On most every workday Jason Tanzman leaves his south Minneapolis home, hops onto the Midtown Greenway and bikes east along the quiet, direct and car-free path.
Things change when he crosses the Mississippi River into St. Paul. Here he takes a zig-zagging route down crowded city streets, only some of which are marked to accommodate bikes, until he reaches his employer, the Sibley Bike Depot.
Like many area bike commuters, Tanzman likes plans to extend the Greenway into downtown St. Paul by building a path alongside the winding Ayd Mill railway corridor.
“A similar off-street bike facility would be a huge improvement for the City of St. Paul,” he said. “It just makes everything so much more pleasant, safe and calm.”
Tanzman and other St. Paul Greenway supporters were recently dealt a blow when United States District Court Judge Donovan Frank sided with the corridor’s owner, Canadian Pacific Railway, over the City of St. Paul.
Created in 2005, Roberta Avidor’s map of the proposed path, below, doesn’t reflect more recent plan changes but still captures its overall trajectory. Go here to see a larger Google map.
Court records show that since 2003, the city has been courting Canadian Pacific in an attempt to gain the right of way it would need to build the trail. The records also reveal that from the outset of these discussions Canadian Pacific was disinterested in working with the city.
In court filings, the railroad said it was concerned about the safety of putting a path close to the tracks, which are used daily by freight and passenger trains. The company also said it was worried the path’s construction could compromise its ability to expand in the future, should the economic climate be conducive to installing more tracks.
In response, city staff drafted plans they felt addressed Canadian Pacific’s concerns. For example, they made sure the path would be at least 25 feet from the track’s centerline, and pledged to light, plow and patrol the path. Still the company refused to budge.
Below, the green space and dirt path to the right of the tracks was part of the land the city hoped to obtain.
In August of last year, the city tried to use eminent domain to gain the right of way — but Judge Franks’ June 17 decision shot down the attempt.
“It’s really frustrating, I’ve got to say,” Ward 4 Council Member Russ Stark, a fit and trim advocate for biking and walking infrastructure, said from his downtown office. “On the one hand, we knew that there were going to be challenges dealing with the railroad — there always are.
“… But on the other hand,” he added, “we also knew the geometry of the area pretty well, and we felt like we could reasonably design a trail that wasn’t going to get in their way.”
The city could pursue other legal avenues, but it’s not likely to do that, Stark said. A second ruling in favor of the railroad could set an unhappy precedent for other municipalities pursuing similar “rails-to-trails” projects. That’s not a risk, Stark said, that St. Paul wants to take.
Now the city has to forfeit millions of dollars in federal transportation funds, making the total amount of money awarded to and lost by the project nearly $7.5 million. But on a brighter note, Stark added, the returned money will likely be funneled into other regional biking or walking infrastructure projects.
Jeff Johnson, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific, was less talkative about these matters.
“We’re satisfied with the outcome,” he said. “That’s our only comment.”
Still hoping and planning
In the downtown office of St. Paul Smart Trips, James Ford and Rebecca Harnik are packing envelopes with handouts about biking, walking, car sharing and public transportation. Soon get they will get on their bikes to deliver these personalized Smart Trips Kits throughout the Highland Park neighborhood.
When a helmet-sporting visitor enters the room, Ford looks up and grins.
“From where,” he asks, “did you have the pleasure of biking today?”
Smart Trips, a nonprofit that counts Stark as a board member, has been an active forces behind plans for a trail extension.
Months ago its Greenway Committee planned an “envisioning the St. Paul Greenway” summit for Wednesday, July 28 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Linwood Rec Center. That community meeting will still go on, though the recent court decision has undoubtedly put a damper on the planning process.
Wednesday’s discussion will likely focus on a select section of the proposed trail that’s along Ayd Mill Road, Smart Trips staff and Greenway Committee member Laura Baum said.
On this section, shown below, the city already has some right of way and could potentially make changes to accommodate bikers and pedestrians, Baum said.
Building part of the entire proposed trail would be a step in the right direction, Tanzman of the Sibley Bike Depot said. But, he added, it can’t be the end.
“The Midtown Greenway connects places that are far away,” said Tanzman, below. “A piecemeal approach isn’t going to do that.”
For the city’s part, Stark said the council must now consider modifying existing streets so they better serve the commuting purpose intended by the Greenway extension. That might mean installing more designated bike lanes, such as the one below, which runs along Summit Avenue.
Baum hopes citizens come to Wednesday’s meeting, as a large public show of support for a Greenway extension could only help St. Paul be ready should Canadian Pacific ever change its mind.
“This was our ideal, and things are kind of getting chopped away,” she said. “But we’re not going to walk away from the project. We’re going keep trying to find something that we can achieve.”
Above, a section of the Ayd Mill Rail corridor near Marshall Avenue. Below, key legal documents related to Candian Pacific vs. the City of St. Paul.