As a child of the suburbs, I grew up in a world of fast-moving cars and very little reliable bicycle infrastructure. The trails that did exist in the 80s and 90s mostly wound around lakes or through scattered subdivisions. Local roads were mostly two-lane country thoroughfares. As the ‘burbs filled out over the past couple decades, however, most roads were widened to the 4 or 6 lane stroads we know today. Hemlock Avenue in Maple Grove, for example, had only two lanes when I was a school crossing guard wielding the incredible power of bringing traffic to a stop. It is now six lanes wide in front of my elementary school.
The only silver lining to this story is that many suburbs have retrofitted bicycle infrastructure, usually so that vulnerable users won’t slow automotive throughput. Along the way, many of these projects have spawned tunnels which are always fun.
So, if you’re up for a mildly interesting story narrated by my middle-aged ramblings, then let’s take another tunnel tour!
Note: click on any of the pictures to see the location on Google maps.
Our first stop is under Main Street in downtown Anoka to see a tunnel that connects the Rum River dam and Akin Riverside Park. The Rum River here is picturesque and the dam has a catwalk offering a great view of tumbling water. Apparently, the tunnel had been frequently tagged with graffiti–a common tunnel issue that bothers some more than others. Tunnels are easy to tag, especially on rainy days.
Five years ago, in an effort to stop graffiti, the city added lighting and partnered with a local youth arts organization to paint murals depicting Anoka’s history. The result is the second most artful tunnel on our tour and well worth a visit.
About three miles to the east, Main Street swells to a four-lane highway that is too dangerous to cross without a car. In 2012, the city of Coon Rapids realized a tunnel was needed through the high abutment near the BNSF tracks. The resulting hole through the concrete megalith may look like Gollum’s back door to Gondor, but it’s a safe route to school for many students of Sand Creek Elementary.
The same BNSF tracks are crossed by tunnels to the north and south of Main Street at Sand Creek and on the Central Anoka County Regional Trail. On a recent ride to Bunker Hills Park, Google Maps routed me through all three tunnels as it wove me through the spaghetti noodles that are Coon Rapid’s trail networks. Like many suburban trails, wayfinding is nonexistent, trails begin and end suddenly, and even Google struggles to find its way. “Slight right, then turn left at 121st Street, then slight right, then turn right” means: go straight.
Further south, the Fridley NorthStar commuter train station sits in the middle of 5 busy tracks on the same BNSF rail line. Park-and-ride lots sit on both sides of the tracks, and a tunnel connects them to the station.
Cut and fill tunnels are built by digging a trench, filling it with precast tunnel segments, and covering it over with earth or concrete. In this case, BNSF mandated that their rail lines could not be interrupted by construction for more than 30 hours, including removal and re-installation of the tracks. So the contractor had to carefully plan and execute the work, which happened in the summer of 2008. A very interesting presentation to the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association’s 2011 conference details exactly how this was accomplished.
The tunnel works just fine as a train station, but it’s also a huge missed opportunity. Metro Transit chose to build the tunnel as an indoor space accessible by stairs and elevators on each side. It would better serve the public, however, if it was open via ramps at either end to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians looking for passage across the tracks to access the elementary school, parks, and trails west of the station. The nearest official crossings are half a mile north at Mississippi Street and over 2 miles south at 44th Street NE.
West of the river, the Rush Creek trail winds its way from the Coon Rapids Dam to Elm Creek Regional Park. Most of its intersections are at grade and without marked crosswalks or signage, a design choice that clearly prioritizes car traffic. At Noble Parkway and Douglas Drive engineers must have realized that the streets were too busy for grade crossings, so they splurged on a couple of tunnels (a clear example of pedestrian infrastructure that’s really car infrastructure). The Noble tunnel has a nice boulderdash, but both tunnels are otherwise unremarkable.
A similar tunnel runs under Bottineau Boulevard near Highway 100 in Robbinsdale, part of the Twin Lakes Regional Trail. On a recent night ride, a red fox darted into the tunnel just ahead of me. We raced through together, then it disappeared into the wetlands on the other side. It was exciting to have such a close encounter with a fox in the cities–a reminder that tunnels, unlike pedestrian bridges, also serve to connect animal habitats.
