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:

18 thoughts on “Rails to Trails…to Rails

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I can’t imagine colocation will kick out the Kenilworth trail. It’s just part of the universe of alternatives, but it has no chance.

    HCRRA purchased these ROWs for transit. Both the TC&W connection AND the Greenway are technically “visiting infrastructure,” however the Greenway obviously has a lasting net benefit to the public and helps create a network effect of bicycle infrastructure as you note. There’s definitely the right of way for full colocation between LRT or Midtown streetcars and a bicycle trail, and transit+bikes are a much more compatible use of the corridor than freight rail.

  2. Shane

    I think part of the reason the Met Council refers to it as the “Midtown Corridor” is because they were looking for a name that would encompass both the Greenway and Lake Street, which is also part of their study. If they are studying whether or not to put it on the Greenway or Lake Street, and they call it the “Midtown Greenway Alternatives Analysis”, that kind of does away with any appearance of being fair in the study of how to align it.

    The Midtown Greenway Coalition has been a heavy lobby to put streetcar on the Greenway. They have conditions in doing so, though.. conditions that ensure the preservation of the trail and that the streetcar is as “green” as possible. The only impression I’ve gotten from Metro Transit and the Met Council is that the “green” element of the greenway is very important to them as well, and they understand the trail has to be kept in tact. They’ve stressed that in all of their presentations.

  3. Travis

    I’m sensing a bit of pro-bicycle antagonism in this article, which I need help understanding. Why would rail on the Midtown Greenway make it any less green? It’s not all that green right now, mostly pavement, retaining walls and weeds. Yes, there are some truly beautiful parts, but how would adding rail ruin that? Not to mention the people it will take out of cars and put into electric trains.

  4. David

    “[Freight rail colocation] is devastating possibility for both commuters and recreational users of our trail system. [sic]”

    Can you please explain why, specifically? There are also plans to maintain the trails either by elevating them or elevating/tunneling for the LRT. It would be helpful to know why relocating the trail won’t work because it sure seems like the easiest, least costly solution to this mess.

    This whole article reads as being unnecessarily panicky. The Midtown Greenway is not going to be ruined by a streetcar. The MGC are the very people who proposed a streetcar in the first place!

    The LRT trail already runs alongside freight rail for much of its route. I don’t see how adding LRT would diminish the experience. As a frequent rider of these trails, I’d welcome another transportation mode to the system.

  5. Bob

    Not to mention the safety / security benefits to trail users of having additional “eyes” on the greenway from streetcar riders.

  6. Sean Fahey

    Streetscars should be on the street where they are mixed with car traffic and rider-pedestrians can easily walk into businesses and homes after leaving the tram without climbing out of the greenway trench.

    Most of the green part of the greenway would have to go, how much of the lawn that runs parallel to the trails could possibly remain when a two way tram is installed? Even if grass was growing between the tracks it would be hard for a biker or runner to stop for a rest or admire a garden with a tram on its way every few minutes.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      Why would we want a degraded level of transit service by placing streetcars on Lake Street when we have the unique opportunity to introduce grade-separated rail transit in a corridor purchased by the county for exactly that purpose?

      1. Sean Fahey

        I disagree that a streetcar that’s on a street has a degraded level of service if you factor in the amount of time it would take to travel to a stop in the trench, but it deservers further study. Still, there are a number of reasons I can think of:

        1. Transit riders stay connected to the street. The way I’ve used streetcars before is to jump on, go a mile or two, and jump off. I want to be walking right into a store on my way home from work. I want to hop on and get a drink at the bar.

        2. Walking up and down out of those trenches in summer, winter, or rain isn’t much fun and it’s time intensive. It’s like adding a 1/2 half – full block to everyone’s walk. For a biker this isn’t a big deal, for a flaneur maybe it doesn’t matter. But users in commuter mode shouldn’t have this barrier.

        3. Streetcars in the street calm traffic. Car drivers have to pay attention to what the streetcar is doing, and they will also be watching for bikers and pedestrians. You can’t go on auto-pilot. Does ‘calm’ = ‘congest’? Get out of the car and walk or bike.

        4. A lot of people like that it’s now a greenway. Families use it as a destination, it’s not just a means of getting from one place to another for everyone.

        We’ve found a new, interesting, and popular use for the rail corridors that was not in the picture when the rail lines were purchased. Minneapolis has only gained about 17k people since the HCRR was established. We don’t have to be locked into the decisions of the past planners out of some sense of tradition.

