The city of Saint Paul has long envisioned extending the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway across the Mississippi River and along the Canadian Pacific railroad line into Saint Paul. Engineers at the city’s Public Works Department began actively exploring the idea in 2003. It was on the city’s Comprehensive Plan at least as far back as 2008, in numerous District Council plans and it’s in the Saint Paul Bikeways Plan.
Extending the Greenway into Saint Paul is a great idea. After crossing the Mississippi, the bikeway would follow the rail line, cross Interstate 94 and emerge just north of it at Cleveland and Gilbert Avenues. It would then continue to Prior Avenue and follow the rail line southeast, down the Ayd Mill Corridor and connect with the I-35E trail, Jefferson Avenue, West 7th and downtown Saint Paul. Along the way, there could be excellent connections to the Midway neighborhood and the new soccer stadium, via St. Anthony Avenue. There could also be connections to bikeways on Cleveland Avenue, Prior Avenue, Marshall Avenue, and Shepard Road, as well as various streets and commercial nodes in between. Being able to cross the river at grade would save cyclists having to bike uphill on Marshall Avenue from the Lake Street Bridge and cyclists could avoid dangerous high-speed car traffic on Marshall Avenue and Lake Street.
The key to realizing this vision is bridging the Mississippi River. The Twin Cities have been unable to do this because of certain engineering, legal and political problems associated with the project. As a result, the Saint Paul Greenway Extension has remained in limbo for more than ten years. Without action by elected officials it may never be built. This article examines some of the issues and alternatives.
The Engineering Problem
The railroad bridge across the Mississippi was built by the Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul Railroad in 1880 and rebuilt in 1902. It was known as the “Short Line Bridge” because it offered a shorter route between Saint Paul and Minneapolis. It originally carried two tracks and a lot of trains, including passenger trains that went in and out of the old Milwaukee Depot in downtown Minneapolis. Today, the bridge’s current owner, Canadian Pacific or “CP Rail” uses just one of the tracks on the bridge and the line’s only active clients are a scrap yard, a grain elevator and two mills owned by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)– the Atkinson and Nokomis Mills. All three clients are clustered in South Minneapolis, just east of Highway 55, between E32nd Street and E41st Street. Every weekday morning, locomotives haul a train of mostly grain hoppers across the bridge and return later in the day.
Ten years ago, as the Midtown Greenway was being completed, planners thought that the bike trail might be able to cross this existing railroad bridge in the space formerly devoted to the second track. In response, CP-Rail offered to give Hennepin County access to the bridge if the county would assume all legal liability and keep it open for rail service.
Hennepin County hired the engineering firm URS Corporation to examine the structural condition of the bridge and consider various alternatives. A PDF with a full text of their report can be found here. They determined that the bridge is a 125-year old “Non-Redundant, Pin Connected, Eye Bar Truss” design and, because of its age, design and poor maintenance, it is at risk of collapse. For this reason they advised the county against building a bikeway on it or assuming legal liability for it. They did say that the existing river support piers could be used to support a new bridge structure. For a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge using the existing piers, they estimated the cost at almost $12 million (in 2006 dollars).
The report also looked at the possibility of building a parallel bike/pedestrian bridge and came up with a few possible designs, two possible routes and various cost estimates that ranged from $7.5 million to more than $12 million. Hennepin County floated this idea but it was shot down by Friends of the Mississippi River and the National Parks Service who are opposed to putting additional bridges across the river. Both organizations are supported in their opposition by the fact that the river is designated as a “National Recreation Area” by the federal government and a “Critical Area” by the state. Thus, building an additional bridge would require approval from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as two counties, two cities, the US Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Another problem with putting in a parallel bridge is that, without an easement along CP-Rail tracks east of the river at least as far as Cleveland Avenue, the bridge would be useless or under-utilized because there would be no viable Saint Paul Greenway to connect to. Because of Interstate 94 and the street grid in this area, there aren’t a lot of alternative on-street routes with similar levels of connectivity, and most alternatives involve changes in gradients similar to what cyclists already have on Marshall Avenue.
The URS report’s various options, including using the existing bridge would only work in the event of abandonment of the line by CP-Rail. But CP-Rail’s biggest shipper on the line, ADM recently spent millions of dollars to upgrade equipment at their Nokomis Mill. So it is unlikely that the line will be abandoned any time soon.
