Trail of Fear

Mary Fallon

WHEN THE MINNEAPOLIS City Council unveiled its ambitious commuter bicycle system in 1992, the proposal was praised by metro cyclists, environmentalists, and neighborhood organizations. But in the five years since its inception, the proposal--which would run trails along old rail lines from Minneapolis all the way to Hutchinson--has been thrown off schedule several times, mostly due to residents' objections. Now, insiders contend that despite continuing objections and unresolved safety issues, the city has taken the project out of the reach of the public.

In 1991, the federal government created the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), and city officials seized the chance to kill a few birds with one stone. The city would creatively use the fallow lands surrounding urban train tracks while offering residents a pollution-free means of commuting. Best of all, the feds agreed to bankroll the lion's share of the project. According to the Minneapolis Department of Public Works, 80 percent of the bike trail's funding comes from federal coffers, while the city, Park Board, and neighborhood associations cover the rest.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. One bike-path tussle captured headlines this summer when a plan surfaced to redirect trains from the Midtown Greenway trail to an old set of tracks in the Kenwood neighborhood. That portion of the bike trail is stalled out. Now, the Bassett Creek section of the project, has also come to a halt.

Chris Bacon, director of the Bryn Mawr neighborhood association, says his group committed $75,000 in Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds for the path's design and mailed out public-meeting notices to nearly 400 households closest to the proposed trail. "I thought everything was just fine," he says, "but then I started to hear rumblings." The loudest came from the direction of Steve Druk, who lives near the tracks.

Druk could not be reached for comment. But his lawyer, Jill Waite, says neighborhood and city officials have been wrong to brush her client off as a lone troublemaker. Waite says Druk is concerned about hazardous waste and other pollution in the area and wants a full environmental study before any major construction. Druk also contends that the plan duplicates the nearby Cedar Lake Trail, which Waite says is underutilized. And, she notes, the tracks will soon get more train traffic--adding to a potential safety hazard at trail crossings.

City and neighborhood officials, meanwhile, say what they heard at neighborhood meetings was a more visceral set of fears. Bacon says residents warned that the path would serve as a direct pipeline for "hardened criminals from the city." And Minneapolis Public Works Coordinator Rhonda Rae contends that some residents resented the public use of lands they'd come to consider a private park.

Either way, Druk and other disgruntled residents eventually filed a grievance with the city and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. And while the complaint was later dismissed, the Minneapolis Park Board tried to smooth ruffled feathers by creating a citizen's group in 1995. Since then, says Bacon, the planning process has slowed to a crawl. "It's been a major pain in the ass," he sighs.

That pain, it appears, has now led the city to simply bail out of the public input process. The Public Works Department's Rhonda Rea says that railroad representatives met privately last week with Council member Pat Scott, who represents the area, as well as council President Jackie Cherryhomes and representatives from Bryn Mawr and Harrison, and they agreed to hammer out a final bike-trail deal. "Some people will be shocked to find it going forward," she acknowledges. (Indeed: Bacon, for one, recently received a letter from the Burlington Northern railroad company saying they were leaving the bike-trail project altogether.)

The latest development sounds familiar to Waite, who coincidentally served as her neighborhood's representative in the Midtown Greenway planning process. In both cases, she claims, the same players--Rea and Scott--have run the same lines of interference. "They try to minimize the extent of opposition. They'll say that two people object, when it's really closer to 200 households." And in both cases, there were efforts to "persuade the railroad officials without the input of the community."

Neither Scott nor Cherryhomes returned calls before press time. But Rae maintains she's always acted in the communities' best interests and that certain residents are grinding their own personal axes. Burlington Northern, she shrugs, simply "won't come to a public meeting, and they don't have to. After all, they're a private company."

But that, claims Waite, is the same excuse the city used in the Midtown case. "They say that this is an open process, that they want public participation, but they have their minds set going into it."

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