  7. Alex

    The Midtown Greenway right-of-way is 100′ wide for the overwhelming majority of its length. Light rail tracks at their widest point (in the stations) will need 50′ tops. That leaves another 50′ for trail and green space. Of course, most of the length will not be station area, so the vast majority of the greenway will feel very much like today. Considering the existential threat posed by climate change, I think there are enough synergies between green spaces, personally powered transit (i.e. biking and walking), and electrically powered transit (light rail) that we don’t have to say its one or the other.

  8. Joe

    Street cars should remain on the street. They will get much more use in the business district along lake street where they originally were.

  9. Jeremy Bergerson

    I tend to agree with Sean, but I have to say that, at the last Midtown Corridor event at the Whittier Clinic, I spoke with one of the main planners for this, and he let me know in no uncertain terms that “everyone is very sensitive about the bicycle lanes on the Greenway”. My sense is that the Met Council, Hennepin County, and the City of Minneapolis are all aware that to do damage to the Greenway would be self defeating and would become a PR nightmare.

    That said, streetcars could be nice down there. Especially given how menacing the Greenway is after dark, having more foot traffic and law enforcement down there would potentially create an even more safe artery for cyclists. My only real concern is how they would deal with passengers boarding and disembarking. If there are constantly people crossing the bike trail to get to the north side of the corridor, it kind of defeats the purpose of a bicycle freeway, given the slowdowns and stoppages that this would create.

  10. Nathan

    Wouldn’t putting rail in the greenway require demolishing and rebuilding most of the bridges? If you look at the spacing of the supports, there isn’t enough space for two tracks and a bike path of any useful width underneath. This seems like a terribly expensive option.

    1. David

      The streetcar would be single-/double-tracked. Double-tracked where it fits and single-tracked elsewhere.

    2. Alex

      The historic bridges were built to accommodate three sets of double-tracked freight rail. They will be fine. Some of the more recent bridges were built assuming no one would ever travel without their own car ever again, so they will have to be modified or replaced, but there are no more than a handful of these. I think the bigger bridge question is whether the historic bridges can be modified to accommodate vertical circulation, although I’m not sure how many stations are at historic bridges.

  11. Julie

    I think the more urgent concern is the Kenilworth trail over the Greenway. Colocation of freight and LRT will disrupt that corridor without tunneling the LRT. The city needs to hear from residents that the trails are worth saving. The city government needs to advocate for our city residents. The colocation of what should have been temporary freight traffic might cost our city the trails, green space and many residents their permanent homes. Let’s do it right for all communities involved.

    1. David

      I don’t think there are any plans to “disrupt” the trail in a colocation scenario. I was at the joint CAC/BAC meeting last night and all colocation options impact the same properties. Thus an at-grade solution makes the most sense and in that solution the trail stays within the corridor, perhaps being shifted ever so slightly to the south to make room. The freight rail is already to the north and I believe the LRT tracks will be as well.

  12. Cathy

    The full and real health benefits of open space are just beginning to be understood. Open space is space that is not developed, either by business, residential, or mechanized transit use. The Kennilworth Corridor is used temporarily for freight that runs very slowly and infrequently each day. Most of any 24 hour period the corridor is not occupied by freight. With light rail, 250 trains are planned. The DEIS for SWLRT cites time spacing between light rail trains at roughly every 2.5 minutes.

    Open space in any urban area is at a premium. The environmentally friendly benefits of light rail will be dwarfed by the business development (referred to as ‘growth’) planned along the light rail line once completed. A coaltion of businesses, the Southwest Corridor Investment Parntership SCIP, SCIP partners already include Target, Supervalue, Cargill, Japs-Olson, and Park Nicollet. (See the minutes of the SWLRT Business Advisory Committee Meeting 4/24/13). This is not an anti-business stance, simply a reference to environmental best practice. Growth refers to construction. Economic growth based on ongoing new construction in suburbs is not ‘green’.

    Supporting further residential density in areas remote from the city that require at least a 1.25 billion dollar investment to move a projected 29,660 riders a day in 2030, is not environmentally friendly. In fact, to date, the experience of other states indicate that this type of mass transit to the suburbs (versus within an existing high density urban area) support further expansion of suburbs and exurbs via park and rides.

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