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Union Depot muralist honored with installation and exhibition

In 2005, Atlanta-based painter Ralph Gilbert received a fellowship in mural painting from the National Academy of Design Museum. His topic was the multicultural history of Minnesota railroads. The destination for his six murals was St. Paul’s Union Depot. After Gilbert conducted extensive historical research, he spent seven months painting the panels, working on them at the same time to ensure continuity in style.
On Thursday, from 6-8 p.m., the Minnesota Museum of American Art (MMAA) will guide visitors from its Project Space in downtown St. Paul to Gilbert’s murals, which are on display on the west wall of the Grand Waiting Room at Union Depot. Concurrently, MMAA is showcasing an exhibition “Ralph Gilbert: Studies for Union Depot,” through December 7. The show includes selections from Gilbert’s preparatory work including 10 drawings, four watercolors, four oil sketches on panel, and nine oil paintings.
The niches at Union Depot that hold Gilbert’s murals are tall and narrow, measuring 16-feet high by six-feet wide, with arched tops. “The challenge for Gilbert,” according to a press release issued by MMAA, “was developing each composition within the unconventional proportions.”
The concurrent exhibition at MMAA’s Project Space, says Christina Chang, Curator of Engagement, MMAA, “presents a very small selection of Ralph’s extensive process, and also shows how he worked through ‘problems’ or compositional challenges. It’s a unique opportunity to see these materials so close at hand to the finished work.”
Gilbert’s subject matter includes the Mississippi River and the Dakota tribe that made way for white settlement; Union Depot’s historical connection to the former Rondo community; the arrival of European immigrants to Minnesota via Union Depot; and the deployment of soldiers from the Union Depot during two world wars.
MMAA’s collaboration with Union Depot represents a long-held desire to engage the Depot’s commitment to public art with MMAA’s dedication to strengthening its connection to Lowertown, Chang says. “The exhibition presented the perfect opportunity to do so. It’s rare to have an exhibition of preparatory work so close to the final piece, especially with public art, so we’re hopping visitors will take advantage of the opportunities to see both venues on the same trip.”
Chang adds that mural installation, in concert with MMAA’s exhibition, brings well-warranted attention to Gilbert and his work. “So often, artists are lost in the history behind public art.”

St. Paul Bicycle Plan widens its scope

The City of St. Paul recently revealed the latest draft of the comprehensive St. Paul Bicycle Plan, which proposes adding more than 200 miles of bikeways to the city. Incorporating public input on a previous draft of the plan, the latest manifestation takes a wider look at bicycling in the city. The plan now addresses bicycle parking, traffic signals, bicycle counting programs and other topics.
“This is a very significant effort,” says Reuben Collins, transportation planner and engineer, St. Paul Department of Public Works. “This is the first time the city has had a stand-alone vision for bicycling across all the city departments and the first time that we’ve really looked at the neighborhood level to ask what are the bicycle connections.”
St. Paul residents voiced feedback on the plan at a series of open house events and through Open St. Paul, as well as in personal emails and letters. Much of the community input called for addressing questions around wayfinding, trail lighting and zoning codes that would require bike parking in new developments, and encourage the incorporation of locker rooms and shower facilities to better accommodate bike commuters. The plan was revised to include much of that community feedback, according to Collins.
In development since 2011, the plan’s major aim is to complete the Grand Round trail system originally envisioned in the late-1880s as a figure-eight loop encircling both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The plan would also add a 1.7-mile loop in downtown St. Paul, which has been a notable void in the city’s bicycling infrastructure.
There is currently a recognizable disparity in the geographical layout of bikeways throughout the city, as well. While bicycling facilities are relatively abundant in the western half of the city, historically, there has not been equal investment in bicycling infrastructure on the East Side of St. Paul, according to Collins.
“I think there are a lot of reasons for that (disparity), but it’s something we are very aware of and looking to change,” he says. “We are looking to address that and reach some sort of geographical equity throughout the city.”
While city-specific numbers are hard to come by—something the plan seeks to address with bike counting protocol and programs—regional studies show a steady incline in the number of people riding bikes throughout the Twin Cities.
Bicycling rates increased 78 percent in the metro area from 2007 to 2013, according to a report from Bike Walk Twin Cities, a program of Transit for Livable Communities.
While Minneapolis is consistently ranked amongst the top bicycling cities in the country, St. Paul has struggled to keep up with its bike-friendly sibling to the West. “Certainly we can say anecdotally we know there are a lot more people riding bicycles [in St. Paul],” Collins says.
The St. Paul Bicycle Plan looks to solidify that growth in ridership by cementing an official citywide vision for bicycling. Planners hope to have the plan incorporated into the St. Paul Comprehensive Plan; one of the plan’s goals is St. Paul becoming a world-class bicycling city.
Sources of funding for the long-range plan will be “many and various,” Collins says. One significant potential source is the 8-80 Vitality Fund proposed by Mayor Chris Coleman. In his budget address this summer, Coleman earmarked $17.5 million to rebuild “key portions of our streets,” including completing Phase One of the downtown bike loop as laid out in the Bicycle Plan. He dedicated another $13.2 million towards completion of the Grand Rounds.
“It will be a very sizable investment to really get the ball rolling to implement the recommendations in the plan,” Collins said of the Mayor’s funding priorities with the 8-80 Vitality Fund.
The plan will next go before the Saint Paul Planning Commission October 17 where another public hearing will likely be set. After that, it goes back to the transportation committee, back to the Planning Commission, then on to the City Council for a final vote and hopefully adoption. Collins says the earliest he expects the plan to be put up for a vote is February of 2015.