Another option, passingly referenced in the URS report is the idea of Hennepin County buying out “shipper rights” from ADM, General Mills and Leder Brothers scrap yard. Something like this was done back in 1993 when MnDOT wanted to expand Highway 55 and Minneapolis began planning the Midtown Greenway. In order to expand the highway and build the Midtown Greenway, MnDOT and Hennepin County needed to sever the rail line on Hiawatha Avenue and get rid of the western portion. By 1993, there was just one rail customer west of Hiawatha Avenue– Rahr Malting Company who owned the Cepro Grain Elevator. The county purchased the elevator, Rahr consolidated shipping to its Shakopee site, the rail line was abandoned and the elevator was eventually demolished in 2004. The URS report alludes to doing something like this now to speed up abandonment of the remaining rail line. The problem is the cost for this would be astronomical. The county would have to pay untold millions of dollars for active businesses and for much more substantial land acquisition, and it would still have to pay millions more to build a new bridge.
It’s possible that the county could completely rebuild the bridge to be stronger, capable of carrying trains, bikes and pedestrians, but that would be more expensive and complex because rebuilding it would involve rail service interruptions to shippers and would require much more consent from and coordination with CP-Rail. The URS report never really looked into this idea.
Barring abandonment (which is highly unlikely), and no matter what option is pursued, the need for consent from and coordination with CP-Rail is critical for the idea of a Saint Paul Greenway Extension. This is partly because of changes in federal law relating to condemnation of railroad land. When Minneapolis first acquired land for the Midtown Greenway in 1993, it was possible for a city or state to condemn unused or little used railroad land for other transportation purposes like roads or bike trails, using the laws of eminent domain. This made railroads more receptive to allowing easements or buyouts for bike trails. In 1995, however, the federal government passed the ICC Termination Act– 49 U.S.C. §§ 10101-11908. It essentially prohibited anyone but the federal government (via the Surface Transportation Board) from taking railroad land. Following the passage of this act and various court decisions in favor of the railroads, the railroads no longer had to negotiate with cities or states over easements.
This manifested itself in 2009 when Saint Paul attempted to take some railroad land in the Ayd Mill corridor for a bike trail. As I stated earlier, city plans envision the Minneapolis Greenway continuing across the Mississippi on or next to the CP-Rail bridge, then paralleling the CP-Rail tracks to Cleveland Avenue, Prior Avenue and then down the Ayd Mill corridor. Without an easement along the CP Rail tracks at least as far as Cleveland (and ideally as far as Selby Avenue), building a Greenway extension becomes nearly impossible. In 2009, Saint Paul City Council member Russ Stark created a citizen “Greenway Committee” to look into the idea. It included representatives from Macalester College, Saint Paul Smart Trips, Union Park, the Lex/Ham District Council, and what was then the Saint Paul Bicycle Advisory Board. I volunteered on the committee. We were charged with looking into some of the issues involved in making the Greenway plan a reality and gauging public support for the idea. In July 2010, the committee held a public forum at Linwood Recreation Center that was attended by over a hundred people. It put forward a vision for the Greenway, which I wrote about in an earlier post on an Ayd Mill Linear Park.
Prior to this forum, the city had secured a federal grant to construct an ill-considered bikeway along what is now Ayd Mill Road that required taking some land from CP-Rail. Starting in 2003, the city attempted to negotiate an easement for the bikeway from CP. In 2009, when negotiations failed, the city attempted to condemn a small slice of CP Rail land to build the bikeway. In 2010, CP Rail had the condemnation dismissed on a motion to the ICC Termination Act of 1995. You can download and read the original CP-Rail legal “Complaint” which outlines the law and negotiations with the city. After the 2010 court ruling, all activity on a Saint Paul Greenway Extension ground to a halt.
There are ways of building a bikeway in the Ayd Mill corridor on city-owned land, rather than CP-Rail’s land. But the lynchpin of the entire Greenway Extension is getting the Greenway over the Mississippi River and being able to acquire a 15-20 foot wide easement on CP Rail’s 100-foot-wide right-of-way, at least as far east as Cleveland Avenue and preferably as far as Selby Avenue and the beginning of the Ayd Mill corridor. To get this will require negotiation with CP-Rail. Hennepin and Ramsey Counties will have to give the Railroad anything it wants in exchange for an easement and this may require flexibility and a lot of money.