On the opposite side of Highway 100 is Graeser Park, a remnant of the highway’s history as the “Lilac Way“. The Lilac Way was the Twin Cities’ first ring road highway and was originally envisioned as a parkway connecting a series of parks. Many of these wayside parks have been lost to lane widening and cloverleafs, but Graeser Park abides, complete with a sunken garden and a WPA-built beehive fireplace.
One of my favorite tunnels in the Twin Cities is on one of the best trails in town, a steep descent through Simon’s Ravine from West Saint Paul to the spectacular Kaposia Landing riverside park in South Saint Paul (which was once the thriving village of the Kaposia band of the Mdewakanton Sioux). The Kaposia people lived in several locations along the banks of the Mississippi before treaties forced them to relocate here on the west bank in 1837. The village and its people, led by Chief Little Crow V or Taoyateduta, were forced to relocate again in 1851 by the treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota in exchange for annual payments from the federal government. The government’s failure to make these payments was the precipitating cause of the Dakota War of 1862. A sculpture, Mitakuye Owasin by Native artist David Estrada, depicts this history at the base of Simon’s Ravine.
A few miles further west, MNDoT recently built a $2.5M tunnel under Highway 110 near Dodd Road in Mendota Heights. The trail it serves currently peters out after a quarter mile jaunt past Friendly Marsh Park on the other side of 110, but it will someday be part of an 8 mile greenway to Lebanon Hills Park. This tunnel is unique given its generous width and the reassuring opening at its midpoint.
If you should wander a little ways north, you’ll encounter a nasty little tunnel at Maria Avenue. Where the Highway 110 tunnel is well-lit and wide, the tunnel under Maria is a dark and damp corrugated-steel culvert with slippery deposits of sand. The trail it serves meanders along 35E through Valley Park, a mostly wooded hilly stretch of land that wasn’t developed in the 1970s. The tunnel likely dates from that era and may be the oldest attempt at separating bikes from cars on our tour.
Further west, we encounter the oldest tunnel in the Twin Cities. In fact, Sibley’s Ferry Stone Arch Bridge, built in 1864, is the oldest railroad bridge in the entire state. It was part of the first rail connection between Minnesota and the east coast via Chicago. The line is now abandoned.
Although it is technically a bridge rather than a tunnel, it was built over the road to the Sibley Ferry that connected Mendota to Fort Snelling across the Minnesota River from 1824 to 1924. Today, it’s paired with a culvert serving a parallel set of abandoned tracks that gives the visitor the impression of a tunnel. The passageway now offers access to the Fort Snelling State Park river bottoms trails, a popular mountain biking destination. Although the Sibley house and other structures in Mendota are well marked with interpretive signs, no marker explains the significance of the Sibley Ferry Bridge to the transportation history of our state. In any case, historical markers in this part of the state are not to be trusted (case in point: Pike Island). All histories of the area should begin with the Bdote Memory Map and go on from there.
Just west of Mendota Village is a wide and well-lit tunnel on the Big Rivers Regional Trail under Highway 13 at the base of Pilot Knob Hill. The hill, a sacred Dakota burial ground dating back 500 years, was also the site of the signing of the Mendota Treaty of 1851. Given its significance to Minnesota’s history, it surprisingly wasn’t officially recognized as a historical site worthy of preservation until 2017. In fact, it was almost destroyed by a townhouse development in 2003, one of those facts that calls into question our entire notion of historic preservation.
The Big Rivers trail, which runs 5 1/2 miles from Lilydale to 494, is one of the best cycling routes in the state with dramatic cliff-side scenery. About a mile west of the tunnel, it runs past the site of a Depression era WPA work camp originally established for unemployed Black laborers. The interpretive sign that marked the site recently disappeared, but the remains of two structures can still be found, concealed by a large thicket of trees.
Across the river, the aptly named Cargo Road branches off Cedar Avenue’s eastern frontage road and plunges through two tunnels into the very heart of the MSP Airport, where the Metropolitan Airports Commission has hosted a free airplane viewing area since 2015.
The longer tunnel under Runway 4-22 is 1,400 feet long, contains 44,000 cubic yards of concrete, and cost $42,000,000 to build. It serves cargo and maintenance vehicles with a sidewalk for cyclists and pedestrians.
