Most of us who live and bicycle in the urban core don’t confine ourselves solely to Minneapolis or St. Paul. So, the question becomes how to cross the Mississippi River while encountering the least amount of vehicular traffic (an ever-growing challenge on the Ford bridge), pedestrians (who tend to spread out on the Franklin Avenue bridge’s multimodal lanes) and broken glass (a particular problem on the Lake Street bridge).
Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, has the obvious but heretofore seemingly impossible answer: Convert the existing railroad bridge on West River Parkway, at the Midtown Greenway’s eastern edge, to a car-free, multi-modal crossing that could also accommodate the once-a-day train run by bridge owner Canadian Pacific Railway.
Although the coalition’s years-long effort to extend the 5.5-mile Greenway across the river has been heavily studied and chronicled, Jensen sees a new possibility — a flickering light across the waters — in CP Rail’s plans to acquire Kansas City Southern Railway.
That move, Jensen told a Bike U virtual gathering sponsored by the Twin Cities Bicycling Club (TCBC) in early October, would “move $15 million of salaries out of downtown Minneapolis and to Kansas City.” He wants to leverage that economic loss into an agreement with CP Rail to convert the bridge to one that accommodates cyclists and walkers, too.
A bridge too far? Or a vision that might finally become reality? “The key is Hennepin County,” says Jensen, whose energy and tenacity have driven the nonprofit Midtown Greenway Coalition for more than 11 years. “The entire bridge is in Minneapolis. We’re strategizing now to get Hennepin County off their behinds and to take a leadership role in this.”
Citing Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition co-chair Andy Singer’s writing as “a reason we launched this effort,” Jensen already had formed a 40-member Extend the Greenway Partnership. He upped the ante on October 7 with a strongly worded two-page letter to the Surface Transportation Board in Washington, D.C. (with mandatory copies to 275 people, he wryly notes) that cites the potential loss of 207 jobs and calls the railways’ merger “a terrible deal for Minnesota.”
The letter asks CP Rail to mitigate its potential damage to the local economy with “public ownership (or shared ownership)” of the Midtown Greenway Extension Spur, along with the Highland Park Spur, the Hiawatha Industrial Spur and the Paynesville Subdivision/14th Street Spur. Other Extend the Greenway partners, including the Sierra Club North Star chapter, also submitted letters to the Surface Transportation Board.
Jensen himself calls on Hennepin County’s commissioners to “sit down and negotiate with CP Rail and live up to [the county’s] beliefs about greenhouse gas emissions.”
“CP Rail is not helping Minnesota at all,” he later told Streets.mn. “They’re draining millions of dollars out of our downtown at a time when we need more people back downtown. What we say is: Work with us so we can share the bridge over the river. We don’t have to stop the one train a day.”
Why the Midtown Greenway Matters
For fair-weather cyclists (and I’m among you), biking season wanes as the weather turns cold. But given the growing number of year-round cyclists and green commuters, as well as the neighbors who walk the trail for exercise and to help keep it clean, now seems a good time to review the impact of the Midtown Greenway.
Why is the Midtown Greenway important? “Thousands of people use it every day. It’s how people get to and from work,” Jensen told the Bike U event. “The Greenway is as important as I-94 and 35W. It’s one reason why Minneapolis is known as one of the best places to bike not just in the U.S. but the world.”
With 5,000 cyclists a day and a million trips per year, “the Greenway is so popular because it’s the ultimate protected bike lane. It’s separated from traffic,” Jensen says. As a father, he adds, “I would never bike with my three little kids on a painted bike lane; they’re too wobbly.”
Describing efforts to diversify his board — “there’s an awful lot of white male cyclists out there” — Jensen told the TCBC audience that biking is often cited as the sole benefit of the Midtown Greenway, but “it’s about walking and economic development, too.” Last year the coalition commissioned a study claiming a $1.8 billion total increase in property values within 500 feet of the Greenway since its opening more than two decades ago.
Who runs the Midtown Greenway? Hennepin County owns the trail, but the City of Minneapolis is under contract to maintain it, which includes providing a lighting system, snowplow crew and blue emergency phones, which over time ceased to work well.
“We tested the phones,” Jensen told the TCBC gathering. “There was crackly, creaky noise. You couldn’t hear the 911 operators.” So, he “embarrassed” the city by threatening to go public about the poorly working phones, and now “we see the maintenance crews testing them.”
“We’re an advocacy group,” he explained, noting that as a 501c3 organization, the coalition can’t lobby elected officials. “We have to push the government sometimes to do the right thing. We try to partner, but sometimes we have to push.”
The most visible advocacy campaign entailed grassroots organizing and media-driven pressure to persuade the city to redo the repaving of the Greenway’s original stretch, from west of Bde Maka Ska to 5th Avenue. The city budgeted $1.5 million but spent only one-third of that, Jensen says, with a “micro-surface” process that didn’t work.
When “car-centric” city officials said the new pavement was fine, “We elevated it,” Jensen says. Tall and talkative and sometimes surprisingly frank, he got over 2,200 signatures on a petition, a front-page story in the Star Tribune and TV news coverage. More important, the repaving finally lived up to Jensen’s standards. “To protect and enhance the Greenway: That’s what I think about every day.”
Is the Greenway dangerous, especially at night? “I usually feel unsafe on part of it,” said a woman at the TCBC meeting, “but there has been better police control there this summer.” Jensen hears, “on average,” of one incident a year and claims the Greenway has more cameras than any other Twin Cities bikeway. “It’s as safe as any bike trail in the metro. Does that mean you should bike on it at 1 a.m. by yourself? On Lake Street you could get hit by a car.” Cycle at night with a friend, he suggests, and report any incidents you see. “Occasionally youth throw things off the bridges onto the trail.”
What other types of issues require advocacy? When one of the 37 bridges that crosses the Midtown Greenway must be replaced or repaired, Jensen pushes the city and county not to detour cyclists off the trail. “It’s a huge deal. It’s dangerous, it messes up the timing of their commute. It puts them up amid cars,” he said. When a new Fremont Avenue bridge was “done poorly,” he (again) notified the media.
Jensen also persuades developers not to “shadow” the Greenway with buildings that block sunlight from the trench. Developers of a project on Lyndale Avenue told him that they would lose their financing unless the building went straight up. They even offered to shovel the trail where the sun would no longer shine. “Non-cyclists don’t understand it,” Jensen told the Bike U event. “We bike year-round, and the ice doesn’t melt. For year-round commuters, it’s very dangerous to have these shadows.”
He asked participants to note how buildings “step away” on the south side of the trail: “That’s to let ice melt.”
How can walkers, cyclists and neighbors support the Greenway? Thousands of trees have been planted. Trash gets picked up. Graffiti eventually gets scrubbed away. Some of that is government work, but the Greenway also depends heavily on volunteers, including its board of directors. And financial donations, of course, are always welcome.
Jane Nides, Jensen’s sole employee, coordinates the Midtown Ambassadors, an initiative that includes organized bike rides and walks. Originally known as Trail Watch, Midtown Ambassadors has since adopted a more neighborhood-wide mission. “The goal is to bring cheer and happiness and say hello to people and provide directions,” Jensen says. “We stop into businesses. We don’t intervene in crime, but more people on the street helps prevent crime.”
Learn more: Click here to review Jensen’s 90-minute Bike U meeting on October 6 with the Twin Cities Bicycling Club.
Photo at top courtesy of the Midtown Greenway Coalition; uncredited photos are by the author.