C4ward opens doors to cultural districts along Green Line

The Green Line light-rail line opens doors to a number of emerging cultural districts along University Avenue in the Central Corridor. Throughout the rest of the summer and into the fall, C4ward: Arts and Culture Along the Green Line is inviting Twin Cities’ residents to explore six of these districts through a series of free arts-centered events occurring every other Saturday. The next event is Saturday August 9 in the Rondo and Victoria neighborhoods off the Victoria Station.

The series of events kicked off July 26 in the Little Mekong District during one of the five Southeast Asian Night Markets planned this summer. Other districts on the C4ward docket, in addition to Rondo/Frogtown, are Little Africa, Creative Enterprise Zone, Prospect Park and West Bank.

For years, University Avenue existed mainly as a thoroughfare—a place to be traveled through on the way to someplace else. The array of new cultural districts popping up is evidence that that area’s identity is already changing, says Kathy Mouacheupao, Cultural Corridor coordinator with the Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), which is organizing C4ward in partnership with leaders from each of the cultural districts.

“When you’re driving down University, people usually have their destination planned already—you really miss a lot of the richness, a lot of the cultural identities, the really cool things that are happening along the corridor,” she says.

Whether it’s the abundant entrepreneurs, artists and unique shopping in the Creative Enterprise Zone near the Raymond Ave. Station, or the string of African-owned businesses a short jaunt off the Snelling Ave. stop, C4ward is looking to draw new visitors to burgeoning points of cultural and artistic vibrancy that might have been previously overlooked.

“We’re trying to groove new patterns,” Mouacheupao says. “One of the nice things about the Green Line light rail is that people are starting to notice things they didn’t notice before when they were driving.”

The rich arts and creative communities that quietly thrive along the Central Corridor will be on full display at the C4ward events. From do-it-yourself letterpress printing to illuminated mask making, Mouacheupao says the artists involved are dedicated to engaging and building community. “We all live and breathe art,” she says. Art is one way in which “we communicate with each other.”


Open Streets debuts proposed greenway in North Minneapolis

The 2014 season of Open Streets Minneapolis kicked-off during the last weekend in May with festivities along a proposed three-and-a half-mile greenway in North Minneapolis. Roads were closed from West Broadway to North 42nd avenues along North Girard and Humboldt avenues for residents and cyclists to experience first-hand how a new bike/walk route would look and feel.

“The proposed greenway could provide a recreational and community route for bicyclists, pedestrians and other non-motorized travelers,” said Sarah Stewart, senior public health specialist with the City of Minneapolis, who is working on the project. “The route would serve as a north-south connection for bicyclists who are more comfortable on bikeways” than on the streets.

