The Minneapolis Park Board is considering canceling plans to obtain regional trail status for the popular Midtown Greenway, owing to concerns that it will wind up on the hook for lighting, safety and legal expenses.
Making a regional trail out of the Greenway, a six-mile bikeway that traverses south Minneapolis from Bde Maka Ska to the Mississippi River, would bring additional funding, higher safety standards and membership in the metro area's network of park and trail connections. It also could help further cycling advocates' goal of extending the Greenway across the river into St. Paul.
But the Greenway corridor has expensive needs, including plowing, lights that need to be upgraded for millions of dollars and the occasional homeless encampment that may require sanitation. The long-range planning process would sort out what expenses would fall to Minneapolis, Hennepin County or the Park Board. But some park commissioners fear they would be stuck with the bill.
The commissioners are scheduled to take a vote next week on a resolution to suspend the planning process for the Greenway, which would end hopes for achieving regional status. That possibility has incited the ire of cycling advocates.
"Having the Met Council and the Park Board would be a tremendous boost to our efforts to extend the Greenway over the river, but it won't happen if they stop the master plan," said Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition.
Every four years, the Met Council identifies trails that would be promising extensions of its regional parks and trails system. The Park Board nominated the Midtown Greenway in 2020 for review and the Met Council added it to the list, pegging it as its No. 1 candidate.
"To me, it was probably the biggest no-brainer of the bunch," said Emmett Mullin, the Met Council's regional parks manager. "It's such an important and already functional trail."
The Greenway is owned by the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and operated by Minneapolis, which maintains it. Security for the trail is provided by both the Sheriff's Office and the Minneapolis police.
But neither the county nor the city has expertise overseeing trails, so the Minneapolis Park Board — one of 10 Twin Cities parks agencies and counties that work with the Met Council — began a "due diligence process" to launch a regional trail plan for the Greenway. That process uncovered several major areas of concern.
A number of Park Board commissioners expressed fears at a March meeting about the Met Council's already underfunded regional trail network, which is facing significant maintenance issues. The funding for the Greenway that would be provided by the Met Council — estimated to be $40,000 a year in operations and maintenance, and $70,000 in capital — is just one-tenth of the total cost of managing the Greenway.
Commissioners raised concerns about wading into a legal minefield of policing responsibilities. The Park Board currently is facing its biggest lawsuit ever, an American Civil Liberties Union complaint about the ejection of homeless encampments from city parks in 2020.
They also worried that getting involved in the Greenway could muddy accountability regarding customer service. Should the Park Board become the Greenway's operator while the county continues to own it and the city maintains it, park users may have a hard time distinguishing the responsibility of each agency.
"What I have been hearing from planning staff is that we don't have the staff capacity to work on the parks that we already have full and complete jurisdiction over," said Commissioner Becky Alper, who proposed in March to cease work on making the Greenway a regional trail. Commissioners voted 5-4 not to suspend the rules to allow a vote on the motion.
Michael Schroeder, the Park Board's assistant superintendent for planning, doesn't see any downside to completing the long-range plan. He said that doing so would ensure the Greenway becomes a regional trail while unscrambling the roles and financial responsibilities of the Park Board, Hennepin County, Minneapolis and the Met Council. Completing the plan would not necessarily commit the Park Board to spending any money on it, he said.
"[Staffers] were not looking to get out of doing a master plan," Schroeder said. "We were actually interested in completing it and then providing the information to commissioners that they only have in part at this point." If commissioners don't want to spend time on the Greenway, that's their prerogative, he said.
Jensen, of the Greenway Coalition, said he hopes the Park Board will complete the long-range plan, make the Greenway a regional trail and take the $70,000 that the Met Council would offer to cover incremental improvements like water fountains, bathrooms, picnic tables and wayfinding signage.
"Don't have wild speculation that you're going to be on the hook for all kinds of expenses that you don't know would be in the inter-agency operations agreement," he told commissioners. "Don't stop the process that's already started."