Bridging highways and rail lines for safety

The regular set of pedestrian-accessible crossings of I-94 lies in stark contrast to the weak connectivity across railroad tracks 2 miles to the north.

The regular set of pedestrian-accessible crossings of I-94 (blue markers) lies in stark contrast to the weak connectivity across railroad tracks 2 miles to the north (green/yellow markers). The site of last month’s accident which maimed a 9-year-old boy is marked in red.

The construction of Interstate 94 through St. Paul is often seen as a black mark on the city’s history, but there was one fairly positive outcome from the planning processes of the time—there is a very regular interval of pedestrian connections across the freeway, with bridges almost every quarter-mile from the city’s downtown to the western border with Minneapolis. Most of the crossings carry a mix of traffic, but some are exclusively built as bike/pedestrian bridges. It’s the most consistent stretch of cross-highway connections I’ve found anywhere in the Twin Cities.

I don’t really enjoy crossing I-94 on foot or by bike, but it is easy to find access points. That’s in sharp contrast to my own neighborhood about two miles to the north, where there is much poorer connectivity across a railroad line that is more than half a century older than the Interstate. I was starkly reminded of the problem last month when a 9-year-old boy, Marshawn Farr-Robinson, fell from a moving train which chopped his feet off at the ankles. That incident happened at an illegal crossing near Ivy Avenue and Farrington Street (shown with a red marker on my map above).

Minnesota Public Radio reported that the site lacked a required fence, but is sealing up the railroad corridor at this spot really the right response? In order to go the one-block distance from the corner of Farrington and Ivy Ave north to Farrington and Cottage Ave, a person could walk directly across the tracks and get there in about 3 minutes (assuming there wasn’t a stopped or moving train blocking the path). Or, that person might decide to take the shortest legal route by going over to Dale Street and doubling back: 7/8ths of a mile, taking about 17 minutes. Even if you had to wait 10 minutes for a train to pass, it’d still be easier to go straight across the tracks, so that’s what people do.

I live near an illegal crossing along that same rail line at Hamline Avenue, which people use to get between the Bandana Square area of Energy Park and the Como Park neighborhood just to the north. There’s a fence there, but a hole has been cut in it for many years. It periodically gets repaired, but is opened up again just as quickly.

What is the right distance to have between crossings of a man-made or natural boundary—a highway, a rail line, or a river? You can go somewhat overboard, like with the old Milwaukee Road corridor in south Minneapolis, now the Midtown Greenway—that gets up to nearly 16 crossings per mile, or one for nearly every short side of a block. In St. Paul, city blocks are mostly oriented with their long sides running east-west, so the bridges over I-94 are roughly one every two blocks.

We can take a cue from the “desire paths” which cross the railroad tracks today: From visual inspection of the line on the ground and via my favorite mapping sites, it appears that they show up pretty consistently about every 1/2-mile. There are a few oddballs, like a path that has been cut immediately east of Snelling Avenue, but that’s partly there because everybody hates using the on-ramps to walk into and out of the Energy Park neighborhood. A spot like Snelling might only need to have some stairways cut into the existing embankments to make a safer crossing, while other places would need bridges or pedestrian underpasses. Those cost a few million dollars each, but with the federal government putting the value of a human life at $7 to $8 million, it’s pretty easy to argue in favor of adding new bridges rather than new fences as the best way to make living around railroad lines safer.

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5 Responses to Bridging highways and rail lines for safety

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke September 13, 2013 at 9:04 am #

    Here’s one example of the kind of spot Mike is talking about, from my blog: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2011/09/sidewalk-of-week-desire-hamline-avenue.html

    • Mike Hicks September 13, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

      Yep, that’s the one by my place. I’ll point out that there *is* a sidewalk most of the way between the two railroad tracks, but I only discovered it by staring at Google Maps. The first time I tried going north through Energy Park, I did exactly the same thing you did — cutting across parking lots and grassy embankments. It’s still amazing you found some curb cuts along that phantom path, though!

      Here’s a map of the “right” way to go: http://goo.gl/maps/nWIZ4

      Bandana Square has a mostly-useless skyway linking the main building to a parking lot to the north, and I wonder if they had intended for that to eventually go across the railroad tracks — that sure would make it easy to add a Northstar-style train station someday.

  2. Andrew September 13, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    I completely agree Mike. Trying to bike over the rail lines is even more annoying since you pretty have to take a legal route (dragging a bike over a rail yard truly sucks).

  3. Payton September 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    As with rapid-transit stop spacing, half a mile ensures that nobody along the corridor is more than 1/4 mile (5 minutes) from a crossing.

  4. Nathanael September 17, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    There are sections of the railway line where’s it’s always going to be impractical to build frequent bridges: the sections with the railyards, mostly west of Snelling. There are always likely to be extra tracks there; so the bridges have to be very, very long, and that makes them very, very expensive.

    However, it should certainly be possible to have more frequent bridges in the areas where it’s just a couple of tracks.

    And improving the pedestrian connections to the Snelling Bridge is a real no-brainer. Although in retrospect I can only describe the Energy Park developments as a mistake; the land between the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroad lines is really best suited for railroad-related purposes.

    I should note that your map is incomplete: Chatsworth St. connects under the tracks, and appears to have sidewalks.

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