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Is it the right time to extend the Greenway across the river to St. Paul?

The Canadian Pacific owns the Short Line Bridge
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Canadian Pacific owns the Short Line Bridge and attempts to keep trespassers away where the Midtown Greenway ends.

Hardly a week goes by when someone doesn’t ask Soren Jensen the question:

“When are you going to extend the Greenway over the river with that bridge?”

That bridge would be what railroaders call the Short Line Bridge, which crosses from the end of the Midtown Greenway — the 5.5-mile biking and walking trail built on a former railroad corridor that crosses south Minneapolis — to the Prospect Park neighborhood and on into St. Paul.

Jensen, the executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, had an answer, just not a very satisfying one.

“For several years I’d just say, ‘Well, we’re kinda waiting on the railroad.’” While right-of-way for the Greenway is in public hands, the one for the bridge is not. And any interest its owner, the Canadian Pacific Railway, once had in selling it seems to have faded as the bridge continues to service a few customers along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis.

Now, as the Greenway approaches the river, hikers and bikers must veer off and join West River Parkway. To make the trip to the east bank, those on bikes must get to paths on multi-use bridges at Franklin Avenue or Lake Street.

Jensen and other advocates for expanding biking options in both Minneapolis and St. Paul want to change that. And while that could be a long process with economic and political hurdles, they want to get started.

To that end, the coalition is in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign to commission an engineering study of the bridge to understand what it would take to bring it up to standards. That might either be for a shared rail-bike-pedestrian bridge or as a bike-pedestrian crossing only. Such a study could also potentially renew interest in the bridge from the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority and Hennepin County, both of which passed up an opportunity to take control of the bridge a decade ago.

Both options would require a willing partner, which could be a problem.

“The Short Line bridge in South Minneapolis is an active railway bridge and sees regular moves of freight trains,” said Canadian Pacific media relations manager Andy Cummings. “While we don’t have a formal proposal to respond to, we would have serious concerns about allowing cycling on the bridge.”

Midtown Greenway map
Courtesy of Andy Singer
Click to view a larger version.

Jensen isn’t deterred. With an engineering study in hand, he hopes to convince players like Hennepin and Ramsey counties to get involved. Again. He’s attracted a coalition of 35 cycling, outdoors and neighborhood groups to support the effort. Thanks to individual donations, including a single $10,000 gift, there is enough money pledged to pay for the engineering work.

Additional funds will be spent trying to support trail development on the St. Paul side and on better connections between the Greenway and Minnehaha Falls dubbed the Min\Hi Line. There have been several meetings on both sides of the river and in both cities to talk about the campaign to extend the Greenway, he said.

Jensen said he hopes to unveil the results of the engineering study later this year in St. Paul. “In some ways people in St. Paul are almost more excited about this,” he said. “Everyone is excited, but we’re getting a lot of enthusiasm from St. Paul.”

He summarized the issue like this: “We have one of the best, if not the best, urban bike trails in the nation. But it’s got this missing link. We’re trying to revive this idea of pushing forward. I know people are excited about it. But it remains a challenging project because the railroad is still using the bridge.”

A short chain link fence
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A short chain link fence separates the end of the Midtown Greenway trail from Canadian Pacific tracks that cross over the Mississippi River to the East Bank.

About that bridge

Rail service over the bridge consists of one round trip per weekday to supply an ADM grain operation and a metal recycler. Jensen said those uses might not be around forever. Hennepin County bought out and relocated other businesses near Hiawatha for construction of the Blue Line, he said. And there is potential for sharing a restored bridge if they remain.

“What if we could shore up that bridge, rehab that bridge? Obviously we’d have to go out and find a lot of state and county and federal funding,” Jensen asked. “What if it could be made so structurally sound that Hennepin County would be willing to take it on? What is the price tag for that? We’re hoping to get an answer to that from the engineering study.”

Andy Singer is the co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition as well as a writer and cartoonist on urban design and cycling issues for streets.mn. That has led him to study the issues surrounding the Short Line bridge and the rights of way on both the east and west banks of the river.

The Short Line Bridge from the Franklin Avenue Bridge.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The Short Line Bridge from the Franklin Avenue Bridge. The bridge was built in 1880 and rebuilt in 1902.

Singer said that in 2006, Hennepin County commissioned an engineering study by URS Corp. to give advice on whether the county should assume ownership of the bridge. Such a transfer would have required the county to assume legal liability for bridge use by both rail customers and bikers and walkers. The study came up with different ways to accommodate a single rail track and a pedestrian/bike path. But in the end it recommended that the bridge was in such structural distress that the county not accept the offer of taking over the bridge.

