On Wednesday, June 7 we held a panel discussion on the potential for a Midtown Greenway Exension, open to the community and hosted by the Union Park District Council board. There were nearly 100 people in attendance, and the meeting received front-page coverage in the Star Tribune. We heard from people who have been involved in the initiative to extend the Midtown Greenway bikeway from Minneapolis, over the Short Line Mississippi River bridge, and through Union Park down Ayd Mill Road. We've provided a summary of the meeting below, along with the answers to questions we received at the meeting. Scroll to the bottom of the page to review the biographies of the panelists.
To begin the meeting, Union Park District Council President Dan Taylor introduced the panel, and asked the panelists for an opening statement in response to the question: “Why is a Greenway extension so desirable for St. Paul?”
The first panelist was Soren Jensen, the Executive Director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition. Soren stated that the St. Paul extension would be a “natural and welcome” continuation of the Midtown Greenway. He discussed the historical efforts to extend the Greenway over the Mississippi. The last real attempt at an extension was in 2008; the project was not pursued because an engineering firm hired by Hennepin County advised that the Short Line Bridge, situated at the eastern end of the Greenway, was a potential liability due to its age and construction. Soren noted, however, that the firm was not allowed to physically inspect the bridge, so it made this negative determination on a visual study alone. Soren believes that another study is needed to determine whether the bridge is sufficiently sound or could be repaired or restored. It is unclear how much a study would cost, and the railroad has not always been willing to allow assessment, so that is a challenge moving forward.
In closing, Soren stated that for this project to progress there needs to be a coalition of elected officials, nonprofits, and businesses working together to create the political will to get it done.
The second panelist was Cora Peterson, a founder of the Min Hi Line Coalition. The Min Hi Line envisions a linear park with connections to adjoining businesses and new residences in what is currently the Minnehaha-Hiawatha freight corridor in the Greater Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, which has over 21,000 residents and 400 businesses. The Min Hi Line would complement the Short Line Bridge extension, and the Coalition’s work is informative for a St. Paul extension project.
Based on a 2007 report for Hennepin County, the Coalition understands that the three-mile set of tracks in the corridor, and the tracks on the corridor's only outlet--the Short Line Bridge over the Mississippi River--serve just two remaining rail clients businesses: Archer Daniels Midland and Leder Brothers Metal Co. Those businesses represented approximately 125 jobs at the time of the 2007 report, including staff of the Minnesota Commercial Railway that service the corridor.
The City of Minneapolis owns a small part of the Min Hi Line corridor, from 46th Street to Minnehaha Parkway (adjacent to Minnehaha Falls Park). The Min Hi Line Coalition is working with a developer and an adjacent property owner to plan a pilot of the Min Hi Line there. The Coalition publicizes issues related to the corridor on its Facebook page and is currently working with the Minnesota Design Center to create renderings that represent the potential future of the Min Hi Line.
The third panelist, John Maczko, serves St. Paul as Division Manager for Traffic Engineering. John said that the extension project is important because it would provide a significant off-street biking facility, closing a gap that would allow a person to bike from Eden Prairie to Stillwater without being on the street. (And, the extension is part of the approved Saint Paul bike plan.) John emphasized that community organization support for this project is really important, but he believes that most crucially, Canadian Pacific Railroad (CP Rail) will need to be engaged from early on. CP Rail owns the property targeted for the extension, including along Ayd Mill Road.
During previous discussions, CP Rail's concern was that it was important to preserve the Ayd Mill segment for potential rail expansion (for example, for a high-speed rail connection) and to maintain safety. Years ago, CP Rail was nonetheless working with the city on a potential greenway along Ayd Mill, which helped lead to allocation of federal funding. But eventually, CP Rail decided it could not support the project, and filed suit against city in federal court to preempt any potential for city condemnation of railroad property for the greenway, and subsequently the federal funding expired. Under current federal law, the city would need approval from the railroad to use the property, or would need a favorable determination from the responsible federal agency, the Surface Transportation Board. So, in John’s view, if CP Rail is not on board with the project, it will be very difficult to accomplish.
John mentioned that another opportunity to explore is the large “Rethinking I-94” project being conducted by MnDOT. If MnDOT significantly modifies or reconfigures I-94 in five years or so, a parallel bikeway could be constructed in conjunction with that project. In this scenario, the Midtown Greenway Extension could run along the south side of the freeway, instead of crossing to the north and back over rail bridges, connecting the Short Line Bridge with the Ayd Mill corridor. This route could provide another opportunity to connect to the Capitol City Bikeway downtown.
