Trainspotting

IN A YEAR when proposals for Minneapolis's more glamorous public works slipped into limbo, the Midtown Greenway is a pointed exception. The plan to turn a railway that bisects the city into an "urban park" is attractively high-concept and the multimillion-dollar project even has funding sources earmarked. And up until now, it has generated little acrimony--who's going to come out against more green space?

Years in the making, the gist of the Greenway is deceptively simple: transform the rail corridor that runs along 29th Street from the city's western lakes to the Mississippi River into a six-mile bike path and walkway. In theory, the result is a city-wide amenity that could help reduce car traffic and spur new development; Greenway advocates envision the path generating new housing and commercial projects along the rail corridor. Construction was slated to begin this summer.

In order for that to happen, though, city officials need to find a path for the handful of Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. trains that still use the 29th Street tracks. Eventually the trains will be rerouted along track on the northern edge of the city, but that can't happen until a site in St. Louis Park is built to divert the trains, a two- to three-year endeavor. In the near-term, city planners want to run the trains along the now-vacant Kenilworth rail corridor, a 1.5-mile stretch of track that runs between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles.

That's the hitch: Residents in the secluded neighborhoods that ring the lakes lived with trains for decades, but have been enjoying calm and quiet for the past three years while the route has gone unoccupied. The tracks, now covered with weeds and shrubbery, function as something akin to a nature trail, and neighbors don't relish the return of the freight cars. "All I know is that if you want to improve the livability of your city, you certainly don't run railroads through it," says John Richter, who along with other neighbors, has been voicing those sentiments to anyone who will listen.

State Rep. Dee Long (DFL-Minneapolis) has been. Running trains through the neighborhood certainly won't improve its aesthetics, she says, and also raises safety issues, noting that the tracks run a few yards from some residents' backyards. Plus, she questions the wisdom of pouring money into fixing up the tracks--an engineering firm is in the process of estimating repair costs--if they'll only be used for a few years. Long is asking officials from Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the state Department of Transportation, who share jurisdiction over the Greenway project, to hold off on construction until the St. Louis Park tracks are ready. She says she's in favor of the Greenway project in general, noting that she worked on legislation last session to provide pollution clean-up dollars for the St. Louis Park site. "I think I've been unfairly labeled as anti-Greenway on this issue," she says. "I'm not."

There is at least one alternative, suggests Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew: start construction on the 29th Street corridor and keep the trains running anyway. City engineers say safety and liability issues make that impossible, but Andrew says those concerns could be dealt with. Trains run infrequently enough that work crews would have ample warning, he says. But regardless of whether the trains are rerouted, he says, work on the Greenway needs to start now, while funding for the project is still lined up. "There is no circumstance under which I would delay implementing this project," he says. "None."

Minneapolis City Council member Lisa McDonald, whose 10th Ward straddles the middle of the Greenway, agrees. "I get concerned that if you delay this two or three years, it will lose its synergy and it won't get done," she says. "You've got to sometimes sacrifice the individual for the greater good." McDonald says she's sympathetic to the concerns of residents near the Kenilworth corridor, but wonders if concerns of neighbors in the leafy neighborhoods carry more clout than less affluent residents. "There is no incentive for people who live in Kenilworth to see the Greenway get done," she says.

Those kind of comments rankle Long, who says the debate is about policy, not property values. "If these were people who lived in homes of half the value, I would have the same feeling about it," she says. "I don't pit my constituents against each other based on the value of their property."

 
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