Using the piers already in the river to support a new bridge would require abandonment of the rail line, the study said. And building a new bike-pedestrian bridge likely would not be acceptable to the National Park Service that operates the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

Singer said he is well aware of the hurdles. But he thinks the benefits to the region are enough to keep exploring options. Bike commuters, for example, need a direct and safer route from the west bank to the east bank. And the potential for expanding bike trails in St. Paul on right of way now controlled by Canadian Pacific are significant.

For example, once on the east bank of the river, the right of way swings upriver into Prospect Park in Minneapolis and down river toward Cleveland Avenue and Ayd Mill Road in St. Paul. Such future uses are in the St. Paul comprehensive plan as well as neighborhood plans.

A ghost bike hangs from the superstructure of the Short Line Bridge
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A ghost bike hangs from the superstructure of the Short Line Bridge where it passes over W. River Parkway in Minneapolis.

“It’s been in those plans for a decade or more but nothing has happened with it,” Singer said. “We kind of feel like somebody’s got to nudge this forward.

“I just think it would be safer, nicer on many different levels,” he said. “The goal is to make it easier for people to bike and get more people biking.”

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Comments (35)

No

The right time was a decade ago. But now is better than waiting another decade.

Land values

I wonder how long it will continue to make sense for ADM and the metal recycling facility to use their properties for industrial activities, vs selling for development. Residential density is rising in that area & there continues to be appetite for more.

True

I've seen some people suggest a public entity buy out the remaining rail customers along the Hiawatha corridor. Since this is a spur line from St. Paul, the trains would dry up the moment the customers dry up. That seems like a relatively cost effective way to build out the Minnehaha Hi-Line project and also have leverage to get bicycles and pedestrians onto the unused half of the Short Line bridge.

Modification?

I wonder if it would be feasible to add to the width of the bridge with bike lanes, while keeping the present rail use of the center. The structural extensions would constitute most of the extra load, not the vehicles.

Did you miss this section of the article?

Singer said that in 2006, Hennepin County commissioned an engineering study by URS Corp. to give advice on whether the county should assume ownership of the bridge. Such a transfer would have required the county to assume legal liability for bridge use by both rail customers and bikers and walkers. The study came up with different ways to accommodate a single rail track and a pedestrian/bike path. But in the end it recommended that the bridge was in such structural distress that the county not accept the offer of taking over the bridge.

Using the piers already in the river to support a new bridge would require abandonment of the rail line, the study said. And building a new bike-pedestrian bridge likely would not be acceptable to the National Park Service that operates the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

An example to follow

Memphis successfully added a pedestrian/bike bridge to a rail bridge across one of the widest points of the Mississippi River. There was existing infrastructure from a former auto lane next to the rail bridge (which required significant renovation), but they still had to negotiate with two states and Union Pacific to make the project happen. It might be a good idea for those considering this idea in MN to talk with the Big River Crossing team on how to move forward with this type of multi-modal plan.

Not Green

The railroad should be looked at as an asset to our community, not a problem. It is the most efficient form of bulk land transportation by far. We should promote clean and green business that can take advantage of rail service. It takes 4 trucks to equal one railcar. There is also a busy General Mills facility not mentioned in the article an 2 round trip trains per week day and one each weekend day. To push these mills out would remove hundreds of jobs. I am for extending the greenway but not at this cost.

Green or not

Whether it's green or not depends on the alternative. Certainly just switching to trucks serving the same facilities is much less green.

But ADM may switch to other rail-served facilities, in which case that's probably a wash. Same for General Mills (if they're actually using the trains, seems like CP would have given Peter accurate information on the number of customers and trains). The metal recycler might have to move, so that could mean a switch to trucks, but I don't think that business is particularly green to begin with.

And is it hundreds of jobs? I don't see many people around and they don't have much for parking at any of these facilities (maybe the workers all arrive by light rail?).

Huh?

I had to read that three times, about a metal recycler not being green. Wow.

What's confusing?

Northern Metals, a scrap metal recycler, is such an air pollution problem the city wants them out.

two different locations

Northern Metals is north of downtown Minneapolis. This location is south of downtown Minneapolis. Two completely different operations.

So facts about Northern Metals is completely irrelevant to this discussion

Not green at all

Ask the folks near Northern Metals about how green that metal recycler is.
http://www.minneapolisriverfront.org/mrps-take-northern-metals-settlement/

what other facilities

Could you please be specific about what other facilities ATM and General Mills would switch to.

Can you be specific about what other rail options are available to ATM and General Mills please.

A truck moves a ton of freight 80 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel. A train moves the same ton of freight 420 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel.

I am the conductor on the

I am the conductor on the daylight train there. The CP did give Peter inaccurate information and it is hundreds of jobs, but more importantly people. I know these people well. If these jobs leave, we will be lucky to keep them within the state. Please don’t push our jobs out for a bike trail that has other options. Feel free to ask me about working there any weekday between 8 and 1. We are usually around 35th or 37th.

Job losses?

Why would sharing the bridge with cyclist cause job losses?