The fourth panelist was Mike Madden, who noted that the Greenway in Minneapolis is used by 5000 riders per day and expanding it to St. Paul would be significant. He views the extension as having two distinct sections. The first is the rail line west of Cleveland Avenue, which is decreasing in utility and increasing in liability to Canadian Pacific, and would therefore be a natural first phase for the extension project. From a biking standpoint, there would be high utility in this segment, since Cleveland is a north-south bikeway.
According to Mike, the second section, east of Cleveland and through the Ayd Mill corridor, is a whole different story. As John indicated, in this section Canadian Pacific seems to hold all cards, because of the federal law stripping power from cities to take property from railroads.
Interestingly, most of the Ayd Mill corridor – even the roadway – is actually owned by the railroad. The city has an easement on the railroad property for “highway purposes” for Ayd Mill Road. So, if the city could obtain a legal determination that a bicycle facility fits within that purpose (as opposed to a “recreational”) purpose, the city could dedicate part of its easement (currently for the road) for a bikeway. (This might seem like a higher hurdle to the introduction of bicycles into the corridor, but it's really not. Bikes are allowed on highways in many places. It's only with an expressway or interstate designation that bikes would be prohibited.) Then, a two-lane vehicle alternative can be created along the corridor, and a lane or two (currently used for roadway) could be dedicated to bicycles. With the necessary safety precautions, the city could implement bicycle infrastructure through the Ayd Mill corridor now, without railroad cooperation.
The final opening remarks came from Bill Lindeke, an urban geographer who sits on the St. Paul Planning Commission. Bill completed his Ph.D. studying biking and how it is approached by new riders. For his dissertation, he interviewed riders around the Twin Cities and found that many bikers mentioned the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis. Bill noted that the Greenway offers a versatile space for all types of riders, and is especially appealing to less experienced bikers as it provides a more relaxing, comfortable space to bike. Many riders he spoke with expressed their desire to see the Greenway extended over to St. Paul.
Bill concluded his remarks by talking about some of the real benefits of a greenway compared to other bike lanes and trails. For example, unlike bike lanes on the road, a greenway is very easy to keep clear of ice and snow in the winter, which would transform winter biking in St. Paul. When experts around the country talk about biking, and rank the Twin Cities high in studies and publications, the Greenway is always featured prominently. It is safe, draws diverse users, and encourages people to incorporate biking into their daily lives. In short, “a Greenway extension would revolutionize biking and people’s access to biking” in Saint Paul.
Following the opening remarks, the forum was opened to questions from the public. Brief summaries of the questions and answers are presented below.
Q: What’s the most effective way for the community to advocate for this idea?
A: Soren: We need to build a coalition with all stakeholders: residents, community organizations, city council, Ramey and Hennepin County, businesses, state and federal government representatives.
John: The city needs to restart a conversation with Canadian Pacific to figure out what really is holding this up. It doesn’t appear to actually be a function of engineering the space to accommodate the use, but something else.
Mike: The trail is a no-brainer; it is Canadian Pacific’s intransigence that has prevented it. The city needs a sound legal opinion that bike infrastructure is included in the definition of highway “transportation,” so a bikeway could be installed on the city’s Ayd Mill roadway easement. The city also needs engineering studies to demonstrate that Canadian Pacific demands can be met first, for a possible expansion to a second set of rail tracks, and second, for adequate space for rail servicing – with a bikeway also in the corridor.
Q: How much would an engineering study of the Short Line Bridge cost?
A: Soren: At this point, we do not have an estimate, but we are working on it. The Midtown Greenway Coalition is reaching out to engineering firms to get cost estimates for the study.
Q: In organizing the effort, is it smarter to ally with Minneapolis forces, or be St. Paul specific?
A: Soren: A combined effort would be better to build a stronger coalition. We have letters of support from the National Park Service and Friends of the Mississippi River. Friends of the Mississippi River is not supportive of building a new bridge upstream or downstream, but it is interested in multimodal use of the historic bridge, or using the existing bridge piers to build a new historic replica of the current bridge.
