In Brainerd, Business 371 is for Business

I was up in Brainerd this weekend, visiting my sister. I’ve been up there several times since she bought a house just south of downtown a year and a half ago.

Downtown Brainerd in November 2014

Downtown Brainerd in November 2014. Photo by author.

Brainerd has a nice, walkable downtown. It has wide sidewalks, trees and benches, and active storefronts. Compared to the neighboring Baxter strip, it’s a breath of fresh air. But how to get downtown?

Meet 6th Street

The main north-south spine of Brainerd is South 6th Street, which formerly carried Highway 371 (and still marked as “Business 371”). And it’s by far the most direct option to get downtown for anyone living in the south-central section of Brainerd:

6th Street Brainerd in November 2014. Death road with snow on sidewalk

November 2014. Technically, there was a sidewalk underneath that snow. Photo by author.

It’s a wide, five-lane stroad, with no parking, few trees, little lighting, and narrow sidewalks. It skimps on everything but number of lanes and width of those lanes. Currently, the four travel lanes are 12′ wide and the center turn lane is about 14′. All this for traffic volumes that barely scrape 10,000:

MnDOT Traffic volumes on S 6th St

MnDOT traffic volumes on South 6th St., Brainerd

A new opportunity

The good news is that Brainerd had an opportunity to have the street reconstructed by MnDOT in 2017. MnDOT offered the community the choice of a 3-lane section or simply rebuilding, as is, in a 5-lane section. Local advocate and Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn pushed for designs similar to the three-lane, with a more context-sensitive approach in the different sections.

The bad news is Marohn’s efforts didn’t seem to be in line with the Brainerd City Council’s actions. For the most part, Brainerd chose the 5-lane section — widening the street out to 5 lanes and making it more pedestrian-hostile as it approaches downtown. Even the 3-lane section that is being built (south of Quince St) is shockingly unambitious. Despite many indications that 10-11′ lanes are the safest for calming traffic (and even very car-oriented engineers preferring 11′ lanes), MnDOT’s plan offered the community 12′ travel lanes and a thirteen foot center turn area.

6th Street 3-lane section

6th Street 3-lane section

Opportunities for planting along the corridor appear to be unseized, but that could change. However, since the sidewalk narrows to 9′ north of Quince, trees likely could not be sustained near downtown.

Why would a city do this –throwing away an opportunity to transform one of its most important streets, all for nonexistent traffic?

I wrote the Brainerd City Council in November asking them to support a 3-lane design. The only response I received is revealing. After expressing concern about possible cut-through traffic from a calmed 6th Street, this Councilman went on to explain:

Business 371 is named for that very reason. For business.

We also have a lot of future growth to deal with. For a example [sic] there are 640 acres own by the Mills family for residential housing just southwest of Brainerd that will have high traffic counts when it gets developed.

Business 371 needs to be five lanes.

I won’t opine too much on the Councilman’s response, since just about everything I could say has been expressed many times by Strong Towns. But, in short: we should sacrifice the town we have today, in the hope that we will one day be able to encourage more traffic to serve new greenfield development. A symbolic gesture that I’m sure was intentional, he did not once refer to 6th Street by its local name — only as “Business 371”.

A larger failure

Wasting an opportunity to seriously improve 6th Street is disappointing for Brainerd, but I find it even more troubling about what it says for MnDOT.

Ostensibly, Minnesota has a Complete Streets policy. So does Brainerd (adopted slightly after the decision to support an incomplete 6th Street). So why would MnDOT even offer such a bloated option to a local community? And why would even the “road diet” version offer proportions that are dangerously wide and encourage speeding?

Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers. But I do know that this project represents nothing good about MnDOT’s ability to implement Complete Streets.

 


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19 Responses to In Brainerd, Business 371 is for Business

  1. Matt Steele August 5, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    That same Brainerd council member left a phone message for me after I wrote a letter to their local newspaper, copying the council. His example for a business that may not locate in Brainerd if “Business 371” doesn’t have excessive lanes? A Wendy’s. His example for development in “Minneapolis” that also depends on heavy traffic volumes? Ryan’s new spec warehouse building in Rogers. This guy is a menace to his own town, and needs to be replaced. I’ll happily donate to the campaign of anyone running against him.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 5, 2015 at 11:26 am #

      (General note: I’m intentionally not naming the Councilman, since the quote was in an email that was a private exchange, and he wasn’t aware it would ever be published — nor had I planned to write anything at that time. But I’m fine noting he was male.)

