Midtown Greenway could extend into St. Paul

Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway is a crown jewel of American urban bicycling, an off-street trail along an old railroad corridor used by thousands every day. But it ends abruptly at the old railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, where a sturdy chain fence keeps cyclists from connecting east to St. Paul.

That might change as neighbors, working with the city, hope to make use of empty railroad runs along the Minneapolis Greenway and into St. Paul neighborhoods, such as St. Anthony Park, Merriam Park and beyond. At a packed meeting this month, led by the Union Park District Council (UPDC), dozens of people gathered to discuss the hopes and hurdles for linking the streets of St. Paul with the Minneapolis bike trail.

For those who have not biked or walked it, the Midtown Greenway is a wide 10-mile, off-street trail running east and west, just north of Lake Street to Lake Calhoun and then to the Mississippi. It was constructed in phases, with a nonprofit coalition raising funds and coordinating city and other grants to transform an abandoned railroad into today’s well-used urban space. One of its key features is that, because it has almost no at-grade crossings, it allows cyclists, runners and others to travel through the heart of the city without interacting with cars.

According to St. Paul city engineer John Mascko, who spoke at the recent UPDC meeting, 10 years ago the city had made plans to connect Minneapolis’ Greenway to St. Paul. The trail would have made use of the 100-year-old railroad bridge that crosses the river near 27th Street. However, despite the city receiving more than $10 million in federal funding for the project, a lawsuit by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which owns the tracks, kept the city from moving ahead, Mascko said. Plans for the St. Paul greenway have languished ever since.

“What we learned is, if we’re going to be anywhere near the railroad, we have to have [the railway] on board,” said Mascko.

But now the St. Paul connection might have new life. One thing working in the community’s favor is that, as more of the railroads’ industrial users have disappeared, the old tracks are increasingly obsolete. At the packed room in the Episcopal Homes building at University and Fairview avenues, many seemed to believe that the time is right to try again.

“We need an elected official to stand up on this, maybe from Hennepin County, and maybe Ramsey,” said Soren Jensen, president of the Midtown Greenway Coalition.

Jensen and others on the panel suggested that, if east metro officials take the lead in building bike connections on their side of the border, funding the bridge crossing could be an achievable goal.

During the meeting, St. Anthony Park resident Karen Nelson asked the panel about the possibility of connecting the bridge north to Prospect Park and the parts of St. Paul west of Highway 280. According to Nelson, by using the abandoned railroad tracks that had served the Weyerhauser facility on the city border, any future Greenway trail could become a bridge between south St. Anthony Park and the surrounding neighborhoods to the east and south.

Yet others on the panel, like Mike Madden, head of an activist group called Neighborhoods First!, preached caution. Railroads “are not philanthropic” and have “obligations to their shareholders” that make it difficult and expensive to negotiate community benefits, Madden said. He was most optimistic about building a bike trail on the portion of the Canada Pacific right-of-way between Cleveland Avenue and the Mississippi River.

After a discussion with community members from Union Park, St. Anthony Park and across St. Paul, a consensus emerged to continue to work and plan for a St. Paul greenway connection. Someday, people may be able to bike and walk across the Mississippi River on a dedicated greenway, from St. Paul to the chain of lakes. For many St. Paulites, it would be a dream come true.

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