Resident: Joining forces with the St. Anthony Park and Prospect Park neighborhood groups would also be very beneficial as part of the coalition.
Q: Small businesses often fear dedicating resources and street spaces to bikes because of lost parking. So, how do you get small businesses on board?
A: Cora: The Min Hi Line Coalition has studied the example of the Beltline project in Atlanta. That project has brought substantial redevelopment to previously derelict urban ex-industrial sections of the city and has benefited small and large businesses. Looking to the Midtown Greenway example is instructive as well; there has been significant greenway-oriented development on previously underutilized parcels.
Resident: Since the extension runs along the railroad line, it wouldn’t require the same loss of parking as other bike lanes do.
Q: Has the Short Line Bridge really not been inspected recently?
A: Cora: It appears the railroad owner is responsible for regular bridge inspections (Federal Registrar July 15, 2010: Bridge Safety Standards Final Rule). The Min Hi Line Coalition requested information on inspection records for this bridge from the Federal Railroad Administration, but was informed no information was available.
Q: Would the portion west of Cleveland be viable on its own as a trail? Would it put pressure on decision makers to move forward with the rest of it?
A: Mike: The idea of implementing is segments is a good one, and west of Cleveland is clearly the best option now.
John: Taking it piece by piece would be a good idea. Starting at Cleveland Avenue and building west to the Short Line Bridge may be more palatable to the railroad and would provide a good connection to the Grand Round at Pelham.
Q: In Minneapolis, the capital budget committee is looking at a different trail and considering buying rail property, but has found the railroad is trying to gouge them on the price. Is that the case in St. Paul?
A: Cora: We have heard in general railroad company owners may request up to $12 per square foot.
Q: I’m feeling dissuaded by lack of firm numbers for this project and the number of guesstimates. What about ongoing costs and maintenance? Where is all the money coming from to build, maintain, and upkeep this project?
A: Cora: Successful financing models have been implemented elsewhere and could serve as models here. A tax allocation district along the trail could be created, for example, to capture new property taxes from currently underutilized adjoining land. With just a portion of the Atlanta Beltline actually built so far, to date the project's Tax Allocation District has already generated over $120 million to repay public agency funding partners for their investment in the Beltline's construction.Cities and counties need to be savvy about anticipating how they can recoup their investment in similar projects.
Mike: The numbers we were looking at in 2008 for the project were around $12 million for all three phases of the project.
For more information on this concept:
Biographies of Panelists:
Soren Jensen has more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and has been the Executive Director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition since 2011. The Midtown Greenway is a former railroad corridor in Minneapolis with a 5.5-mile-long biking and walking trail that has been called the best urban bike trail in the nation. While the Greenway was officially completed in 2006, many projects remain unfinished, including extending the trail over the Mississippi River via the Short Line Bridge currently in use by the railroad.
Cora Peterson is a south Minneapolis resident and a founder of the Min Hi Line Coalition. In 2016, she began working with Nathan Van Wylen, a Longfellow Community Council board member, to develop community support for a long-held aspiration in Minneapolis and Hennepin County planning documents: a greenway along the Minnehaha-Hiawatha Avenue freight corridor. Over the past year, the Min Hi Line Coalition has enlisted support from neighborhood associations, non-profit organizations, elected officials, developers, and corridor property owners.
John Maczko started with the city in 1985 and has served in many capacities in Traffic and Street Operations as well as Transportation Engineering and Planning. He also served 13 years as the City Engineer and is currently serving as the Division Manager for Traffic Engineering. He was involved in earlier efforts to institute a Midtown Greenway Extension From Minneapolis along the rail line through Union Park and down the Ayd Mill corridor.
Mike Madden is a co-founder of Neighborhoods First! – a grass roots organization that envisions a sustainable, livable community that includes an Ayd Mill Linear Park. He served in various capacities for the Merriam Park Community Council and the Union Park District Council between 1999 and 2012, including on the Saint Paul Greenway Extension Committee.
Bill Lindeke, Ph.D., is an urban geographer and writer who focuses on how our environments shape our lives. He has taught at the University of Minnesota and Metro State University, blogs at Twin City Sidewalks and streets.mn, and is a member of the Saint Paul Planning Commission. Much of his research focuses on bicycle planning, and how to attract new riders to urban bicycling. He has worked on initiatives to promote the St. Paul Greenway in the past.