With no change, trains could leave riders behind

When light rail trains begin operations on the Central Corridor or Green Line route in 2014, getting to some stations […]

Photo courtesy of the Governor's BlogWhen light rail trains begin operations on the Central Corridor or Green Line route in 2014, getting to some stations may be easier said than done. Sidewalks leading to stations are broken, narrow, overgrown with brush and trees, or are poorly lit. And that’s where there are sidewalks.

Many areas have sidewalks on only one side of the street or have no pedestrian connections at all. The Green Line Walkability Study: Routes to Rails in the Central Corridor was recently released by the District Councils Collaborative. It is seen as the first step in making changes. The collaborative, which includes representatives from several Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods, wants more input from people with disabilities as it works on future connection plans.

The light rail line, which opens in 2014, will connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. Not all of the connections to its 16 stations would be in the form of sidewalks. One huge gain could be a $1.4 million elevator in downtown St. Paul, at the Central Station at Fifth and Cedar streets. The so-called “vertical connection” would provide access between the skyway system and the rail line.

Without an elevator those trying to get to and from downtown destinations riders would have to travel several blocks out of the way and outside.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. James Carlson, DFL-Eagan, have authored bills to require the City of St. Paul and Metropolitan Council to include the elevator. St. Paul-based Advocating Change Together is among the groups calling for the connection. ACT Co-Director Rick Cardenas has testified before state lawmakers this spring. “I’m more confident of this getting done than I have been,” Cardenas said. He is a downtown resident.

Metropolitan Council, which is building the rail line, has about $800,000 in grant funding available for the elevator. Having the city pay part of the cost has been debated but city officials have no funding for a match. That’s where the state could help.

The connection would be on a vacant lot where the old Bremer Bank stood for years. The area has been eyed for development. In one online discussion group, a commenter described an elevator as “beautification.” Cardenas said it is a need, not an extra.

More input is needed all along the light rail line from people with disabilities. “I don’t walk, I wheel. How’s that going to work?” said Darrell Paulson, a disability rights advocate who is working with ACT.

Paulson said the access to and from stations will not only determine rail ridership by people with disabilities, it will also determine whether people with disabilities can take advantage of new housing and job opportunities along the rail line. He pointed out that obstacles that others can easily step around or over, ranging from outdated curb cuts to overhanging brush and branches are barriers for people in wheelchairs.

Much of the work on the survey was done by volunteers and a Macalester College student intern. In summer 2012 more than 400 people traveled central Corridor to check sidewalk conditions. Surveys were done in neighborhoods and online. More than 2,000 comments were collected. Data was then pulled together to reach a set of conclusions.

Broken and uneven sidewalks, and place where there are no sidewalks are the biggest needs to be addressed, according to the survey. But the biggest obstacle to new or improved sidewalks may be costs. Last month the St. Paul City Council approved sidewalks in the West Midway over the objections of a number of property owners. Owners are assessed for part of the cost of sidewalk installation and are then responsible for keeping sidewalks clear of ice and snow.

Another high priority found in the survey is the need to address environments that are challenging, such as narrow sidewalks, sidewalks where there are no buffers between walkers and traffic, and traffic signals that don’t allow enough time for safe crossings. Some of the most dangerous places for walkers are Interstate 94 exit and entrance ramps, and private parking lot curb cuts. Improved crosswalk markings, warning signs, extended signal times and a public safety campaign are suggested as ways to counter the problems.

A third priority identified in the survey is the need for more trees, green space and benches along walking routes.

While all stations had concerns raised about pedestrian safety, lighting issue and sidewalk conditions, some issues are unique to each area. One concern raised in the Snelling area is that there isn’t a comfortable way to get across Interstate 94. The freeway bridge has narrow sidewalks and the Aldine Avenue pedestrian bridge feels deserted and unsafe to some. At Fairview Station, respondents also said they didn’t feel safe going beneath I-94 on the Fairview sidewalks.

Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon said the survey is “an incredibly proactive step to take.” He wishes Minneapolis neighborhoods had done a similar study before the Hiawatha or Red Line light rail began service. He said sidewalk connections to that light rail line, as well as community development, haven’t worked as envisioned. Gordon said there may have been too much focus on moving cars during the Hiawatha planning and not enough focus on bikes and pedestrians.

The University of Minnesota Center for Urban and Regional Affairs Neighborhood Partnerships for Community Research program and more than 30 community groups were involved in the study. It can be seen at http://dcc-stpaul-mpls.org/special-projects/walk