The bike stops here


Long ago, the Short Line Railroad Bridge supported fast trains carrying crowds of passengers across the continent, as far as the Pacific Ocean. Today, the nearly 130-year-old Short Line Railroad Bridge spanning the Mississippi River (located between Franklin Avenue and Lake Street) supports freight trains carrying grain and light rail cars a few times a day.

The railroad line, owned by CP Rail, is part of the Midtown Greenway’s Phase 3 corridor running from Hiawatha Avenue to the West River Parkway, between 26th and 28th streets as it passes between Seward to the north and Longfellow and Cooper neighborhoods to the south.

Phase 3 is scheduled to be completed next fall. A bike path going across the bridge was an idea considered for a long time by the Midtown Greenway Coalition. Hennepin County hired a consultant, bridge engineer Bernie Jahn, more than two years ago; he deemed the bridge safe for train traffic and a bike path.

Marcia Wilda, manager of leasing and land management for Hennepin County, said the county was in negotiations with Canadian Pacific (CP) for a long time over the bridge. CP was willing to discuss selling the bridge to Hennepin County until a management change about a year ago. The new CP management, concerned about safety issues, has been unwilling to discuss a sale, according Wilda.

Laura Baenen, CP’s Midwest relations manager, said, “We wouldn’t want bike and pedestrian traffic going across as long as there are trains running. It’s not safe to have bikes and pedestrians going across when trains are going across.” What if safety measures such as railing and barriers were built? She replied, “I don’t think it would be a pleasant experience for people to cross when there’s train traffic. It would be jarring.

“We are not currently in negotiations with anybody about the fate of that bridge,” Baenen said. “If the railroad traffic should ever be discontinued, we know [Hennepin County] is interested. Customers are still needing shipments. As long as they need shipments, we’ll be having rail traffic over that bridge. There are no plans for a bike path or pedestrian path.”

Wilda said Hennepin County’s Regional Railroad Authority owns a 35-foot-wide corridor from Hiawatha Avenue to the bridge for bike and pedestrian trails, adjacent to a 65-foot-wide railroad corridor. Wilda said the bridge is not as wide, and CP had concerns about people being close to trains. “We’re not negotiating at this point. We want to first complete Phase 3 of the Greenway Project [to the river]. If there’s no problem with the coexistence of the corridors, that may help with negotiations, later.”

Tim Springer, Midtown Greenway Coalition director, said a bike path there is partially funded by a federal grant, but the county or the city would need to help with funds also. Don Pflaum, bicycle coordinator with the Trails and Transportation Department of Public Works said the $1.4 million T21 grant awarded in 2003 is chosen by The Metropolitan Council to ultimately go toward a bike path along the bridge over the river. The Metropolitan Council works with the state Department of Transportation to complete these projects, ensuring they meet the federal rules. Pflaum noted that the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority works with the Midtown Greenway Coalition, Hennepin County and neighborhoods on these transportation issues.

Pflaum said they’re shooting for building a bike path on the bridge in 2008, if things come together. Currently, the only business the railroad is servicing is ADM.

Pflaum also noted that the city of St. Paul is making efforts to connect I-35E to Marshall Street, and St. Paul’s Ayd Mill corridor to Minneapolis’ Midtown corridor. “CP owns the bridge, and we’ll have to negotiate to have the trail across the bridge. There are issues, possibilities and unanswered questions for the city and the county. For example, ownership and maintenance.”

How much would it cost for the bridge? No price was set, but CP has made note of the rise in value of steel, said John Tripp of the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority. Wilda doesn’t believe CP will tear down the bridge. Baenen of CP said no decision has been made to do so. The bridge’s likely historic status would complicate any plans for its destruction.

Aaron Isaacs, a local railroad history buff, said the original bridge was built in the 1880s and upgraded a few years later. Originally, it was part of a transcontinental route to the Pacific, heavily trafficked on its two active tracks at the time by famous trains such as the Hiawatha, Pioneer Limited, the Olympian and the Rocket. With changes in transportation modes such as airplanes and increased car travel, the railroads couldn’t make enough money on passenger trains. Isaacs said in 1971, when Amtrak purchased all private trains, Milwaukee Road, Soo Line and Rock Island lines ended. Travel to Western Minnesota continued for a few years longer.

Freight trains continued frequently to use the Short Line Bridge, reduced to one track, into the 1980s. There used to be a railroad yard at 26th and Hiawatha, Isaacs said. But the elimination of that yard in the ’80s reduced the train traffic significantly. Now, Isaacs said, the train delivers grain and light rail cars across the bridge only three to four times a day, starting at Midway and switching the cars at Hiawatha.

Recently-elected St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and reelected Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak have spoken of wanting to bring the two cities closer together. How high on their shared agenda is converting the Short Line Bridge for bicyclists and pedestrians isn’t yet known. Meanwhile, Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway path will stop at the river’s edge.