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Disabilities activist Rick Cardenas championed downtown St. Paul LRT access with skyway elevator

City officials and advocates for disabled people say Cardenas kept on the pressure for the elevator, which they consider crucial to access.

Mayor Chris Coleman lauded Rick Cardenas, left, saying: "When Rick sets his teeth into something, he doesn't let go until it gets done."
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball

Rick Cardenas was the man of the hour Wednesday morning when city officials conducted a ceremonial groundbreaking for an elevator/stairway building that will connect the light rail station at Fifth and Cedar to the skyway system.

Cardenas, who is co-director of Advocating Change Together, lives downtown and uses a wheelchair. He’s been hounding state and local officials for three years to get the elevator built. He eventually got legislators to pass a bill requiring the connection last session.

It’s going to cost $1.7 million to build; the money’s coming from an  $800,000 federal grant and $700,000 from the Central Corridor Light Rail Project Contingency Budget.

Supporters say the elevator is essential to get transit users and downtown workers and residents from the street up into the skyway system, which becomes downtown’s de facto pedestrian connection in the winter and on scorching August days.

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An elevator at the site was not on the original Central Corridor blueprints, but City Council Member Dave Thune said it was always on the city’s radar as a necessary component of the rail system.

“We’d always planned for a connection here, the trick was getting everyone else on board,” Thune said before the event. “Rick has been great, and I think it should be called the Cardenas Connection. If anyone forces us to be accountable, it’s Rick.”

All of the official documents and statements about the elevator refer to it as “Vertical Connection.”

The official reason: It will have stairs and an elevator, so vertical connection describes them both.

But Thune called the term “planneresque.”

I wondered if there’d be public questions about spending $1.7 million on something called an elevator. But those at the ceremony said that’s what it costs to build an enclosed heavy-duty elevator with stairs and lighting and public art.

Metro Council Member Rich Kramer said anyone concerned about the cost should “spend a day in Rick Cardenas’ wheelchair” to see how important a connection to the skyway will be.

Bill Hosko, a downtown art gallery owner and former city council candidate, said the connection “needed to happen.” Next, he’d like to see another building near that station, on the empty triangle next to the St. Paul Athletic Club and across Cedar from the current Pioneer Press building (which is for sale).

Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
A rendering of the “Vertical Connection.”

That building should house a security station for Metro Transit cops, along with a waiting room and public bathrooms.

But at this point there’s no money for that.

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Margo Imdieke Cross, a veteran accessibility specialist for the Minnesota State Council on Disability, said yesterday that the elevator connection “is critical as an access issue getting into the skyway at that point.” Cardenas, she said, has been a “great advocate” on the issue.

In hosting the event, Mayor Chris Coleman, too, lauded Cardenas, saying: “When Rick sets his teeth into something, he doesn’t let go until it gets done.”

Cardenas spoke briefly, noting that the skyways are the main thoroughfare for many with disabilities, along with the elderly — and nearly everyone else when the weather is bad.

“This was a necessary addition,” he said.

The “vertical connection” is scheduled to be completed by next summer, when trains start running on the Green Line — the Central Corridor connecting downtown St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis, via University Avenue.