Bicycling in Saint Paul can feel like a meeting of a secret society, filled with special handshakes and meaningful nods. While other cities have well-signed routes and infrastructure clearly marked on the road, many things that make biking in Saint Paul easier feel like big secrets. For example, did you know that Saint Paul has a trail that spans the West Seventh neighborhood from West 7th Street and Albion Avenue to Grand Avenue along I-35E? Of course not. Hardly anyone does. Similar to the Isla de Muerta in the Pirates of the Caribbean it can only be found by those who know where it is.
Although the official name is the 35E Trail and the section from Saint Clair Avenue to Grand Avenue was recently renamed Little Bohemia Trail, my seven-year old son rightfully calls it “The Sneaky Trail.” He gave it this moniker because parts of it run on the berm next to the I-35E sound wall, allowing users to look down into backyards and alleys that usually go unnoticed. Hence, he feels sneaky when we use it. It is sneaky for other reasons as well. There are very few signs. Portions south of Saint Clair Avenue use alleys, streets, and off-street trails. The start is barely marked. One has to be sneaky to know that it is there.
The original trail arose out of a court settlement between the community group opposed to putting 35E through the neighborhood, Residents in Protest 35E (RIP 35E), and the then Minnesota Highway Department and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Construction of 35E between Shepard Road and Pleasant Avenue was halted in 1969 pending an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). While the EIS was completed in 1975, the settlement was not reached until 1984. That led to the creation of the odd freeway we know today – that still controversial 45 mile per hour stretch from West Seventh Street through downtown Saint Paul. Aside from the lowered speed limit and a large truck ban, RIP 35E also won the Sneaky Trail.
Little Bohemia Trail
The signed bike route starts at Thompson Avenue and Butternut Street on a service road behind United Hospital. The trail itself starts at Grand Avenue by the I-35E exit ramp. Looking at this intersection there would be no way to know the trail exists (sneaky!). In other posts I have discussed the challenges of navigating this intersection on a bicycle. The trail entrance is a leap of faith. Facing two turn arrows and on-coming traffic, a bicyclist just has to trust that the entrance is there.
This year the Little Bohemia Neighborhood Associate (LBNA) applied for and received Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) funding to improve the trail from Saint Clair Avenue to Grand Avenue. The planning improvements are modest, but needed. Their request includes resurfacing the path, installing crosswalks at Saint Clair Avenue and Grand Avenue, adding lighting, and landscaping improvements off Harrison Avenue near Journeys Secondary School. On June 24 and 25, the LBNA and its partner, Minnesota Nature’s Community Roadside Partnership, planted bee-friendly perennials near Harrison and Western Avenues. Crosswalks and resurfacing should be completed in 2017. The new plantings look great and I will look forward to the resurfacing. Unfortunately, street lights block the path around this stretch and pedestrian ramps are rarely cleared of snow.
The trail earned its Sneaky Trail moniker because the Little Bohemia section takes users above the backyards and alleys, providing a view on people’s “private” spaces. I like the bird houses on the support beams.
South of Little Bohemia
The Little Bohemia Trail section ends at Saint Clair Avenue. I previously had written about the challenges of this intersection. Trail users coming from the north must cross diagonally to go south on Osceola Avenue. It would be a great spot for a roundabout,
but I was told by City staff that cannot be because of federal rules regarding interstate ramps. [Editors note: This last bit isn’t actually true, as it turns out. Thanks Saint Paul city staff! A roundabout might actually be possible.] Currently, there is no easy way to cross to the southbound lane on Osceola Avenue, complicated by the freeway ramp and traffic coming fast down the hill on Saint Clair Avenue.
After crossing Saint Clair Avenue things get very interesting. The trail is a mix off-road path, quiet residential streets, and alleys. Way-finding signs point the user down Osceola Avenue to Grace Street.
After turning onto Grace Street, the trail goes off-road again to follow the interstate sound wall between Arbor Street and Bay Street, rejoins the street for a bit, and goes off-road between Vance Street and View Street. These sections are not plowed in the winter.
After crossing Jefferson Avenue, there are way-finding signs along Palace Avenue until it meets up with I-35E again. At James and Palace Avenues, the route turns south and becomes a trail once more.
The crossing at Randolph Avenue is tricky. That median is not wide enough to accommodate a bicycle. Work is being done on the Randolph Avenue bridge over the freeway and at the intersection of Randolph Avenue and Lexington Parkway. Will those changes increase traffic through this area, making this an even more dangerous crossing? There are no plans to improve the trail crossing during this project.
After crossing, the trail again mixes alleys and path. These bits are interesting because it is difficult to tell where alleys end and streets begin (question for the ages). The bit near the fire hydrant is only as wide as a path, but each side is rutted from car tires so clearly neighbors use that part of the trail for driving cars.
There are no way-finding signs along this bit and it took me a while to figure out where it was. Google maps does not show this as a bike route, although the Twin Cities Bike Map does.
Between Armstrong Avenue and Bayard Avenue the trail is on Pleasant Avenue. At Bayard and Pleasant Avenue there is a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over I-35E. The trail continues for several blocks along the sound barrier wall on the west side of I-35E and then ends at Race Street and Vista Avenue where it ends. This section is not cleared in the winter and currently has overgrowth blocking the trail. The end (beginning?) is close to Montreal Avenue and Lexington Parkway, both of which have bike lanes.
A Neglected Asset
The Sneaky Trail (or Little Bohemia Trail or I-35E Trail) is a great, but neglected, asset. It connects West Seventh Street and Montreal Avenue to downtown Saint Paul, passing schools, libraries, parks, and shopping districts along the way. It is seamlessly built into the neighborhoods. However, the asphalt is crumbling with tree roots creating crevasses and bumps, there is almost no lighting, and crossings at major intersections are dangerous.
The improvements in the Little Bohemia section make for a much better experience and, hopefully, will lead to more people using it. The southern section, south of Saint Clair Avenue, was not included in the CIB request and there are no plans or funds set aside for similar improvements. We have the underlying skeleton in place but need to repave the southern portion, add lighting, clear tree and brush overgrowth, and increase way-finding. Intersections with Randolph, Saint Clair, and Grand Avenues desperately need improvements to make crossing safe.
So, like Captain Barbossa with Jack Sparrow’s coordinates, you now can find Saint Paul’s Isla de Muerta and the treasures it hides.