Rails to Trails…to Rails

Minneapolis has the number one park system in the country. Every generation has made its contributions to the Minneapolis parks system. But some of our newest additions may be gone before they ever get the chance to become part of the fabric of this city.  Two proposed light rail projects, the Southwest Transitway and the Bottinneau Transitway, and a proposed Midtown Greenway streetcar intend to build on land currently devoted to scenic trails and parkland.

Like many midwestern cities, Minneapolis was formed by the railroads almost as much as by the natural landscape. When it became apparent that freight traffic was steadily declining, Hennepin County had the foresight to purchase many miles of rail corridors across the metro. The Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (HCRAA) was established in 1980 for this purpose and currently manages 55 miles of corridors and 2 railroad depots; for a total of 83 acres. Since 1980, every single mile has been transformed into a bicycle/pedestrian trail, nearly doubling the number of trails in this county. The corridors purchased by the HCRRA include:

  • The 2-mile Northeast Diagonal Trail

These trails have formed a bicycle highway system. Construction of the the Cedar Lake Trail started in 1995 and was finally completed in 2011 (it was the first federally funded bicycle commuter trail in the nation). Construction on the beautiful Kenilworth Trail started in 1999. And though it’s already hard to imagine Minneapolis without it, the Midtown Greenway was only completed in 2007.

The HCRRA states on their website that “recreational trails have been constructed on these corridors as an interim use” and that the “land was acquired for future transportation needs.” As we all know, plans to construct light rail have been swirling for decades. My concern is that Hennepin County and the Metropolitan Council are following through with plans to use these areas to construct light rail, despite the fact that in the 30 years since this land was set aside for future transportation projects, its clear that what has already emerged is an amazing and valuable system of bicycle trails and scenic parkland.

Kenilworth Trail,  Credit: Michael Hicks

Kenilworth Trail, Credit: Michael Hicks

What is currently a trail through woodland or native prairie, will become a trail next to a high frequency train. It will be misleading to continue calling the Midtown Greenway, a “greenway,” if streetcar is built. Notice the Met Council does not call it the “Midtown Greenway.” In the DEIS for the Southwest Transitway, it is called the “Midtown Corridor” and in parenthesis: “referred to as the Midtown Greenway.”

The Met Council has made assurances that all trails on HCRRA property will be preserved when possible, but the exact plans are still not completely known. For the trails affected by the Southwest Transitway, “modifications to the trails will be determined once the project enters the Preliminary Engineering and Final Design phases.” Due to the controversy surrounding the possible re-route of the  Twin Cities & Western (TC&W) line through St. Louis Park, one of the current proposals is to “relocate the [Kenilworth] trail out of the corridor between the Midtown Greenway and Cedar Lake Parkway” rather than move the TC&W line. This is devastating possibility for both commuters and recreational users of our trail system.

Many of these trails are less than fifteen years old–and we are just starting to see some of the benefits from these projects. Bicycle ridership on the Midtown Greenway has increased 261 percent since 2003. And Minneapolis bicycling in general has increased 47 percent since 2007 according to a 2011 Minneapolis Public Works Department count. Its not a surprise then, that Minneapolis was named “fittest city in the US” for the third consecutive year. It is our green spaces that bring people out to ride their bikes, to run, or to walk.

Minneapolis is being recognized as a national leader in parks investment, health, and bicycling. Will we reverse this trend or carry it forward?


What do you love about the Midtown Greenway? A great video put together for the first Greenway Challenge in 2010:

Kasia McMahon

About Kasia McMahon

Kasia McMahon is an advocate of the natural recreation areas of Minneapolis and surrounding metro. You can read her blog at saveminneapolisparks.com.