The last problem or hurdle to bridging the Mississippi and building a Saint Paul Greenway Extension is that both sides of the bridge are in Minneapolis and Hennepin County. Bridging the river would cost Hennepin and Minneapolis a lot of time and money even though the primary beneficiaries of the bridge would be Saint Paul. So there’s not a lot of political incentive for Minneapolis and Hennepin’s elected officials to push this project.
I’ve spoken with various folks at Hennepin County. Their bike/ped planners and staff are overwhelmed with planning bike trails for the Bottineau LRT Line and various other projects and I was told that the CP-Rail Bridge and a Midtown Greenway Extension to Saint Paul are so low on their priority list as to be non-existent. Only pressure from activists in both cities and, ultimately, from Ramsey County and Saint Paul’s city government will bring Hennepin County’s attention back to this project.
For all of the above reasons, no progress has been made in extending the Midtown Greenway into Saint Paul. It’s an expensive project and both technically and legally challenging. Despite all that, it’s worth pursuing.
Projects like this take a long time so it’s better to start sooner rather than later. If Hennepin waits until the bridge collapses and/or the line is abandoned, no one reading this column will be alive and capable of biking when and if the Greenway ever reaches Saint Paul.
Of all the options, the one I like best is the idea of rebuilding the existing bridge to accommodate both rail and bikes/pedestrians as part of a negotiated deal with CP-Rail for a trail easement extending at least as far as Cleveland Avenue, if not Selby Avenue. It would have to be done in a way to minimize service disruptions to shippers. In July 2006 a fire on the bridge interrupted rail service for three months while part of the bridge was re-decked. ADM was forced to use trucks to bring wheat to their mills. The service interruption probably cost shippers and the railroad a lot of money but they were somehow able to weather it.
Rebuilding the bridge for rail and bike/ped would be a lot more expensive than just a bike/ped bridge but it would preserve the corridor for future transit use and it would force CP-Rail and shippers to decide whether they want to keep the line in the long term or abandon it. After all, CP is running heavy freight trains over a 125-year-old bridge that’s at risk of collapse. If it collapses, not only will it kill people but the service interruption would be so long that shippers might have to relocate their facilities or go out of business. By contrast, rebuilding the bridge in a controlled, planned way would allow business to continue and, if Hennepin County assumes control of the bridge and finances the project, it would probably qualify for federal grants. Such a deal could be appealing to CP-Rail who has shown no financial ability or interest in maintaining the bridge and the rail line. Ramsey County and Saint Paul could kick in a chunk of the money, since they would be the biggest beneficiaries of the project.
Bicycling rates for both commuting and recreation continue to climb in the Twin Cities. A lot of this is due to the bicycle lanes, trails and other infrastructure we’ve been able to add in the last fifteen years. Bringing the Greenway across the Mississippi would be an amazing project that would benefit a lot of people. Let’s make it happen!
In addition to all the links contained in this article, I used the following sources:
“Vanishing Giants: The grain elevators of Minneapolis and their legacy,” by William E. Stark in July 2007, Hennepin History
Email inquiries with Archer Daniels Midland, …and conversations with Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin’s aide Brian Shekleton.
Below are some photos of where the Greenway would have to travel between the bridge and Cleveland Avenue.
While Canadian Pacific owns the tracks, Minnesota Commercial Railway is the railroad who operates the train to Hiawatha Avenue.
I’d like to see this happen, but if we’re talking about extending the trail down the Ayd Mill Corridor then there should be enough right-of-way left for rail expansion for future intercity and regional passenger rail projects (unless the trail uses city owned right-of-way, in which case we don’t have to worry about constricting railroad right-of-way).
If the Midtown Greenway ever crossed the Mississippi River it would be nice if the trail went towards the U of M along the CP/MNNR tracks. There is still a railroad bridge crossing I-94 and the tracks across it are no longer used.
Considering the low amount of freight rail traffic on the rail line today and its good potential for better passenger service, along with its high potential for having a bikeway added, it would be good to try to talk to Canadian Pacific of buying out the corridor rather than trying to get an easement from them. This could be done through the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and the Ramsey County RRA, or perhaps a better option would be to go through the Metropolitan Council.
In Chicago, significant chunks of the rail network are owned by the Metra commuter railroad system rather than the freight companies, which allows them greater power over how the lines operate. In the Twin Cities, we’ve often been hamstrung in our planning due to the railroads not wanting to let us do anything on their property, at least up until the point where they decide to abandon the line — and we’ve ended up losing rail entirely on a few corridors that would have been good to retain for passenger service.
