 2019 by the Midtown Greenway Coalition found that the bridge could accommodate a trail in each of four scenarios:

The freight operation ends and the bridge is converted to trail use only
Freight and trail uses share a rehabilitated bridge
Freight and trail share a reconstructed bridge on the existing piers
A separate trail structure us built above the existing bridge

The estimated costs in 2019 dollars ranged from $7.4 million to $27.5 million. Any change to the visual profile of the bridge would likely need approval of the National Park Service because it stands in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

Wagenius, who was an environmental and transportation advisor to former Mayor Betsy Hodges, said the budget language takes advantage of recent changes in the usage landscape. The use of the bridge for freight is declining and emerging routes for trail connections on the St. Paul side no longer involve the CP railyard and mainline. That, he said, could reduce the railroad’s reluctance to help the trail cross the river.

“I can understand why they wouldn’t want bikes around the yard,” he said.

Even if the bridge continues to be a blockage, there are significant trail improvements that can be made between Cleveland Avenue and Allianz Field as well as from the north river to the University of Minnesota transitway at 27th Avenue SE.

“West of Cleveland we absolutely need their cooperation,” Wagenius said. “But there is value in doing this work even if we can’t do the project all at once. We don’t want people to think, ‘this is only worth doing if the railroad says yes right away.’ There is part of it worth doing right away and part when the railroad is able to agree.”

 Canadian Pacific Kansas City did not respond to requests for comment.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
At the end of the popular Midtown Greenway near West River Parkway in Minneapolis, cyclists, runners and skaters with St. Paul on their minds can only gaze through the barriers at a railroad bridge they can see but can’t use.

Singer said there have been attempts to leverage recent governmental decisions to get more cooperation from CP. One was when the state contributed money to the rehabilitation of a Greenway bridge over 31st Avenue. The other was the CP-Kansas Southern merger. In both cases the governments did not insist on concessions.

Singer said because of the power of railroads, agencies like Met Council or the two counties or the state Department of Transportation are reluctant to take this project on “because it’s a long shot or it takes so much time and negotiation before you can even build anything.

“But we think it’s a popular project and they should at least make a stab at doing it again,” Singer said. “I live my life by the acronym BALE — big aspirations, low expectations. I hope they do.”

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