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.