Sponsored by the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, the event hosted vendors, performances and bike advocates from across the Twin Cities, giving riders a festive environment to roam the streets sans vehicles.

Turf was laid down on either side of the street at one point in the route to show a full linear park greenway. At another point, half the road was partitioned off, turning the current two-way street into a one-way road with a protected bike lane.

These are two of several models being considered for the new route. A third would keep two-way traffic, but designate the streets as bike boulevards—adding signage and other traffic calming measures friendly to bicyclists.

The City of Minneapolis, which became an official partner of the Open Streets initiative last year, is currently gathering public input about the new route, which has yet to be finalized or funded.

In addition to providing a centrally located route for commuters, connecting them to the northern suburbs via the Cedar Lake Trail and the downtown area via the Plymouth Avenue and 7th Street North bike routes, Stewart says the project would also create a space for people to be physically active.

“This is important because statistics show North Minneapolis residents are more likely to have chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure, and they are less likely to be physically active…People who live closer to parks and green spaces are more physically active,” Stewart says.

The proposed route would also connect several destinations that serve area youth like parks, schools, a YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, and a library, Stewart added.

Most of the roads along the proposed route are relatively low-traffic, residential streets that see between 400 and 900 cars daily, according to Stewart.

Several residents along the route expressed concern about losing street access to their homes should the streets be converted to a full linear park greenway. Stewart says alley access to residences along the route would be maintained. Input via an online survey indicated the proposed greenway is a potential draw for new residents, visitors and investment in North Minneapolis.

People can provide input on the proposed project through June 15 by filling out an online survey. The City will analyze the input and report the results in early fall. Feasibility studies are also underway.

This Open Streets event was the first of six planned for this summer in Minneapolis. The next will take place June 8 along Lyndale Avenue South.

Cycles for Change bikes into underserved neighborhoods

The bicycling renaissance in the Twin Cities is in high gear. Minneapolis and St. Paul are both working to expand already respectable bicycling infrastructures, and more residents than ever, from all walks of life, are getting around town on two wheels. But, as Jason Tanzman of Cycles for Change in St. Paul is quick to point out, “the reality is the bike movement is a white movement.”

That’s something Cycles for Change, a nonprofit community bike shop bordering the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods, is looking to change.

“Our vision is to build a diverse and empowered community of bicyclists,” says Tanzman, the director of development and outreach for the organization.

In addition to a full service retail and mechanic shop, Cycles for Change offers a host of programming designed to build a resilient and diverse community around bicycling—and it is quickly gathering momentum.

In 2013, the organization lent out 290 bikes from their Bike Library by partnering with community and civic organizations from around the metro to pair eager riders from low-income areas with new sets of wheels for 6-month leases. Riders in the Bike Library program also get a complimentary helmet and lock, and training to be confident and safe on the roads.

The Build a Bike Class brought in 120 area youth who constructed their own bikes from the ground up, learned how to maintain their bikes and mastered the rules of the road before riding out the door, according to Tanzman. Cycles for change also mentored 12 youth apprentices last year—many of them now help design and run the organization’s programs and retail shop.

Many of the people joining Cycles for Change represent populations Tanzman says are not adequately represented in the bicycling movement. The fastest growing groups of bicyclists nationwide are people of color, according to a report by the League of American Bicyclists.

From 2001 to 2009, the percent of all trips that are by bike in the African-American population grew by 100 percent. Trips by Asians-Americans grew by 80 percent and Hispanics took 50 percent more trips by bike during that period, while whites saw a 22 percent increase, according to the equity report.

When it comes to making decisions about where new bike lanes will go or advocating for how new bike trails are designed, people of color and people of low socioeconomic status aren’t adequately represented at the table, Tanzman says.

“No matter how many people of different racial groups ride bikes, there is an underrepresentation of people from low-income communities and people of color in the decision-making bodies,” Tanzman said.

In many ways, these are groups that would particularly benefit from improved bicycling infrastructure. “A bike is a way to save money,” he says. “A bike is a way to live a healthy life.

