Plowing the Midtown Greenway & Light Rail Trail

Story by Shaun Murphy, Bicycle Program Intern

Written February 14, 2008

Earlier this morning, Mark Stensrud, a Street Maintenance Foreman for the Minneapolis Public Works Department, left a voice mail on my phone. "Would you like to come out and meet the snow plow drivers today?"

I jumped at the chance. I had been curious since my first winter biking – who were those drivers who get the trails plowed before I roll out of bed and commute to work, and how do they do it?

I walked to work on this snowy morning and was without my bike, so Mark picked me up at City Hall. 10 minutes later, we pulled up to 2 pick-up trucks with snow plows attached, on the east end of the Midtown Greenway trench.

There I met Scott and Jeff, the 2 drivers. Each of them has been plowing these 2 trails since they opened, in 2000 and 2004 respectively. Mark had informed me earlier that each driver knew every turn and "trail split" (where the trail diverges to avoid a bridge abutment) like the back of their hands.

As we stood outside, bicyclists cruised past us in the chilly 5-degree morning air. Scott said that it was not uncommon to get a "thumbs-up" sign from cyclists as he plows. These two know better than anyone that winter cyclers are out there, and that they appreciate a freshly plowed trail.

After a snowfall like this one (which occurred overnight), both drivers arrive around 7:00 am. Depending upon the severity of the storm, they are sometimes called in early. Scott starts at the St. Louis Park side of the Midtown Greenway, and Jeff starts at the downtown end of the Light Rail Trail. They work toward each other until they meet.

The Midtown Greenway takes between five and six passes with the truck before it is cleared of snow (since it’s so wide), while the Light Rail Trail takes just two. After the trails are cleared through, work begins on the access ramps. Both drivers are careful to pile up the snow in places where there is adequate space. If snow gets piled on volunteer plantings, they usually hear about it!

It takes the two about a day to clear both trails, depending upon the snowfall. Including the access ramps, the length of these two trails is 8.8 miles. On a morning like today, when the wind is blowing briskly out of the northwest, they inform me that snow is already blowing over the cleared trail, especially by Lake of the Isles where there are large open spaces. Mark will send them back out the next day, to push back the snow again.

Following each melting and refreezing period, Scott and Jeff return to the trails to salt down the slick spots. They usually don’t salt and sand the trail as a whole for several reasons, including the wear and tear this causes to bicycles, ill effects on the environment, cost, necessary spring clean-up (sweeping sand off the trail), and ineffectiveness (when the temperatures are below 10 degrees, salt won’t work).

I ask them how fast they can go when plowing, and they say it depends upon the snowfall. If it’s packed down and frozen they go under 5 mph, trying their best to get under the compacted mass of ice. If it’s not, they can go up to 15 mph. They keep their speeds down however, for the sake of the cyclists and pedestrians who use the trail.

When I tell them about the trail use numbers for the Midtown Greenway, they are very interested. The City monitors use at 3 locations along the trail, using automatic "loop detectors." While the numbers aren’t yet compiled for the entire winter, the first 10 days of December (which were quite frigid and snowy) showed that 8% of cyclists were still riding, compared to the most mild and pleasant days of September. That figures out to be about 200 cyclists per day, which is comparable to the number of vehicles that use a quiet residential street in Minneapolis. Milder winter days can see upwards of 1,000 cyclists, which is when all that plowing really pays off!

After we finish talking, I take several photos of the plowing work. I’m quite appreciative (and proud) of the work that Scott and Jeff do, particularly since it keeps Minneapolis bicyclists pedaling during our most challenging time of the year. Next time you see a City of Minneapolis pick-up truck plowing the Midtown Greenway or the Light Rail Trail, be sure to give Scott or Jeff the "thumbs-up," in thanks for all of the hard work they do!

Published May 20, 2008