      Yet to read that Brainerd Dispatch article on Complete Streets, seems he apparently voted for at least the symbolic gesture of adopting a policy. Cm. Mary Koep was the only one to vote against it outright.

      • Matt Steele August 5, 2015 at 11:40 am #

        I didn’t name him since you didn’t name him. But I knew exactly who you were talking about!

        Also, adopting a policy is relatively meaningless if the policy doesn’t change anything. We can look across the river to St. Paul to see how that works.

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke August 5, 2015 at 12:18 pm #

          Boo for the unnecessary St Paul dig. Our complete streets design manual is still under construction, but I have heard it will come out very soon. Bike plan implementation is not as big a disaster as some say, IMO. 2 of the 3 first projects on the table were immediately passed, and the 3rd is being studied.

          • Jeff August 6, 2015 at 9:59 am #

            I thought Front Ave. is now being tabled?

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke August 6, 2015 at 10:49 am #

              OK I dug around a bit and heard that the Front Ave bike lanes are being delayed despite city and community support?

              That’s what happened at the last Ramsey County board meeting. The county deserves the pile on. We should lobby to save these bike lanes!

  2. Matt Steele August 5, 2015 at 11:15 am #

    The 13′ CLTL is ridiculous. But at least this street can be repainted with 11′ lanes in the future, affording space for 6′ bicycle lanes. Also, why a 13.8′ sidewalk, instead of a 6′ sidewalk and a 8′ planted boulevard with tree canopy?

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 5, 2015 at 11:29 am #

      As I noted in the article, that may be subject to change later in the process. I would think at least to a grassy area. (Trees might be a harder battle, since they’re more expensive with deeper soil amendments needed.) Still, it’s hard to see even a grass strip happening closer to downtown, with only a 9′ walk to work with.

      For perspective, a 14′ sidewalk would probably look pretty similar to the Bloomington standard for new sidewalks. A vast improvement over a narrow sidewalk, but certainly not providing a high-quality, small-town pedestrian experience.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke August 5, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    I listened to the podcast with one of the City Council members that Chuck did and the cognitive dissonance was mind-melting. The guy was nice enough, and Chuck was very patient, but he just couldn’t get around to thinking critically about street width, traffic, and economic development. No way was he going to think about changing his mind.

    Check it out here: http://shoutengine.com/StrongTownsPodcast/brainerd-council-president-gary-scheeler-8480

    It’s a great exercise in political organizing and how difficult changing minds can be. Recommended for anyone who’s ever attended a community meeting about parking.

  4. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman August 6, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    I’m assuming Mn/DOT is just in the habit of building standard 12 foot lanes on state trunk highways where there is space available.

    With the traffic counts the way they are, I’m confident some of the two lane designs proposed would cause serious operational problems. Obviously that’s their perogative since through traffic no longer has to be delayed by having to put up with driving through town, they can stop at a Wendy’s on the bypass, but once you reach a certain point it’s no longer appropriate for it to be a state trunk highway, statewide “complete streets” program or no. (not that I don’t think Mn/DOT should make turning it back a condition of rebuilding it anyway).

    • Adam Froehlig
      Adam Froehlig August 6, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

      MnDOT’s own planning-level policy notes the capacity of a 2-lane urban street at 15,000 vpd. A center left turn lane (i.e. the “3-lane concept”) would easily accommodate most of the potential operational problems along 6th Street.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary August 6, 2015 at 1:51 pm #

        So any ideas why MnDOT would pitch a 5-lane concept as one of the alternatives, Froggie?

        • Adam Froehlig
          Adam Froehlig August 6, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

          1) Reconstruction as-is. Since part of 6th St is an existing 5-lane, it remains as an option. Reconstruction as-is also involves less environmental paperwork (whether you agree with that or not is your own prerogative).

          2) Local desire, as is pretty clear from the Brainerd City Council reaction. Municipal consent and all that.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary August 6, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      I get that for rural highways and freeways. But this is clearly in a town. Even with all the space in the world, why design a roadway that would encourage motorists to go well over the speed limit of 30 mph? 11′ is still adequate for truck traffic. There’s certainly some farm traffic that won’t fit in that space, but with only a painted shoulder and painted center turn lane, there’s a lot of forgiveness with a 3-lane design.