According to Tanzman, 25 percent of the households in the Cycles for Change neighborhood don’t have access to a car. “Then of those other 75 percent that do, they might have one car in the household, and maybe it’s not that reliable, maybe it costs a lot of money to gas it up every week,” he says.

“There are so many natural opportunities to build alliances and really make the bicycling movement a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement that it’s not right now.”

Cycles for Change is hosting a Spring Celebration Monday May 19 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 pm at the shop, 712 University Avenue East.

Union Depot welcomes back passenger rail May 7

After a 42-year hiatus, passenger rail service will return to the historic Union Depot in Lowertown Saint Paul on Wednesday, May 7—bringing the station one step closer to becoming the central multimodal transit hub planners spent $243 million envisioning and renovating.

Union Depot will return to its original intent of being a national connection point for train travelers when Amtrak’s Empire Builder arrives to the station’s Kellogg Entry at 10:03 p.m. Amtrak’s current station in the Midway area of Saint Paul will close when the Chicago-bound train departs that morning.

From Union Depot, passengers can connect to a variety of other transportation networks, including intercity buses like Greyhound and Jefferson bus lines, as well as Metro Transit and MVTA local bus services. In June, the new Metro Transit Green Line light rail will start rolling with Union Depot as its Eastern terminus. There are also plans to house a bicycle center, complete with storage facility at the station, according to a joint statement from the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) and Amtrak.

Originally built in 1881 as a stepping stone for passengers arriving and departing on journeys to and from the quickly expanding Western United States, as many as 20,000 travelers a day passed through the station during its peak in the 1920s, says Deborah Carter McCoy, of RCRRA.

“It’s a very important building for many people,” says McCoy, who currently works out of the station. “Every day there is a new story about someone’s father who was a conductor or an uncle who was a Red Cap [Amtrak service agent].”

With the rise of the automobile and increased popularity of air travel, passenger rail service took a nosedive in the middle part of the last century. “There just wasn’t a lot of traffic in and out of these large train stations,” McCoy said.

Union Depot shuttered its gates in 1971 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. The renovation wrapped up in 2012, priming the depot for the modern resurgence of train travel and multimodal transportation.

For the time being, the Empire Builder out of Chicago will be the only passenger train passing through Union Depot—a somewhat fitting start, considering James J. Hill, known as “The Empire Builder,” was a major motivator behind the station’s initial construction.

McCoy says feasibility studies are underway to explore additional trains running between the Twin Cities and Chicago, and the MN High-Speed Rail Commission is also looking at options for a more rapid connection.

Adult rail fares for the Empire Builder start at $66 each way to Chicago and $164 each way to Portland and Seattle. The RCRRA and Amtrak will host a free event celebrating the return of passenger rail service on National Train Day at Union Depot, Saturday, May 10.

Kyle Mianulli

President Obama highlights TC transportation during Depot stop

The Twin Cities’ growing transportation infrastructure grabbed the national spotlight when President Barack Obama dropped by the newly renovated Union Depot in Saint Paul last Wednesday to tout a $300-billion-dollar transportation proposal.

Obama pointed to the $243-million-dollar Depot makeover in Lowertown as an example of the boost transportation development can give to local economies. “This project symbolizes what’s possible,” he said.

The project was supported, in part, through a federal grant program known as TIGER, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, which was created as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“All told, more than 4,000 jobs were created for this project. And we’re seeing businesses crop up and new development crop up all along the line,” Obama said.

During his speech, Obama announced a $600-million expansion of the competitive TIGER grant program to spur economic development across the country. He plans to help finance the plan by simplifying the tax code and closing loopholes—a tactic Republicans generally oppose.

To hear the President speak, some 1,300-ticketed spectators filed into the multi-modal transit hub that will soon service the Metro Transit’s new Green Line, bus lines, and Amtrak trains.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, who played an integral role in garnering $124 million in federal funding for the Depot project, was among them. She accompanied Obama on his flight from Washington aboard Air Force One.

