Green Line light rail is a welcome transportation option for people with disabilities, with easy boarding of trains and plenty of space for wheelchairs and mobility scooters. Getting to the trains from area neighborhoods still creates problems. That’s significant because about 9,050 people with disabilities live within a few blocks of the Green Line, which extends from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. Studies from September 2014 showed that more than 1,000 people with disabilities use five of the stations, with 2,000 using Central Station in downtown St. Paul.
But cracked and pothole-ridden sidewalks, steep slopes and poorly placed light poles, fire hydrants and gas meters make travel to and from rail stations difficult. Some areas still lack north-south sidewalks. At the rail stations and gaps between rails can catch wheelchair, scooter wheels, walkers and cane tips. Until they were removed, tall plantings blocked views of the tracks for anyone using a wheelchair or scooter.
Ways to address those concerns were outlined March 11 in a report released by the District Councils Collaborative (DCC) and in a video, The First: Last Mile. The video, which is available for showings to community groups, shows the difficulty of accessing some rail stations. Rick Cardenas and Thabiso Rowan use wheelchairs and took part in the video production. They were filmed in areas where access and sight lines were problems.
In the video, Rowan was shown trying to find a travel route that worked for him. “It’s like going on a safari,” he said.
The DCC, which is made up of St. Paul district councils and Minneapolis neighborhood organizations along the rail line, initially studied Green Line walkability in 2011-2012. The walkability studies covered north-south streets several blocks north and south of rail stations. Reports were done for each station area. DCC Executive Director Carol Swenson said that evolved into a more in-depth study focused on access for people with disabilities.
“We received sharp criticism from the disability community, that the (initial) studies hadn’t done enough to address access,” Swenson said. Additional studies were conducted, creating the report and video. More than 40 people, including representatives of Metro Transit, the state’s Olmstead Plan office, the St. Paul Mayor’s Council on People with Disabilities and St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao reviewed the report and saw the video March 11.
The federally mandated Olmstead Plan calls for full integration of people with disabilities into the community, on the statewide level. Access to transportation is one of its focuses, so the March 11 meeting provided a chance for plan staff and activists to meet on transit issues.
A focus for the study is to see if recommended changes on and around the Green Line can be used for other transit projects, including the planned Green Line extension into the Twin Cities’ southwestern suburbs. One idea raised is to ensure that transit improvements sought for people with disabilities are also made on the Snelling Avenue rapid bus or A Line, which is to start later this year. That will be the Twin Cities’ first arterial bus rapid transit line.
Self-advocate Kjensmo Walker was a community organizer for the study. She said access needs to be broadly understood and that meeting federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines “only scratches the surface” in terms of what accommodations are needed.
Walker said some barriers are as basic as gravel that spills from a landscaped area or planter and lands on the sidewalk. There’s also need to have simpler signage and to make sure that when audible pedestrian signals are installed, that those stay in good working order.
As part of the DCC’s work, additional studies were also done at Dale Street and Snelling Avenue. Those are two of the areas where access is most challenging, especially from the south. Those are also areas with opportunities for change. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is redecking the Snelling Bridge and doing mill and overlay work on the street this year, so accessibility improvements will be made at the same time. About 350 people took part in surveys and open houses to discuss the project there.
Dale Street is a Ramsey County road. County officials are working with MnDOT to seek funds to rebuild that freeway overpass and interchange. About 150 people were involved in accessibility discussions there.
Accessibility is an issue the DCC and other groups will continue to work on. One pressing need is skyway access. Cardenas lives downtown and works in the Midway. He was part of a group that worked to get a Green Line elevator connection in place, from the downtown skyway system to Central Station.
The elevator access closes at 9 p.m. because of concerns about crime. That forces people with disabilities to travel long distances at night to reach their homes. “Where’s the justice in that?” Cardenas said. He and others are working with St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune to get the skyway hours changed.
Another issue the DCC will work on is that of having a place where accessibility complaints can be made, so that those issues can be responded to quickly. Plans also call for tying into city, county and state plans for transportation and accessibility, and to work with Metro Transit on proposed transit and transit shelter improvements.
See the report, watch the video and read other DCC reports here.