Robert & Wentworth, where the trail crosses without a tunnel.

Robert Street Tunnel on Hold for No Good Reason

Just when I was starting to blog about other things (two posts in a row!), the tunnel comes up again. This time the proposed River-to-River Greenway and Robert Street tunnel in West St. Paul received high-profile coverage in the Pioneer Press.

Unfortunately, it’s not good news:

Plans for the tunnel are on the shelf for now as officials wait for retail development to play out nearby.

As the article explains, there’s potential for development on both sides of Robert Street where the tunnel would cross. That’s not new. So far, none of those projects have come together (the last attempt by Pebb Enterprises failed because they wanted the city to pitch in $4 million to make it work).

What is new is the city saying they don’t want to hinder any potential development, so the tunnel can’t happen.

This is odd for several reasons:

The Tunnel Project Is Paid For

In case you haven’t been paying attention to my blog posts for the past six months, the tunnel project is completely paid for. There’s about $3 million in county, state and federal funding to make it happen, with no additional contribution needed from the city.

This is massive investment in West St. Paul to create a regional trail that will be a boost to our community—and the city council says no?

Why?!

That’s the incredulous question I hear from people all the time when I explain this project.

Business Trumps All?

The answer, spelled out plainly in this article, is that business is more important than anything else:

“I don’t want to see anything that would interfere with potential commercial development on either the east or the west side of the street.” -Council member Ed Iago

So potential commercial development comes first, before public safety? 

I can’t imagine that’s what Iago means, but that’s the logical result of his statement and the current [lack of] action.

How about we ask businesses to come alongside the city and work within our wider vision for the city, not just bend over and do whatever businesses want?

Because what happens when we allow a business to dictate our plans, and then that business fails or  leaves West St. Paul?

We need business development that’s committed to West St. Paul, and that means working with our community improvements, such as a regional trail with a safe crossing.

Trail & Business Together

What’s especially odd about this business first mindset is that it assumes the tunnel and business can’t work together. It assumes we have to get business development first, and then we’ll somehow talk about fitting a tunnel in. You might think I’m making that up, but that’s exactly what Iago said:

“If and when there is finalization of commercial development, then that would be the time to discuss a tunnel.” -Council member Ed Iago

Um, if you develop the land for a business, where is the tunnel going to go? Shouldn’t those conversations be happening at the same time?

Let’s work together. The plans for a crossing at Robert Street have already been modified from earlier plans to accommodate more business development. Plus there are plenty of developers who will think a regional trail is a major bonus.

This idea of pitting business development against recreational opportunities is ridiculous. We can have both.

The Plan All Along

Another odd facet of this whole story is that a crossing for Robert Street has been in the works since 2001. It became more serious in 2011, and when the Blockbuster property was acquired the city agreed to use the land for the crossing.

We even secured a county grant by saying that’s where we’d put a separated-grade crossing.

So the plan all along has been to put the crossing there. Why is the city council changing their mind now? Let’s follow through on what we committed to do.

Otherwise the county, state and feds are going to think twice about giving us money.

What the Community Wants

Finally, the oddest part of the entire story, the supposed lack of community support:

“There has never been, in my opinion, adequate support.” -Council member Ed Iago

First of all, does anybody in the community know anything about this? Not really. When I talk to people, most of them know nothing about it. At best they remember vague proposals from a few years ago and an outrageous price tag.

I won’t shut up about the project, but that doesn’t count for much.

How can you gauge support for a project you’ve never communicated about? Maybe it’s time for the city to have a public meeting about the tunnel.

Secondly, when we do explain the project to people, the support is pretty incredible. A lot of people call the project a no-brainer.

I don’t know what it takes for support to be “adequate” in Iago’s mind, but there are nearly 400 fans of the project over on Facebook. And growing. (By the way, in the 2016 election, West St. Paul city council seats were won by the following margins: 129, 549, 663.)

Also, when residents were surveyed back in January, the results showed strong support for trails. When asked what the city council should focus on, the #1 response was a tie between attracting new businesses and providing more sidewalks and bike trails. Residents want both, not one at the expense of the other. And we can have both!

Update (June 15, 2017): I went to the city council on June 12 and presented more than 70 postcards from kids and parents in the community showing their support for the trail and tunnel.

Let Your Voice Be Heard

It’s very clear the city council needs to hear from West St. Paul. How do you do that?

More on the River-to-River Greenway:

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