“The President’s visit here today represents a great victory for all of the tireless champions of transit here in the east metro,” McCollum said in a statement. “Union Depot will serve as the crown jewel of transportation in the state of Minnesota and provide a critical upgrade to our region’s infrastructure.”

A shiny new light rail train that will soon be rolling down the Central Corridor was on full display in front of the Depot for Obama’s appearance. The President toured the maintenance facility for the trains during his visit.

“I just had a chance to take a look at some of those spiffy new trains,” Obama said. “They are nice. And they’re energy efficient. They’re going to be reliable. You can get from one downtown to the other in a little over 30 minutes.”

In an embarrassing turn, the new train that was on display careened off a snow bank and derailed on its return trip from the Depot shortly after Obama departed. It took workers several hours get the train back on track, according to the Star Tribune.

Obama didn’t miss the opportunity to bond with Minnesotans over what is turning out to be the coldest winter in decades. He chided Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, a North Carolinian, who introduced the President at the event, for being soft in the cold.

“When we got off the plane, Secretary Foxx…turned to me and he said, ‘This is the coldest I’ve ever been in my life.’ Now we were only out there for like a minute,” Obama said. The President added that as a native of Chicago, he found the single-digit temperatures that day “balmy.” “February in Minnesota—can’t beat it. Cannot beat it,” he said.

He also commended Minnesota’s contributions to the Winter Olympics in Sochi. “It is not shocking that Minnesotans might be pretty good at the Winter Olympics,” he said. Minnesota sent 19 athletes to the games—the second most of any state.

Sources: President Barack Obama, Rep. Betty McCullum, D-St. Paul
Writer: Kyle Mianulli

Community members to help plan Take the Field event

The Corcoran Neighborhood Organization (CNO) wants to encourage community participation in the planning of an ambitious event it's hosting this fall called Take the Field

The Oct. 11 event, which will take place at Minneapolis's South High School's athletic field, will be a block party-style get-together with a special artistic project, a picnic, a movie screening, and more. 

Tonight, people will gather at the intersection of 21st Avenue South and 31st Street to brainstorm for the event. 

Besides the community-building aspect, Take the Field aims to spark a dialogue about neighborhood traffic issues and possible solutions, according to CNO community organizer Ross Joy.

The event was inspired in part by the school district's decision to phase out yellow school bus service to the city's public high schools, he explains. Starting this fall, students will walk, bike or take public transit to South High, or more cars might be on the road, according to CNO.  

In response, the neighborhood group wants to lead a discussion about how 21st Avenue and 32nd Streets could become major corridors for pedestrians and cyclists. CNO hopes to jumpstart that conversation at the meeting this week, which is open to anyone. Attendees will help flesh out event details, as well, Joy says. 

The neighborhood group is collaborating with the artistic trio Janaki Ranpura, Andrea Steudel, and Meena Mangalvedhekar, known collectively as JAM, on the event's main attraction, in which huge projections and sound will turn the field into an interactive art space. Attendees can join in the visualization, or they can take in the spectacle from the bleachers.  

Joy hopes the public art project will “engage the community about the big ideas of scale, time and space.” That's important as the neighborhood considers how walkers, bicyclists and car drivers fit together, physically. 

These are issues that have been building in the neighborhood for some time. Last spring, South High students led a petition asking local government leaders to improve 21st Ave S and 32nd Street for cyclists. “Most students live east of Hiawatha highway 55 and thus major crossing like at 32nd Street are often dangerous and discourages bicycle use,” Joy explains. 

Furthermore, the event dovetails with other planning efforts in the neighborhood, including its small area plan and the Urban Planning vision for East Lake Street, he says. 

“One of the big outcomes we are seeking is for the wider community to embrace a new identity for the South High Athletic Field,” Joy says. 

That identity should be “high-use and diverse, engaging for pedestrians, and safe for cyclists,” he adds.  

Source: Ross Joy, lead organizer, CNO  
Writer: Anna Pratt 

Bike Walk Week events this week

The annual Twin Cities Bike Walk Week stresses the benefits of biking and walking as an alternative to driving a car.