Railroad isn't going anywhere

Since we are about half way through a two week construction project to fix the RR crossing at Lake street, I doubt the RR would spend this sort of money for a line that is going to go out of use in the near future.

As I work in St Paul and live a block from the greenway, would love this crossing to happen, but wouldn't count on the bridge going into disuse by the railroad company.

I don' get it

It looks like it's a side by side double bridge with one abandoned side. The engineers are saying the abandoned side couldn't support bike traffic without getting rid of the trains on the bridge next to it? And if the bridge is THAT compromised, why are we letting trains use it? What if it collapses onto people below?

safety concerns

Questions
Is the current Bridge wide enough to safely separate the bicycles from the trains?

Can the bicycle lanes be constructed to safely support emergency vehicles like police cars, fire engines, ambulances etc.?

Questions-

Your first question is legitimate, but I've been riding MY next to RR tracks for decades without problems so I'm not sure what we mean by safe separation. If a train derails on a bridge, we have much larger problem than bike safety. We have several bike crossings over RR tracks, and adjacent trails all over the Twin Cities. The only accidents we have are on the streets where cyclist cross in front of the light rail.

The second question doesn't appear to be legitimate. Emergency vehicle access isn't a requirement for bike trails. Bike trails are not streets and road, and are not designed to carry heavy emergency vehicles in the first place. Ambulances don't drive up into office towers and high rise apartments, they don't need to drive out onto every bridge. They can't drive out onto the RR bridges for instance.

I think the only issue

I think the only issue structurally is there is no redundancy, one failure equals complete failure. My understanding is it is 400% stronger then the maximum load it currently carries. The real problem is the liability issue of trains and pedestrians on the same bridge. It seems like something could be worked out.

I thought Mn Commercial owned

I thought Mn Commercial owned the bridge, not CP?

I believe the bridge is wide enough for both rail and bike/ped but not at the same time. One option might be to signal the bikeway so that bicycle riders are not allowed on the bridge when a train is present or approaching?

problem the Midtown Greenway closed

Because the bikers coalition insisted on creating the Midtown Greenway, forcing trains out of that corridor, we now have all have the problems of co-location of T C & W and Southwest LRT in the Kenilworth corridor

Because the Green Way is in a trench, it's not safe to ride there after dark. And no one wants to ride there after dark

Really?

The Greenway is the most heavily traveled bike trail in the city. And it's just as if not more heavily used than other trails after dark. But you'd have to ride a bike do know that, no just read the occasional crime headline in the papers.

Darned Bicyclists!

As I recall, the Midtown Greenway was built on tracks that had not been used in years. In any event, I don't see how tearing up those tracks caused an increase in rail traffic on another route ("We'll show those bike-riding sissies! We'll ship stuff somewhere else!").

The Greenway

The bike coalition did not insist on creating the Midtown Greenway until after the tracks were abandoned. The tracks were abandoned because the state of MN, when they rebuilt Highway 55, cut the tracks with no plan to reconnect them and forced TC&W to travel up the (then abandoned) Kenilworth Corridor. The entire genesis of the problem with co-location of light rail and freight rail in that corridor lies with the state (and any agreement they may have made with the Met Council or Hennepin County), not the bike coalition, the city of MPLS, or anyone else.

RR property rights are the problem

It's actually kind of spooky to see how readily and quickly most people will acquiesce to illegitimate "property" claims in a capitalist society.

The notion that "we" as in the public, and or our public representatives should be required to meet the RR's passenger transportation "expectations" in the first place is simply whackadoo. Why do we need to meet THEIR expectations when we're build public infrastructure?

If a RR has 100 feet of right of way and they're only using 20 feet of it, they should have the burden of proof if we want to build transit on the other 80 feet. The RR should have to demonstrate how the transit will "harm" their business.

You have to remember, this is the same industry that refuses to maintain tracks, and install safe crossings all over the country. Every year dozens of people get killed because trains derail and collide with cars and trucks at faulty intersections. And you have to remember that most of the "right of ways" that RR "own" came into their hands via government give-aways back in the 1800s and early 1900s. Now they sit on this unused and abandoned land and we have to meet THEIR expectations?

Most of these "requirements" stem from arcane federal laws that granted RR's ridiculous leverage over 100 years ago. And most of those laws were passed at a time when passenger service was a primary function of the RR. We need to change those laws. We need laws that grant public access to this unused right of way for public infrastructure, and at the very least all for the exercise of eminent domain in situations where RR's are intransigently blocking public infrastructure. We need to re-balance the leverage here.

You make good points but are

You make good points but are maybe a little confused about railroad maintenance , road crossings and government regulations. The same ‘arcane’ federal laws that allow railroads to be above local regulation force railroads to continue services when they aren’t profitable. The federal railway administration dictates,regulates and enforces the standards the track is maintained to. Road crossings cannot be altered without federal review, regardless of us (the railroad) wanting to improve it for public safety reasons. In south Minneapolis specifically we haul truckloads of garbage away every year that somehow end up dumped on our tracks. We try hard to be good neighbors. Seldom is there a crossing accident that isn’t simply due to distracted driving.

