Several years ago, I wrote a post about The Short Line Bridge, its history and its critical role in extending the Midtown Greenway eastwards, across the Mississippi River. The Short Line Bridge was built by the Chicago Milwaukee St.Paul & Pacific railroad in 1902. It originally had two tracks and carried both passenger and freight trains in and out of downtown Minneapolis and along what is now the Midtown Greenway.
Today, the bridge has just one track and is a spur line that serves a single large client– the Archer Daniels Midland Atkinson Mill– and one much smaller client– Leder Brothers Metals, a scrap yard. Both are located next to Highway 55 in South Minneapolis. The bridge is owned by CP Rail, who leases its train operation to Minnesota Commercial Railroad. They operate just one train per day to drop off and pick up cars, primarily at the ADM mill.
As I discussed in my previous post, in 2004 or 2005, Hennepin County was interested in extending the Midtown Greenway eastwards, over the Mississippi River on the southern portion of the Short Line Bridge where one of its railroad tracks had been removed. They approached CP Rail about this and CP offered to allow a bike and pedestrian trail over part of the bridge if the County would assume ownership, maintenance and liability for the bridge. Hennepin commissioned a study from the URS Corporation to assess the bridge and the feasibility of building a bike/ped trail and assuming liability.
CP Rail wouldn’t allow URS engineers on the bridge. So much of its report was based on observations from afar and research on the general bridge type. In their final 2006 report, URS determined that the bridge was a “Pin-connected Eyebar Truss” containing elements that were “fracture critical”, meaning their failure could cause a portion of the bridge to collapse. So the report recommended against assuming liability for the bridge, and instead proposed building a separate, parallel bike and pedestrian bridge.
The idea of an additional bridge was rejected by “Friends of the Mississippi River” and the National Park Service. So Hennepin County gave up on extending the Midtown Greenway for the next 13 years.
But many groups would like to see the Greenway extended. So, last year, The Midtown Greenway Coalition, along with the Friends of the Mississippi River and others, crowd-funded a new engineering study from Kimley-Horn and Associates, one of the top engineering and design firms in the country. The goal of this study was to determine if the existing bridge could be rehabilitated or strengthened to be safe for both trains and bike/pedestrian use, and what this would cost.
As in the past, CP Rail refused to allow engineers onto the bridge but, unlike in the past, Kimley-Horn now had access to drones with LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging)– a survey tool that can make 3-D maps of objects.
Also engineers have learned more about how to add redundancy to old Pin-Connected Eyebar Truss bridges to make them safer. Searching the web, one finds numerous studies and reports by state Departments of Transportation on how to rehabilitate, strengthen, and even disassemble and move these bridges. In Hennepin County alone, we have several such bridges that have been rehabilitated and carry pedestrians and bicycles– Bridge #9 (by UMN), The Boom Island Railroad Bridge and the Hanover Bridge.
The new Kimley-Horn study explains several different ways that this bridge could be rehabbed or modified to carry bicycle and pedestrian traffic in addition to trains. It also provides rough cost estimates for four different options. These range from a simple rehab and upgrading of the existing bridge at a cost of about $9.9 million to constructing a brand new one using the existing stone and concrete piers at a cost of about $27.5 million.
As I will explain, relative to other pubic infrastructure projects, this is not that expensive and could qualify for various Federal and State bridge and transportation funding grants. For various reasons, I believe it is worth doing and at least merits opening a dialog with CP Rail to assess its feasibility and whether Hennepin and Ramsey Counties can acquire the necessary bridge and trail easements.
Popularity and Use
The biggest reason why it’s worth the money is a lot of people would use it. From the day it opened, it would be used by somewhere between 1350 and 1900 cyclists per day and over 100 pedestrians. This is based on count data from both Minneapolis and Saint Paul. In Saint Paul, the last available on-line count data (from 2015-2016) shows 437 bikes crossed the Lake Street Bridge during a two-hour afternoon count. This is estimated by Saint Paul Public Works to be about 22% of daily bike traffic for a total of 1967 bikes per day. Many of these riders are going to or from the Midtown Greenway.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, a 2017 count of the east end of the Greenway showed 1350 bikes and 110 pedestrians per day. The highest count, in 2014, showed 1850 bikes per day.
No other bikeway in Saint Paul and few other bikeways in Minneapolis have this many cyclists. Yet we spend as much or more money on other bicycle and pedestrian facilities that often serve far fewer users. Saint Paul is currently spending $37.5 Million finishing and improving the Saint Paul Grand Round, $10.5 Million of which has come from a federal grant. The entire project, expected to be completed in the next 10-20 years could cost over $75 million. Yet it’s a largely recreational trail that would serve fewer users than a Greenway Extension.
The city also spent $16.5 Million just for the Jackson Street leg of the Capital City Bikeway (albeit much of that was for sewer and street work), or an estimated $15 million for a proposed bridge to connect the Bruce Vento Trail to Shepard Road, a project that would have vastly fewer users than a Greenway Extension.
