Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


If one were to take a poll, most bike riders on the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis would probably admit to having had a thought like this:

"Why on earth doesn't this trail keep going across the Mississippi? There's a bridge right there."

It's a good question. There is indeed a bridge right there, connected to the eastern end of the Greenway, and it doesn't get a whole lot of use from the railroad that owns it. And when trains cross the bridge, they use only one of its two lanes, leaving plenty of room for bicycles and pedestrians in the other.

The same thought has occurred to the Legislature, which directed the Metropolitan Council to study the possibilities of opening the bridge to bicycle traffic. The Legislature envisions a trail network that extends from the bridge into St. Paul and eventually to Allianz Field.

The prospect of adapting the bridge for pedestrians and bicycles is not as simple as it may appear. The engineering questions alone are daunting, given the bridge's age, to say nothing of the potential problems in coordinating a discussion among two cities, two counties, two park boards and other units of government.

But the potential benefit is considerable.

The existing Greenway, a 5.5-mile bike and pedestrian path built along a railroad right-of-way, already puts Minneapolis on the list of the best biking cities in the United States. Extending it well into St. Paul would expand that distinction to the Twin Cities as a whole — a good thing for the region's economy, which ought to put the project in the Met Council's wheelhouse.

A prominent Greenway advocate hopes that this will be the moment some public body steps up to help push the bridge idea forward.

"What we lack is political leadership and the will to make this happen," says Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The coalition has the will, but Jensen said it lacks the clout to negotiate with powerful interests like the Canadian Pacific Kansas City railroad, which owns the bridge.

"We're a tiny little grassroots organization," Jensen said. If the coalition calls the railroad, "They're not gonna pick up the phone."

As the coalition points out, the bike route has been a driver of economic development — thousands of new apartments have been built nearby, for example. The proposed bridge would connect to the neighborhoods near the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, as well as the University of St. Thomas and Macalester College. A dedicated bridge across the river could help generate a new surge of bike commuting among students.

Bridge or no bridge, however, the Greenway is a huge asset to the community. It may be underappreciated because it is largely below grade and out of sight. That is also one of its advantages.

Riding it, one can forget for a little while that Minneapolis is dominated by cars. At certain times of day, when motorists are caught in the grinding hell of rush-hour gridlock, it's even possible to think of the bicycle as a more convenient form of travel. Many of those drivers would probably agree; a 2018 survey for the city's Transportation Action Plan found that while 50% of respondents most frequently traveled by car, only 22% actually preferred cars. And while 15% said they most often traveled by bike, 36% preferred bikes.

Greenway users describe it as an oasis of sorts, a place where the low-intensity conflict between motorists and bicyclists can take a rest. For the most part, a biker on the Greenway can let go of the exhausting vigilance involved in riding on a city street, alert to the sudden dangers of open car doors or drivers who begrudge the need to share a bit of their lane.

And yes, the Greenway also takes bicyclists off the streets, possibly including some who create hazards by riding two abreast or sailing dangerously through busy intersections.

One of the Greenway's chief benefits is that it is truly functional. It serves as a convenient commuter route, carrying thousands of people to their destinations every day. Exactly how many thousands is unclear, but Jensen says the daily traffic before the COVID pandemic was estimated at 5,000.

"There used to be rush hour on the Greenway," he said.

Nowadays, with workplace culture still upended by the pandemic's lingering effects, the daily bicycle traffic may total a thousand or two less. That's another reason to make the Greenway more convenient to more people by creating a river crossing. The more people use it, the more the whole region will benefit.