I’ve heard that the Short Line from Prior Avenue down to where it merges with the Union Pacific line along Shepard Road (near the Upper Landing apartments and the Minnesota Science Museum) only sees around 4 or 6 trains per day — two of which are Amtrak’s Empire Builder running east and west. A lot of Canadian Pacific’s traffic runs on BNSF Railway’s tracks in order to get through the city rather than taking this route. (CP itself runs trains on the Short Line tracks east of the junction near Cleveland Ave, Prior Ave, and I-94, while Minnesota Commercial runs on the tracks west of there into Minneapolis, but both operations are pretty limited in scope these days)
This is a corridor that is planned to be used by intercity and commuter trains that want to serve both downtown Minneapolis and downtown Saint Paul, and it also makes sense for an extension of a Midtown Greenway service. That’s typically thought of as being some sort of streetcar, though I’ve often thought it would be better as some sort of freight-compatible “tram-train“, just since it would mean we wouldn’t need to build as much new track and get into a debacle like what we’ve seen with Southwest LRT through the Kenilworth corridor.
$12 million (even with some inflation) seems like a pretty decent cost to me for a Mississippi River crossing, though I’m not entirely sure what that would entail. Certainly a bridge that has components that are 114 to 136 years old is in need of some significant rebuilding. In my perfect world, I’d like to see the bridge be expanded somewhat so it has room for two (or maybe three) tracks plus space for bikes and pedestrians. That way, we could either have two tracks of the same type of service — either “freight” lines that also happen to carry passenger service or converted entirely to LRT/streetcar — or one track each for freight and for LRT/streetcar.
Another nice idea might be to add a bike/pedestrian crossing on the lower part of the truss to make it easier to get between West River Parkway and East River Parkway without having to climb all the way up to the upper level — or perhaps that could be the primary way to cross for bikes and peds, removing the need to widen the bridge since it could still carry two tracks on the top level.
Anyway, to another question about right-of-way, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of room to add a bike path along Ayd Mill on existing city land, unless the roadway itself gets reconfigured (which wouldn’t be such a bad idea). Don’t believe it too much, but if you look at the Ramsey County property map, it appears that the roadway runs right up to the edge of the railroad’s property. I’m not entirely sure whether Ayd Mill Road is really on city land, either — some of it may be under an easement from the railroad too.
But that gets back to my earlier point — it’d probably be best if we tried to buy this land from the railroad outright rather than getting an easement. It’s probably more valuable to us for transit and bike/ped use than it is to them for freight service, so we should try and buy it out and then set up an easement or other sort of trackage rights agreement with the railroad to allow them to still run a few trains per day on it.
Straying off topic, but does Ayd Mill see enough traffic to merit a four lane divided roadway? What if we just made it a two lane road and used the other two lanes for bikes and peds?
MnDOT’s Traffic Data site indicates that it has an AADT of 24,400 between I-35E and St. Clair Ave, 19,900 between St. Clair and Grand Ave, 17,300 between Grand and Hamline Ave, and 11,500 from Hamline to Selby Ave.
Buying the line as far as Cleveland/Prior might be a possibility. After all CP offered to essentially give the bridge to Hennepin for a dollar if they’d assume liability and maintenance. It’s definitely worth exploring. The point of this piece was to lay out some of the issues and urge the counties and regional rail authorities to begin a conversation with CP-Rail that hasn’t really happened to this point. …As for your other ideas, I’m not so into a bike trail below the bridge (this is addressed in the URS Report) but there’s no reason you can’t cantilever it off a new, stronger bridge and keep intact the possibility of two tracks (for future trains or transit use). From Prior to Shepard Road, yes, the typical train load is 4-6 trains daily but CP occasionally runs much more traffic up the line if there’s problems on the BNSF and they like preserving it for that. If you read their Complaint against the city (linked to in the article) they expressed a desire to double track the line in the future– something that would have to happen if commuter rail was ever put on the line. So, yes, Ayd Mill Road would have to be reconfigured, but the city’s official position is that it should be a 2-lane road/connection not a 4-lane. (See my previous post about an Ayd Mill LInear Park). There’s a lot of poorly-utilized land in the Ayd Mill corridor that the city owns outright or has a “transportation easement” on (from 1960). So, from Selby Avenue south, a bike trail wouldn’t be a problem, if the city and county have the will to make it happen. The big issue is the bridge and getting to Cleveland/Prior (and eventually, Selby). I like your idea a lot though. How can we get the counties and RRAs to talk to CP and formulate some kind of workable plan?!? (by whatever means)?!?