Well....

I'm sorry Mr. Monn but if you're telling us RR's would like make tracks and crossing safer but can't because federal regulation won't let them... I'm gonna give you four out of five Pinocchio's. The fact that tracks and and crossings are unsafe and malfunctioning in the US is well documented. Whatever regulations we have in place, are in place at the RR request via their lobbyists, so the RR's can't hide behind federal regulations they themselves designed and lobbied for, be they recent or archaic. And just because RR's may need federal approval, doesn't mean they can't get it, if you want to make things safer, get the approval, don't refuse to make it safer simply because you need approval. If you want a faster and more simple approval process, RR's can always lobby for that.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-rail or trains, but let's keep things in perspective, especially when we're balancing public interests with private property.

Typical

How typically selfish of cyclists to demand access to a working railway. It is bad enough to have taken a major line out of potential service for recreational use, now they want to block an active line. Railroads may one day need to re-expand service. They are an economic necessity, as well as an environmental one. Recreation like cycling contributes nothing to the economy. Riding to the Lake Street bridge is not such a hardship as to warrant taking over this bridge or any others.

What?

What "major line" was taken out of potential service?

Jobs

I'd like some clarification on how many jobs may be at stake, and what they pay.

I'd also like some clarification on the Northern Metals facility, which obviously is not on the river in North MPLS.

I recall cringing when then St.Paul Mayor Randy Kelly cheered the closing of the Diamond Products plant on the east end of Lowertown. Dozens of union wage jobs for those with high school degrees went away. The Saints stadium now on that site is a nice facility, but I've never been sure another publicly subsidized stadium was worth the trade off. But at least some retirees serve as ushers can stay out trouble for a few hours at $10/hour.

Jobs at stake

The two mills run 24/7, The elevator runs daylight except harvest season when it runs 2 or 3 shifts. Leder Brothers (the recycler) daylight only. I count 45 union daylight jobs, 8 afternoon and 8 night AT LEAST, exclusive to those locations. Leder brothers another 6-10. Railroad jobs 10-12, depending on how you cut it, sometimes many more (20-30 for track work). Then there are truck drivers associated with all 4 industries, I have no idea how many but they are not insignificant. All these numbers go up in harvest season and of coarse there the local places we frequent (parkway pizza, moto mart, etc..) . Then there is the office support staff for all of these. All good middle class wage jobs.

That was then, this is now...

If you were a South Minneapolis kid in the 60s and 70s (as I was) a true test of courage was to cross on the 2' wide cat walk with no rails over the river 30' below the rails. Never made it all the way across. Hands and knees with white knuckles gripping the edge of the wooden boards. Out as far as the first pier. It was a LONG way down. Urban legend had a kid riding his bicycle across it. So there you go: we already have a ready made bike path, separate from the rail line just waiting for folks with A LOT of courage to take advantage of it.

Maybe there is some potential for something below the rails still: look at the picture, the cat walk was on the lower chord of the bridge structure. Wide enough for a bike path with height for safety fence.

And then we all could be legends riding across the 27th St Bridge...

Actually I should apologize

I'm sorry but my lengthy comment about federal law and RR safety was prompted by this story AND another story elsewhere about BNSF blocking the Bottineau Line. I admit I got a little confused as to where I was posting. The Bottineau issue is more of a right-of-way scenario.

Getting back to the bridge, I just have to point out once again that if it's not safe for cyclist (in terms of weight bearing) it can't possibly be safe enough for trains. A single train car weighs more than a thousand cyclists and their bikes. And I don't know how we get from wanting to use the unused part of the bridge to shutting down companies and putting people out of their jobs?

I think this part of a larger infrastructure problem we have in the US. Private and public infrastructure is deteriorating at an alarming rate. If you're actually worried about a RR bridge not being strong enough to accommodate bicycles you have much large problem than where to cross the river with a bicycle path.

This story portrays the bridges structural deficiency as a mere liability problem, but it's obviously a basic safety issue. If that bridge is THAT unsound, trains shouldn't be using it. So whoever owns that bridge should be REQUIRED to maintain it's structural integrity. If it falls into the river that's not just a problem for the bridge owners. If the owners literally cannot afford to maintain the bridge, than we can look at public subsidies of some kind, but it's not just an insurance problem, its a structural problem. And if we do subsidize it's maintenance, we get to put a a bike path on it.

AND by the way...

I assume that the RR company or bridge owner have adequate insurance or cash reserves to pay for all damages should this deteriorated bridge collapse into the river? Or is this just another example of the private sector getting all the profit while the public assumes all of the risk?