Located in Tony Schmidt Regional Park just northwest of Lake Johanna in Arden Hills, this tunnel goes under the Soo Line Railroad, connecting the lake’s popular beach with Perry Park, the homestead site of the Perry family. The railroad, which opened in 1884, connected Minneapolis with Sault Ste. Marie Michigan, bypassing the rail yards of Chicago and increasing the profits of Minneapolis mill owners.
Although this tunnel appears to date from sometime in the latter half of the twentieth century, a tunnel or more likely a trestle bridge must have been here since the railroad’s inception because it crossed the Perry family farm, which dates back to 1849.
Abraham Perry, born in Switzerland in 1776, left home to join the fractious Selkirk Settlement on the Red River in Canada in 1820. When floods destroyed their farm in 1826, he and his wife Mary Ann and their children joined other Selkirk refugees and fled to Fort Snelling.
After twice being forcibly removed from their unsanctioned homestead claims at Hidden Falls and near Pigs Eye Perrant’s Fountain Cave by the military leaders at Fort Snelling, Abraham’s son Charles moved the family north to the shores of Lake Como, which he named after the lake in Italy. In 1849, the Perry family moved again to the shores of Lake Johanna, historic hunting grounds of Chief Little Crow’s Kaposia band of the Mdewakanton Sioux.
In the 1890s, the Perry family opened a hugely popular resort fueled by illegal alcohol sales (a Saint Paul tradition) on the shores of Lake Johanna where the public beach is today.
Our newest tunnel on the tour is the Gateway Trail tunnel under Hadley Avenue (Oakdale’s Signature Street!), which was completed earlier this year. This plain and squarish tunnel is a byproduct of the continual upgrading of Highway 36 to facilitate sprawl in Stillwater and western Wisconsin. One by one, the highway’s intersections have been upgraded with overpasses and ramps. Because the Gateway runs just south of Highway 36 at Hadley, a tunnel was needed to cut through the interchange and avoid Fleet Farm and a plethora of new traffic circles.
When the North Cedar Lake Trail opened in 1995, it was marketed as part of “America’s First Bicycle Freeway”. An extension was completed in 2011, connecting Hopkins and St. Louis Park with downtown Minneapolis. It’s an excellent trail, but the freeway tagline line is a pretty big stretch. For one thing, freeway traffic isn’t forced to stop for local car traffic when it intersects side streets. And freeways aren’t closed for years without viable detours due to construction. And it’s hardly the first trail corridor of its kind in America, or even in the Twin Cities.
These quibbles notwithstanding, the North Cedar Lake Trail is pretty great. It even sports a wide tunnel under Minnetonka Boulevard. Oddly, unlike most tunnels with labels, this tunnel’s arch sports the name of the trail instead of the name of crossing. Also, I’m pretty sure the N in “North” is upside down.
Minnetonka Boulevard dates back to 1858 and, like many Twin Cities thoroughfares, was a bicycle artery during the decade before the advent of automobiles according to the St. Louis Park Historical Society:
“Bicycles became a national craze in the 1890s, and in 1896 Minnetonka Blvd. was a narrow bicycle path. On August 5, 1898 the St. Louis Park Village Council passed an ordinance authorizing the construction of bicycle paths/roads on Lake Street and Minnetonka Blvd. The speed limit was 10 mph, with fines of $10 to $50 or up to 30 days in jail.”
A problem as old as time itself: scorching on the bicycle freeway.
Near Highway 169 and Bren/Londonderry Road in Minnetonka is the anachronistic 1978 office park development with the space age name Opus 2. Built as a confusing configuration of looping one-way roads which defy navigation, the development serves a collection of low-slung concrete buildings. The businesses are, to quote Andy Sturdevant:
“Dominated by engineering and technology businesses with the sorts of names you might expect to find listed in the back pages of an issue of Popular Mechanics circa “Blade Runner”: Anodyne Inc., Precision Punch and Plastic, Electrosonic, Teach Me Tapes…These are all thriving companies…but the degree to which they’ve evaded on-trend rebranding is nearly heroic.”
Among these businesses is a tangled network of trails winding through about a dozen tunnels that cut under the looping roads. The trails don’t really connect to anything or serve any purpose beyond bimbling. They exist in a non-Newtonian dimension where navigation by normal means is impossible. Pedestrians and cyclists are seldom seen using them, the pavement is cracked and crumbling, and the tunnels are slowly giving themselves over to ivy and buckthorn.