Bike bridge projects that have comparable numbers of cyclists to the proposed Midtown Greenway Extension include the Stone Arch Bridge, which cost several million to acquire and rehab between 1989 and 1994 and is about to undergo another $15 Million rehabilitation project …or the Franklin Avenue Bridge which was recently re-decked at a cost of $50 Million with vastly improved bicycle and pedestrian pathways that can carry over 2000 cyclists per day.
Both of these bridge projects were hugely expensive but almost no one would argue that they weren’t worth it and both received substantial federal funding. The Stone Arch bridge in particular serves thousands of tourists and sight-seers and is an iconic landmark of Minneapolis.
Also compare the costs of these bicycle and pedestrian investments to local highway spending. Adding two MnPASS lanes for a few miles of I-35E cost $225 million and the new Stillwater Bridge cost $646 million.
Just this year MnDOT is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to add new lanes, shoulders or ramps to roadways around the state. The city of Saint Paul proposed spending $118 million to rebuild the 2200-space River Center parking garage, a structure that only fills for limited special events.
Looking at the cost of all these projects, $10-$28 million for a bicycle/pedestrian (and train) Greenway Extension bridge that would get used by over 1350 daily riders isn’t that much money. From tabling at cycling events over the years, I’ve had more people ask me about or express interest in extending the Greenway to Saint Paul than any other bicycle infrastructure project in the city. The fact that the Midtown Greenway Coalition was able to crowd-fund $40,000 for this latest engineering study and its promotion is further proof of the project’s popularity.
Safety and Health
Another reason to do a Greenway Extension is safety. Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have adopted “Vision Zero” policies when it comes to bicycle and pedestrian crashes with motor vehicles. Yet the only two bridges that connect the cities, at Ford Parkway and Lake Street have poor safety records and non-existent or mediocre bicycle facilities. Ford Parkway only has “Sharrow” pavement markings (which is basically “Nothing”).
Marshall Avenue has an uphill climbing bike lane and nothing going downhill, with large volumes of motor vehicle traffic moving in excess of 40 mph. On the Minneapolis side of the Lake Street bridge, there is also nothing. Riders have to immediately slip down to West River Parkway across a somewhat dangerous crossing and go north on the Parkway to reach the Greenway.
The danger of this journey is reflected in the available crash data. According to the Saint Paul bicycle and pedestrian crash map, in the last three years, nine cyclists have been hit by cars between Cleveland Avenue and the Lake Street Bridge, including one person on the bridge itself.
On the Minneapolis side, data is harder to come by but the crash “density” map from a 2010 report showed 2-3 crashes at the west end of the Lake Street Bridge and 2-3 crashes at the Greenway exit crossing of West River Parkway. Attempts to obtain more recent data for this article via The Minneapolis Crash Database or Traffic Crash Location System were unsuccessful.
Based just on the available data, it’s clear that a car-free bike/pedestrian crossing of the Mississippi has the potential to reduce crash numbers. A Greenway Extension could also induce less experienced riders to feel safe crossing the river, promoting the “Active Living” health and fitness goals of both Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.
At minimum, a Greenway Extension as far as Cleveland Avenue would connect (via Gilbert Avenue) to existing bikeways on Cleveland, Prior and St Anthony Avenues. The St. Anthony bikeway will bring riders into the Midway and the new Allianz Field, via existing bike facilities on Aldine Street, Pierce Street and Shields Avenue. A Greenway Extension also provides an east-west connection in a part of Saint Paul between Aldine and Raymond Streets where there are currently no alternatives.
University Avenue is now unbikable and the only other way through the maze of industrial warehouses, highways and railway lines in that area. A Greenway Extension along the CP Rail line would help bridge that. If it could be extended to Selby and the Ayd Mill corridor, a Greeway Extension would create a truly amazing non-motorized connection between both cities.
An Extension would also connect East African immigrant communities in the Philips and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods with a large community in Saint Paul’s Midway.
Real Estate Development
There are areas just east of the Mississippi that have the potential for real estate development, near both St Anthony Avenue and Mississippi River Boulevard on currently unused railroad land that’s either connected or could be connected to adjacent neighborhoods.
If Hennepin County bought out the two remaining shippers on the Hiawatha spur line, the area along Hiawatha also has huge potential for real estate development, something that’s already starting to happen. The group Min Hi Line has been working to piece together a bike/pedestrian trail along the Minnehaha rail corridor on the east side of Highway 55 and they’ve been involved in redevelopment of some of its industrial and railroad land.
The Midtown Greenway helped to spur a ton of Residential and retail development, particularly near Uptown that has more than paid for the cost of building it. Extending the Greenway to Saint Paul could add still more money to Hennepin and Ramsey County tax coffers.
The new Kimley Horn study shows that it’s possible to rehab or rebuild the Short Line Bridge, the linchpin to any Greenway Extension. Given the benefits of such an extension, I hope Hennepin County and Ramsey County officials will at least restart a dialog with CP Rail and examine the possibility. A Greenway Extension is on Saint Paul’s Comprehensive and Bikeways Plans as well as several District Council plans.
It’s time we expended some effort to turn these plans into reality. For more info on what’s happening and what you can do, check out the Midtown Greenway Coalition’s website or follow them on Facebook.