The daily festivities, scheduled from June 9 to 15, include all kinds of community gatherings, food, entertainment, prizes and more. (For a full schedule of events, check out the Bike Walk Week website.)

Every year, a number of local government agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses and other community groups come together to make it happen, according to Nick Olson, a Bike Walk Week planner for the city of Minneapolis. Their mission is to “incentivize and encourage biking and walking,” especially people who are new to the idea, he says.

Among the week’s highlights are a series of commuter “pit stops,” at multiple places in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The “pit stops,” which take place at peak commuting hours, give people the opportunity to get their bike tuned up or to ask questions about routes, Olson says. Free bike lights will also be given away. “It’s a very direct way to get people out,” he says.

On Wednesday, breakfast will be offered for free to those on bike or foot at the Greenway Building on the Midtown Greenway at 28th Street in Minneapolis. “I recommend it. It’s a popular one,” says Olson.

Thursday is Bike Walk to Work Day. The celebration, which will happen at several locations throughout the day, includes a wide variety of vendors plus a couple of speakers. They’ll talk about “how biking and walking are a key part to communities and to business,” he says.  

People who pledge to bike or walk at least once within the week will be entered in a drawing to win a new bike or transit fare for a year, according to the website. People can sign up to take the “commuter challenge” individually or in teams.    

Besides showing people how to get from point A to point B, the activities demonstrate “how biking or walking can be tons of fun.”

Source: Nick Olson, Bike Walk Week event planner, city of Minneapolis
Writer: Anna Pratt

Megabus comes to St. Paul

Last week, Megabus, which offers low-cost intercity travel by bus, rolled out a St. Paul bus stop.  

The stop, which can be found in the Midway Shopping Center’s parking lot, is only blocks away from the coming Central Corridor light rail transit station on Snelling Avenue.

Mike Alvich, the vice president of marketing and public relations for Megabus and Coach USA, says St. Paul is a natural connection for the bus service. “We always felt that St. Paul was a place where we should have service,” though the company began conservatively, he says.

Megabus, which began in Britain and expanded into the U.S. in 2006, also has a downtown Minneapolis bus stop, near the Metrodome and a Hiawatha light rail transit station.

Megabus operates in 100 U.S. cities out of a dozen hubs nationwide, with Chicago being its first. “It’s been very exciting,” Alvich says, adding that the company just reached a milestone of 25 million customers.

In general, Megabus attracts an interesting mix of people, including small groups taking day trips, businesspeople and seniors, with students and young professionals accounting for the largest group of riders. “St. Paul fits the mold for us,” he says, adding, “The community fits the demographic.”  Additionally, Greyhound buses have discontinued service in St. Paul, he says.

While the Megabus service helps connect the city to other areas across the Midwest, “For those traveling into the city, it adds to the city’s economy,” he says. Part of the draw of Megabus is that fares can be as low as $1, while the buses are “state-of-the-art double-decker buses with wifi outlets and electrical outlets.".

Something he’s found from the company’s social networking activity is that “we provide more than just transportation. We provide the ability for people to do the things they love."

Source: Mike Alvich, vice president of marketing and public relations for Megabus and Coach USA
Writer: Anna Pratt

Creating a 'first-class region when it comes to transportation'

When it comes to transit, the Twin Cities has lagged behind other areas across the country.

Last Friday, 10 metro-area mayors and commissioners who gathered at the state Capitol agreed that the region needs to catch up. In a press conference, they voiced support for Governor Mark Dayton's transit initiative.

The plan addresses the need for several different modes of transit; it provides for additional bus service, funding for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line and new bus rapid transit or streetcar lines over the next 20 years, according to a prepared statement about the event.

To make it happen, the Governor's budget lays out that $250 million a year will come from a regional one-fourth-cent sales tax.

That allocation will help grow the transit system by 1 percent annually, according to event materials.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a speaker at the press conference, said it's about creating a "first-class region when it comes to transportation," where people "choose to live in communities that have great networks of transportation options."

A number of cities across the country have already prioritized transit. "In so many different measures, they are beating us on the things that matter," he said.

That includes job creation, growth and in-migration of talented workers, as just a few examples, he added.  