Change is coming, though. Metro Transit is building a SWLRT station smack dab in the middle of Opus 2 and single story office buildings are giving way to multistory apartments and condominiums. Hopefully the network of trails can be upgraded as well. Now, if there was only a safe way to cross Highway 169…
Just east of Opus 2, there’s a hole through the Highway 169 causeway with a menacing presence not unlike the Death Star’s landing bay. The tunnel was built in 2017 by MNDoT to accommodate the Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail but so far has served only as Hennepin County’s answer to Saint Paul’s Maryland Avenue tunnel.
Instead of completing a half-mile trail through the tunnel, for the past three years the Three Rivers Park District has asked trail users to cross 169 along eight lanes of traffic at the Londonderry Road interchange. This unsafe situation should be ending soon. A recent Facebook post indicates work to complete the missing trail link will begin this fall.
Another tunnel project is boring its way into our world between the Best Buy Campus and Dick’s Sporting Goods on the 494 strip in Bloomington, where a glorious and terrible transformation is underway. It’s glorious because we’ll be getting a unique new tunnel built just for buses, bikes, and pedestrians. Buses will be able to sneak past the often snarled 494/35W interchange 45-55% faster than today. And cyclists and pedestrians will have a safe crossing to Southtown without having to traverse the mega overpass at Penn Avenue. Crews are building the northern half of the tunnel this year and the southern half next year. The idea of solving congestion with a tunnel shortcut just for transit is pretty great.
The terrible part is that the overall project will be adding substantial capacity to 494 with an additional lane in each direction and a new flyover bridge to replace one of the cloverleaf ramps. It’s the kind of project that flies in the face of the well-proven concepts of induced demand and climate change.
Among local cycling folks, the most infamous tunnel in the Twin Cities goes under East Bush Lake Road in Bloomington, the site of a rare fatality when two cyclists collided in 2008. Described by Bloomington police as a freak accident, the victim died from head injuries despite the fact that neither cyclist was riding very fast and both were wearing helmets. The approaches to this tunnel don’t seem to be particularly dangerous, either, especially compared with many other tunnels.
One naturally seeks to learn a lesson from a terrible accident like this, but sometimes there is no clear lesson. Helmets do not make a person invulnerable, and although off-street trails lack cars, they are not without hazards. Our only choice is to ride on, keeping a mental map of incidents and tragedies laid out in our minds, sometimes marked by a ghost bike or bouquet of flowers at the side of the road.
Further west, the Minnesota River Bluffs Regional Trail runs from Hopkins to Chaska, a pleasant twelve mile stretch of mostly crushed limestone aggregate. It sneaks past dozens of busy suburban roads with few crossings, the worst of which is 62nd Street, where it climbs an overpass in order to switch the trail to the other side of some active rail tracks. At State Highway 5, the trail passes through a nondescript tunnel and continues south.
Continuing further west on Highway 5 is possible via a frontage trail/sidewalk just off the highway’s shoulder. Crossing multiple stroads at grade, the trail forces cyclists to navigate porkchop islands with curb cuts aimed brutally toward the highway. Sights along the way include a Panera, a Taco Bell, a Culvers, the Temple of Eck, and another tunnel serving the good people of the Mitchell Lake neighborhood via Shamrock Trail. The intrepid cyclist who endures these obstacles will find themselves at the gates of the Arboretum and Paisley Park.
The final stop on our tour is the set of three Riley Creek tunnels outside of Paisley Park. These tunnels offer an interesting contrast to our first stop in Anoka. After Prince’s death, fans made the tunnels a symbol of their grief by creating an amazing array of artwork and graffiti. The city of Chanhassen has so far allowed the graffiti to remain in the tradition of the famed Graffiti Bridge, which was demolished in 1991. The result is a living memorial and tourist attraction that’s often listed as one of the must-visit sights on a Prince tour of the Twin Cities. It’s amazing what can happen when graffiti is tolerated and even cultivated instead of painted over and erased.
We’ve now reached the end of our tour. Thanks for riding along! If I’ve left our a tunnel or two, please let me know in the comments.