When Minneapolis Council Member Cam Gordon announced last week that “the stars are aligning; maybe this time we can get the project done,” it felt different. Standing in front of a small crowd, Gordon’s proclamation was a rare glimmer of optimism for a project about which bicyclists have long dreamed: an eastbound extension of Minneapolis’ famous Midtown Greenway.
It has always seemed like a pipe dream. The “Short Line” bridge and remaining right-of-way are still owned and operated by Canadian Pacific Railway. As anyone who has ever worked on infrastructure knows, conflict with a railroad is almost always a deal breaker. But with trillions of dollars of infrastructure spending currently making its way through Congress, there’s something different in the air. Twin Cities bicyclists and key elected officials think now is the time for a game-changer extension to the Midtown Greenway.
The best thing about bicycling in Minneapolis
If you’ve never ridden on Minneapolis Midtown Greenway, which cuts east-west from the Chain of Lakes to the Mississippi River, stop what you’re doing right now. Grab a bicycle and go. (I’ll give you a pass if it’s raining.)
The Midtown Greenway is the best thing about bicycling in Minneapolis. An old grade-separated rail corridor, today the trail allows cyclists, dog walkers, and strollers a scenic, uninterrupted route. Most important, riders on this trail only have to worry about car traffic when crossing a few intersections, or when a stray car or police vehicle randomly shows up on the route. Compared to the low-key anxiety (and occasional near-death experiences) that are part and parcel of urban bicycling nearly everywhere else in the metro area, this is a minor miracle. That separation from car traffic is why the Midtown Greenway, parts of which are over 20 years old, remains the best urban bike route in the nation.
It wasn’t always this way. I’ve been bicycling in Minneapolis long enough to remember when the Greenway was still under construction, and it stopped abruptly at 5th Avenue South. Watching it open in stages, piece by piece, shaped my understanding of how grassroots infrastructure projects like this come together. It’s not easy to create a seamless bike route that runs for miles through a dense city.
“When the first idea came up about that old rail line turning it into a bike path, many people said, ‘We can’t do that, there’s no way that’s going to work,’” Cam Gordon told the assembled crowd at St. Paul’s Lake Monster Brewing. “When the Greenway was expanding, and it got to my neck of the woods [the easternmost section in the Seward neighborhood], there was a rail line there, and people said, ‘We can’t do that; no way that’s going to work.’”
The eastern extension running to West River Parkway opened in 2007, and has been operating without incident with trains ever since.
“Now they’re saying you can’t have a greenway across that bridge, and we say ‘Sure we can,’” Gordon continued. “We proved we can do it.”
Many hurdles ahead
The event at Lake Monster marked the official release of a new report commissioned by the Midtown Greenway Coalition, a nonprofit that helps maintain and expand the existing trail. The report touts the economic impact of the Minneapolis Greenway, making a case for spending money on the bridge and extension project.
There are many hurdles to the Greenway extension proposal, foremost that the bridge over the Mississippi is currently owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. In urban planning circles, railroads are infamous for their inflexibility and ability to trump nearly every other level of government in getting what they want. (Just ask the planners of the Blue Line light rail extension to the northwest suburbs.)
That said, Canadian Pacific offered to sell the entire bridge to Hennepin County back in 2006, providing that the county assumed liability. At the time, the county turned the offer down because of structural concerns. But if it were repeated these days, I sure hope the outcome would be different. A more recent study, also sponsored by the Greenway Coalition, looked at the bridge and found it was possible to accommodate bicyclists and a railroad track. The bridge and the tracks only serve one train a day, a grain train shipping from Minneapolis’ last remaining mill on Hiawatha and 38th street. Meanwhile, the siding spur to the north, leading to the University of Minnesota, is only used for car storage. Both tracks offer excellent opportunities for government investment.
Here’s why: Extending the Greenway over the river would lead close to the University of Minnesota campus, and would result in a stunning improvement for bicycling through Minneapolis and St. Paul. The university has more than 50,000 students and staff, and has long been the No. 1 source of bicycle activity in the Twin Cities. A dense campus full of young people and parking-deprived workers means that any bike route near the campus instantly becomes a bonanza for cycling.
Meanwhile, for St. Paul, once the Greenway crossed the Mississippi River, finding a path through the city would be far simpler. It’s a good bet that Ramsey County and St. Paul officials could find money for the project, connecting tens of thousands of people with the west metro. Probably more than any other single investment, it would help St. Paul achieve its ambitious climate action goals.
The fiscal case
The argument laid out in the new Midtown Greenway Coalition report is chock full of maps and numbers. The 93-page study details the land use changes that have occurred in south Minneapolis since the Midtown Greenway opened, and includes similar maps of the routes along potential extensions. For example, since the Midtown Greenway was first opened, more than 4,000 new apartments were constructed within a half-mile of the project. Overall, the changes along the Greenway have boosted annual city and county tax revenues by more than $30 million.
The report aims squarely at elected officials, helping them do the math on how economic development can build a city’s tax base. On the one hand, these kinds of analyses are always squishy, conflating a whole range of conditions and variables into a simple number. For example, even without the Midtown Greenway, it’s certain that Uptown and Lyn-Lake would have seen plenty of new housing development. But even to a passive observer, it’s easy to see how the country’s best bicycle trail has improved quality of life and spurred development on acres of underused land in south Minneapolis.
Boosting property values is always a mixed bag in a city with steep income inequality like Minneapolis, but the report’s authors take pains to point out how the Midtown Greenway promotes connection and equity through the city. For example, many of the neighborhoods along the Greenway are home to people who do not own a car. There are many benefits of a safe connection between rich and poor parts of the city.
At this point, it’s clear that the Greenway bridge needs outside help to make the project happen. Ideally, Hennepin County would step in and piece together a proposal to the railroad, as it tried to do 15 years ago. In the intervening years, the benefits of a project like this have become far more apparent, while the need for action on climate and reducing transportation emissions is more urgent than ever.
If the county remains uninterested in taking the lead on the investment, maybe a more regional agency like the Metropolitan Council or the Minnesota Department of Transportation could assemble a proposal. The details of that negotiation would probably be difficult, but when compared to the kinds of “economic development” projects that happen around the metro (see for example, this Ramsey County onramp expansion), the Greenway extension is a strong contender.
Hurdles remain and logistical headaches loom, but having optimism about crossing the river is a refreshing change for a project that always seemed to be a bridge too far. One thing nobody disagrees about: If and when the Greenway extension happens, it’ll spur a bicycling revolution east of the Mississippi.
As Soren Jensen, the head of the Greenway Coalition, said of the extension proposal: “It will instantly catapult St. Paul into the top of the best bicycling cities in the country, if not the world.”