But he's hopeful that as the region expands its transit system, the Twin Cities "will be second to none, in terms of the quality of life, in terms of the ability to attract talent and the ability to attract jobs."

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak seconded that, adding that the plan "will allow us to make dramatic and incredible improvements in transit infrastructure that grows jobs."

Residents need to be able to move easily throughout the region, from home and work. "You can't grow a region if you're stuck in gridlock."

Transportation needs to be addressed as a system, not in a piecemeal fashion. "It's critically important and it says a lot about our future," he said.  

Source: Press conference
Writer: Anna Pratt

All day celebration planned for opening of Union Depot

St. Paul is marking the beginning of a new era for the historic Union Depot with an opening celebration on Dec. 8, which will be an all-day affair. 

After undergoing a $243 million renovation over the past couple of years, soon the 1920s landmark will again serve as a transit hub--this time for trains, buses, bicycle commuting and more.

The station last saw trains in 1971, according to information from the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority.

Josh Collins, a spokesperson with the rail authority, says, "We really see this as an important celebration to mark the completion of the construction," adding, "It's a chance for the public to see their investment," and to show off a beautiful building.

Going forward, the depot will be "the living room of St. Paul," with meetings, galas and conventions happening there, he says.

People can also go to the depot to "use our wifi and get some work done," he says.

The day's celebration, which begins at 10 a.m., includes facility tours, theatrical performances, historical reenactments, music, dance, art, food and more.

The depot's history figures prominently into the event. For example, the nonprofit Bedlam Theatre will be staging performances that recreate historic moments. The theater troupe will portray soldiers returning from World War II, early immigrants arriving in the city, and more. "It'll be a fascinating artistic experience," he says. "I'm really excited about that." 

Old photos and artifacts that were uncovered during the renovation will also be on display.

The celebration also offers numerous interactive family-friendly activities, with train-themed photos, a Snoopy statue unveiling, appearances from Winter Carnival Royalty and a screening of the movie, "Elf," according to rail information. 

Metro Transit will kick off its bus service to and from the station with complimentary rides. The union depot's new website, uniondepot.org, will soon go live with free bus passes for the day.   

Furthermore, people "can learn about our growing transit system," he says. 

Next year, the Jefferson Regional Bus Lines and Amtrak Twin Cities will settle in at the depot, while the in-progress Central Corridor Light Rail Transit, which is being branded as the Green Line, will come through the station starting in 2014, according to rail information.

Also in the coming year, One-on-One Bicycle Studio in Minneapolis will open full-service bicycle center with storage space, a repair shop and lockers.

Source: Josh Collins, Ramsey County Regional Rail
Writer: Anna Pratt

St. Paul contemplates bringing back streetcars

In the future, St. Paul could once again have a streetcar system.

Right now, the city is weighing its options, with the help of a San Francisco consulting firm, Nelson\Nygaard, which is conducting a feasibility study on the topic, according to Nancy Homans, a policy advisor to Mayor Chris Coleman.

The study, which will probably take a year to complete, entails “doing preliminary work around possible routes and identifying criteria by which we’ll evaluate both the geometrics of the street and transit ridership issues," she says.

Funding for the $250,000 study comes from the city, Ramsey County, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, the McKnight Foundation and the Saint Paul Foundation, according to Finance and Commerce.

Over the next year, the city, with the help of the consulting firm, will also be asking for feedback from the public on its findings.

The city’s streetcars went away about 40 years ago. “It was once a well-developed system,” she says.

The reason streetcars are coming up these days is because “They are a good transit type of vehicle. People appreciate the fixed route,” she says, adding that the economic development impact has also been demonstrated.

“They support the business node and link into the larger regional system,” she says.

In this case, the city hopes that streetcars will build on the coming Central Corridor light rail transit line.

This is something that cities around the country are looking at. “The conversation has been, ‘how we do improve transit in the city,’” she says, adding, “I think this is a logical next step.”  

For St. Paul, getting there means working closely with Minneapolis, which already did its own feasibility study, and other regional partners to figure out financing. “We want to work together on common issues,” she says.