      I don’t fully understand the nature of who pays for the business routes, and to what extent they remain a state responsibility. It’s a little ridiculous when we replace highways like this (and create a newer, much more expensive one), that the state is still on the hook for the one no longer really part of the trunk highway system.

      I don’t think it’s fair to turn back a 50-year-old road without any money to fix it. But reconstruction and turnback should go together. I believe this has happened with some communities along 169 nearby. I also know that when MnDOT decided to reroute TH 12 off of Wayzata Blvd in Long Lake, the old highway became a county road pretty fast — although I believe MnDOT agreed to contribute to rebuilding it.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman August 6, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

        Who pays for “Business Routes”? It depends. Business MN 371 is the only state maintained business route with no additional designations. The rest of the business routes either follow other trunk highways or are actually local roads.

        To what extent do they remain a state responsibility? They stay a state responsibility if and only if they are trunk highways. Mn/DOT follows the “western philosophy” in that routes bypassed are normally returned to local jurisdiction. That isn’t always the case for various reasons:

        Constitutional Route Continuity: Mn/DOT had to maintain the local roads through Pine City and Rush City for decades because of the requirement that Constitutional Route 1 (now basically I-35 and MN 61) touch those cities. The local road was turned back when suburban style growth and the city limits finally touched the interstate:

        Lack of Local Agreement: The local agency has to come to an agreement to accept the road. Usually it goes pretty smoothly, like MN 66, other times not. There was litigation involving the turnback of old US 14. And then there’s MN 952A…

        In the case of Business 371, the local agencies made it extremely clear they wanted it to stay a trunk highway, so they reached an agreement to accept other trunk highways in the area instead. (MN 322 and parts of MN 25 and MN 18.

        Ultimately I think it would be better if Brainerd and Baxter merged, maybe they wouldn’t be paranoid about trying to lure traffic into their downtown if they also had the highway commercial strip. It’s also unfortunate that when the Paul Bunyan Center closed they couldn’t have reserved some of the land for an interchange at MN 210 and MN 371. (There is land reserved at CSAH 48).

    • Matt Steele August 6, 2015 at 1:54 pm #

      South 6th Street *shouldn’t* be a state trunk highway, anyways. Unfortunately, Brainerd officials fought back hard on MnDOT attempts to de-designate Biz371 and turn back the facility. People like this City-Counciler-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named think that by increasing the size of the hose into Brainerd, you’ll draw more visitors. While it may generate more traffic (induced demand, largely from longer trip lengths for local trips) it won’t bring people off of the bypass. Only having a compelling place (Brainerd has so much potential) will bring the people into town. Focus on the garden, not the garden hose.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke August 6, 2015 at 4:02 pm #

        see, people DO understand the concept of “induced demand.”

  5. jeffk August 6, 2015 at 3:02 pm #

    As far as I could tell that guy literally couldn’t handle the concept of fractions. He’d say “I want to annex to take on more tax revenue”, and Chuck would point out he’s also taking on liabilities. Total confused silence.

  6. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary August 7, 2015 at 9:14 pm #

    I had a nice conversation tonight with Mary Koep, a Brainerd city councilwoman who reached out to me after reading the article.

    Some interesting background:

    1. The main driver for five lanes, according to Cm. Koep, was the business community, especially in downtown, where they were concerned that congestion from three lanes would discourage people from coming to downtown Brainerd. A trucking-oriented business farther south was also concerned about maneuvering their vehicles in only three lanes.

    2. The main driving factor for the three lane section that will get built was the impacts to private property. 5-lane section was wider and would have required some pretty severe impacts to residential property south of downtown.

    3. Cm. Koep said she was concerned about the idea of plantings along a street, especially in planted medians, as she felt they would distract drivers from the road. I mentioned how trees can also help slow cars down, and pointed out 70th Street in the Southdale District as a nice example of a commercial street that uses a heavy dose of landscaping.

    My own general observation: it sounds like there was a lack of a clear and attractive vision that was sold to Brainerd of going down to three lanes. Personally, I think the downtown community could have benefitted greatly by making 6th Street an extension of and a gateway to downtown Brainerd. Yet when the focus turns solely to fear of congestion and desire to minimize impacts, it’s hard to change much. I think other examples of towns doing successful road diets in greater MN might really help. Business owners need to feel like they’re gaining something by getting a right-sized street, not losing customers.