Efforts to link the Central Corridor or METRO Green Line light rail service to St. Paul’s skyway system took another step ahead June 26. The Metropolitan Council awarded PCL Construction an $1.8 million contract to build a stairway-elevator tower to connect the skyway system to Central Station. It will provide a connection to and from Fifth Street and bus and light rail service.
Construction is to begin later this summer, so the link can be completed before light rail service begins in mid-2014. The link is paid for through an $800,000 federal grant provided to Metro Transit and $969,620 from the light rail project budget. Recently the City of St. Paul and Metropolitan Council approved a maintenance agreement for the link, which will cost each entity about $75,000 per year. The city and council also have agreements on nearby property redevelopment and bus passenger waiting improvements.
“Few public entries exist into the skyway system in downtown St. Paul, making this project a benefit not only for the Green Line but also other transit riders, pedestrians and the disability community,” said Metropolitan Council Chairperson Sue Haigh.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said city officials are working with artist Jo Ann Verberg to incorporate art into the structure. “Equally important is providing a means for people at all mobility levels to enjoy all that downtown has to offer,” he added.
The stairway-elevator tower project has a 15.5 percent Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) goal. PCL, the low responsive bidder among five bidders, passed the DBE review. PCL also built the line’s operations and maintenance facility in Lowertown.
The light rail line, which is about 93 percent completed, will link downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis along Washington and University avenues via the state capitol and the University of Minnesota. It opens next year. Testing of the line has started and will continue until it opens.
How to get the stair-elevator tower project paid and built for had vexed people with disabilities for several months as neither the Metropolitan Council nor City of St. Paul had committed funding to the project. Pleas were also made to the 2013 Minnesota Legislature.
The tower will be built in an area that is open space now. The old Bremer Bank was torn down in 2011 to make way for the station. Its skyway link was torn down and replaced that same year, but without an elevator and stairway access.
Anyone using the tower will have to travel outdoors to get to Central Station or to the nearby bus stops. Lucy Thompson, a planner for St. Paul, said the bus stops are some of the busiest in the area. Having good access to and from them is important.
Downtown resident and disability community activist Rick Cardenas led the charge for the elevator access and had persuaded state lawmakers to bring forward bills requiring that the elevator access point be provided. Cardenas said he is pleased that the project has been funded and is moving forward.
But one long-term issue the disability community must watch is how the block is ultimately redeveloped. That could mean the planned tower is either replaced as part of a development or incorporated into a new larger building. That in turn means watching to see that hours of access aren’t reduced, which is a frustration found in other parts of the skyway system.
Some skyway access points, especially buildings with elevators, close earlier than others, forcing people in wheelchairs or with other mobility devices to take long trips out of their way.
St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune represents downtown. He said providing the access is critically important, even more so for people with disabilities. “We need to have a downtown that is accessible to everyone,” he said. “It can’t be any other way.”