Thanks Andy. Clearly, I’ll have to actually crack open the URS report to see what in there.
I don’t have much insight into what would be needed to get the ball rolling on that, other than just to nudge the county commissioners who serve on the RRA boards (I think they’re the same people as the main county boards in both Ramsey and Hennepin), and have them talk to agencies around the country that have bought up tracks like that (Metra in Chicago, UTA in Salt Lake City, etc.)
Regarding buying the line. It is actually pretty common for local counties to buy railroad lines outright while giving the former owner a freight easement.
Encroaching on the right-of-way for a trail *still* requires the cooperation of the freight operator, but the freight operators are much more likely to cooperate.
Owning the line is even more helpful for passenger rail. Right now, Minnesota Commercial and CP have no incentive to upgrade the line west out of St. Paul Union Station, so Amtrak crawls along at low speeds. If the track were *owned* by the county, with Minnesota Commercial and CP having a freight easement, the county could upgrade the line to allow Amtrak to go faster — and the freight railroads wouldn’t be able to argue at all, they’d just have to go along with it. (And if the counties ever decided to run a commuter rail line from St. Paul to Minneapolis, it would only involve negotiating with BNSF, not with CP or Minnesota Commercial.)
I’d love to see the Greenway extended as described in the article, but I question the value of spending millions to improve the short line bridge when both the new Lake Street and Franklin bridges work just fine. Just take the money saved and buy the right-of-way from CP in St. Paul.
And did I understand correctly that the east end of the short line bridge is in Minneapolis? That darn Minneapolis is going to take over all of St. Paul some day. It’s like creeping charlie.
Yep, the bridge is entirely in Minneapolis. The city border is at Emerald Street — a piece of which is just downriver from the bridge along East River Parkway / Mississippi River Boulevard.
Thanks for writing this, Andy! This is exactly the piece I have been looking for to learn more about the history of this project.
I live due just south of this line in Cooper, close enough to hear, see, and feel the trains passing. It’s worth noting that traffic on this line is significantly heavier than it was a decade ago. Sure, it’s still just a couple trains a day, but whereas a decade ago there may have just been one train with three cars, we’re now talking about some fairly long trains – 25, 30 cars, even more occasionally. I think that in 2000 it looked pretty likely to everybody – including the railroad – that this line would be abandoned, but now I don’t think either Minnesota Commercial or the businesses along it would consider letting that happen. So it’s not just laws and regulations that have changed, it’s also the attitude. When those original studies were drawn up, this seemed like a much more expendable asset.
Please help me understand how a bridge that’s “at risk of collapse” can still be used by freight trains on a daily basis. Both MN-DOT and CP Rail have some responsibility to ensure that doesn’t happen. My point is that either that bridge is not “at risk of collapse”, structurally deficient, or the County’s have a larger bargaining chip than we think. Is CP Rail really going to spend all that money to rebuild the bridge for only a few shippers? I bet they would want to negotiate some sort of cooperative agreement to justify the inevitable cost.
There is no federal agency to inspect railroad bridges. Railroads are allowed to inspect their own …so they don’t. There was a big feature articles on this for MPR and PiPress– https://www.mprnews.org/story/2015/07/23/inspectors-find-dozens-of-rail-bridges-need-repair …and these articles didn’t discuss the worst one of all– the lift bridge next to the Robert Street Bridge in downtown Saint Paul. Basically RR’s have no oversight on bridge safety. So, if they are short on cash, they ignore bridges. They have insurers and insure bridges against failure but they probably have system-wide insurance policies so a few deficient bridges aren’t going to raise red flags with the insurance companies. I think CP is not as profitable as say UP or BNSF, so they’re especially bad. Not sure the county has any leverage …but maybe if the Army Corps made a stink that it was endangering shipping on the Mississippi?
With the locks just upstream from here closed, is there much shipping on this part of the river?
No clue. Most of the time all I see is crew boats.
There is no shipping on that part of the river. Just competitive rowing boats, since the St. Anthony locks closed.