Overview of Midtown Greenway

Could a Proposed Railway Merger Finally Bridge the Twin Cities by Bike?

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.

Canadian Pacific Railway bridge across the Mississippi River north of Lake Street. Photo courtesy of Midtown Greenway Coalition

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.”

Midtown Greenway Coalition Executive Director Soren Jensen joined a cleanup of the “trench” on Saturday, October 8 sponsored by the Midtown Phillips Neighborhood Association.

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.”

Public art is welcome, but graffiti “is a constant battle,” Midtown Greenway Coalition Executive Director Soren Jensen told a gathering of cyclists in early October.

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.”

Allina Health, a platinum level donor, has hired artists to paint a colorful mural where Freewheel Bike Shop will reopen along the Midtown Greenway come spring. Photo by Soren Jensen

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.

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and recently was named executive director of Friends of the Parks & Trails (of St. Paul & Ramsey County).

14 thoughts on “Could a Proposed Railway Merger Finally Bridge the Twin Cities by Bike?

  1. Wolfie Browender

    Great story, Amy. I learned a great deal about the Greenway from your article. Soren Jensen is a tour de force! Love his idea to push Canadian Pacific to give or share ownership of the Mississippi River bridge to Hennepin County! Great for all bikers and walkers.

  2. Amy GageAmy Gage

    Soren Jensen said in the TCBC meeting that supply chain issues were keeping Freewheel from opening till spring. Plus, “now is not a good time to open a shop.” He said a café will be part of the space and that the Midtown Greenway Coalition is going to have a new office there, next to Freewheel.

  3. Trademark

    If only Soren was as passionate about light rail in the Greenway which would move many times more than the 5,000 people that currently use the trail without sacrificing the trail. Instead of crying about a few lost bushes, dirt slopes, and trees.

    1. Max

      There are 1000s of streets to put a light rail. Why use the Greenway for that? You could put it down Lake Street and get cars off the road at the same time

  4. ROGER GOERKE

    If only “Trademark” actually looked at ridership on Blue/Green/Northstar routes, he/she may find that they would be moving 5000 empty seats along the Midtown greenway and destroying the Green part of the green way.
    Now is the time to stop this nonsense and let green ways be green.
    Just like the Bruce Vento greenway (and trail) that already has trees that the Met council seems intent on clear cutting to add BRT to a very nice rails to trails multi-use trail.

    1. Trademark

      The blue line has an average of 15,000 and the green line has an average of 20,000 riders a day right now post covid. And pre COVID both averaged 40,000 per day. Even if no more ridership comes back (which will not be the case as ridership is steadily trending up). Our light rail systems still move orders of magnitude more than the Greenway every day and considering the grade separated nature of the Greenway trench and the urban form surrounding lake street. I expect Greenway rail to either match or exceed those numbers.

      It doesn’t matter how many empty seats you think are on the train. It matters how many people are actually moved.

      1. ROGER GOERKE

        Dear Trademark, you did not cite a source for those ridership numbers and I could only find pre-pandemic ridership reported on the Met Council website. I would suggest that in any case the ridership on the Blue and Green lines is an estimate because payment on the line is “on your honor” and even you and met council can’t tell exactly how many people ride those lines. My comments above are from personal observations. It is extremely rare for me to see a green line rail car with more than 1 or 2 passengers, and during the summer the rail cars sit at the Union Depot stop with doors open and air conditioners blasting. If this is how the Met Council thinks they are going to solve climate change, they are sadly mistaken.

        1. Trademark

          Here is your source.

          https://www.metrotransit.org/performance

          And if anything the ridership is undercounted due to unpaying passengers. As far as your anecdote I can only respond with mine which is busy during rush hour and during even during off peak almost always at least 5-10 people on each car at once. With people getting on and off at each stop it’s not unusual during slower periods for 40-50 people per car to get on and off over the course of an end to end trip. And the Blue Line doesn’t have as good land use compared to the Greenway. And the Green Line is much slower then the Greenway will be.

          I love the Greenway trail and use it often and know that Metro Transit’s designs could be improved with things like green track. But it’s not like in the Metro we are hurting for trails with woods, and grass, and bushes, and prairies and lakes. See the Grand Rounds of both cities, Cedar Lake Trail, Diagonal Trail, Gateway Trail, 9 mile creek trail, elm creek trail just to name a few of my favorites. We integrate nature into our Metro better then any other city I’ve ever been to. But our transit is definitely lacking.

          I agree with you that they shouldn’t keep the doors open with AC. But rail takes people out of cars and attracts people who wouldn’t normally take the bus. And those reduced carbon emissions are almost certainly better for climate change.

          And the trail will still remain it’s not like their talking about getting rid of the trail.

          1. ROGER GOERKE

            Having read your source thoroughly, one can understand why the numbers are so abysmally high and do not correspond to my observations. Any one entering the train is automatically counted as a rider and may in fact get double counted if they actually pay for the trip. The green line ridership numbers can totally be due to the large number of U of M students wishing to cross the Washington Ave Bridge but are too lazy or cold to make the trek by foot or bike as I did many times. The blue line ridership could be accounted for by MSP passengers going from one terminal to the other or on to the MOA. While these were apparent transit needs that were met by the Light Rail lines they did not justify the 11.1 length and 12 mile length respectively and certainly don’t make a case for extension of either of the lines or the clear-cutting of trees to add more light rail.

  5. Karen

    What about the state of MN also pressuring the RR? My understanding is they often come to state legislature asking for things, and we don’t use that moment of leverage. This was point that Robin Garwood, with former CM Cam Gordon’s office, called my attention to.

    And this is not just about Midtown Greenway Extension, its abit network of connections beyond it, this expansion of seperated bike paths from former RR routes could also include the so-called Prospect Park RR spur, running from where Greenway Extension crosses to northern side of river to the U of MN Mpls campus. There has been ROW set aside to possibly make this connection from this hardly used RR spur to the campus and there lots of development happening in that connection area that would be amazing to connect to Greenway Extension.

  6. Dan Hunt

    Why would you state something so preposterous…

    “The Greenway is as important as I-94 and 35W.”

  7. Michele Guala

    Great article and awesome work with the greenway. I would love to see it extended nicely to UMN. It is connected to Hiawatha, but then the path is lost just before the West Campus. It’s a pity…

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