Source: Nancy Homans, policy advisor to mayor Chris Coleman, city of St. Paul
Writer: Anna Pratt


Zap Twin Cities encourages bicycle commuting

After a couple of weeks of beta testing, this Thursday, the  ZAP Twin Cities program will be up and running in downtown Minneapolis.   
ZAP workers will be on hand at the Nicollet Mall farmers market to share information about the high-tech program, which rewards people for riding their bikes to work or school.
The program, which began operating at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus in January, will expand into downtown St. Paul in the coming weeks as well.  
Its objective is to “change how people in the Twin Cities choose to get around, helping reduce congestion and improve air quality in the region," a prepared statement about the program reads.
To take part, people get a ZAP tag, which gets fixed on a bicycle. “Bicycle trips are automatically logged when a cyclist rides past one of several ZAP readers,” the statement says.
The readers, which are solar-powered, beep when a tagged bicyclist passes by, transmitting the data wirelessly to the website.         
Steve Sanders, alternative transportation manager at the university, says it has many advantages over self-reporting bicycle trips. Besides eliminating any extra steps, it makes the trips verifiable. “Once you put the tag on [and register it online], you don’t have to do anything” except ride past the sensors, he says. 
Along the way, bike commuters pick up various rewards, such as bike accessories, gift cards, and more. 
As an added perk, the university offers health benefits for program participation. For example, “If you ride 40 times a year, you can earn points that create a discount for health insurance,” Sanders says.  
On the ZAP website, participants can check out their trip data, which includes figures such as calories burned and gallons of gas saved.
Since the program started at the university, over 1,200 people have signed up, a figure which is already well over the program's goal of 500 people in the first year.  
“It’s been very gratifying,” he says. “People were hungry for a way to have their bike commuting count. Tying it to health has also been important.” 
ZAP is a collaboration of the Commuter Connection in downtown Minneapolis, St. Paul Smart Trips, the university, and Dero Bike Rack Company.
Source: Steve Sanders
Writer: Anna Pratt

SPOKES bike walk center in the works for Seward

SPOKES, a new bike and walk center in Minneapolis’s Seward neighborhood, is preparing for its Aug. 22 grand opening.

The center, whose acronym stands for Seward People Operated Kinetic Energy, is housed in a 2,400-square-foot warehouse space on the former Bystrom Brothers machine shop site. This is also where property owner Seward Redesign, which is a community development corporation, is planning the Seward Commons housing complex. (See The Line story here.)

Last week, volunteers helped paint and set up workbenches and storage areas inside the shop, according to center director Sheldon Mains. Bike racks will soon be installed outside, he says.

The Seward Neighborhood Group is behind the center, which has been in the works for a couple of years.

Startup funds came from Bike Walk Twin Cities, a federal nonmotorized transportation pilot program administered by Transit for Livable Communities through the Federal Highway Administration, he explains. This funding is facilitated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the city of Minneapolis, he adds. 

The center is part of a larger neighborhood initiative to “get more people biking and walking,” especially as a regular mode of transportation, Mains says.

Biking is more economical than driving and it’s a good form of exercise. “It can help build social connections, too,” he adds. 

The center will start out by targeting East African immigrants, who form a large community within the neighborhood. This is a response in part to a neighborhood survey that found that “what stopped people from riding was that they didn’t know how to,” he says.

Some people also said they couldn’t afford a bike or equipment, or they didn’t have a place to store it. “We’re trying to address those things,” Mains says.

Some helmets, bikes and Nice Ride bike-sharing memberships have been donated to the center, while the bike racks came from local manufacturer Dero. Seward Coop Market and Deli and Quality Bike Products have made contributions, as well.

The center is still looking for more used bikes to loan to low-income residents, he adds.  

SPOKES will also offer classesfocusing on basic riding skills, traffic rules, and bike mechanics. The shop will also host open work times for women, he says.

Plus, a bike repair station will be accessible 24 hours a day outside. “It’s a unique program,” Mains says.  

Source: Sheldon Mains, director, SPOKES
Writer: Anna Pratt
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