Five Ideas to Help Fund Minneapolis Street Reconstructions

Over at the Star Tribune, Steve Brandt did a great job covering the looming Minneapolis residential street reconstruction funding crisis. I’m grateful for the coverage, since the city’s presentation on the matter is a little light on narrative, and not everyone can attend city council meetings to hear the details and political opinions.

In a nutshell, most residential streets across the city were reconstructed in a 20 year window starting around 1965:

Minneapolis Street Construction History

That means many are coming up on the end of a 50 year useful life. Despite concerted efforts to up the preventative maintenance (pore over these five-year capital planning documents if you dare), a street can only be patched so much before it needs full reconstruction. In many cases, this will include replacing utilities and other pipes beneath the surface in addition to the road bed and pavement itself.

If we don’t take action soon, street pavement condition (of all different classifications) will deteriorate well below the goal for a citywide average of “Fair,” basically above 70 on a pavement quality scale:

Minneapolis Projected Street Condition

There’s the tricky part, though. Taking action means we need to spend more. Based on current city funding levels, there isn’t enough in the Public Works budget to do it all. They estimate that Minneapolis has a $30 million annual gap for the next ten years:

Minneapolis Projected Street Funding Gap

Almost all of that gap is for completing full street reconstruction, not more basic maintenance. Also, given the number of streets approaching the end of their useful life, we can likely expect this funding need to extend well beyond a 10-year horizon, likely at least 20 years (**unprofessional opinion). Either way, this is a funding problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Toss in that the city is grappling with other funding crises from deferred maintenance on parks, and the city will have many tradeoffs to weigh in the coming budget years. Council Member Lisa Bender’s quip “We do not have a magic money tree in City Hall” rings true here.

Thinking Outside the Box

I know it’s easy to say this as an outsider behind a keyboard. There are tons of factors I’m probably not considering when talking street and utility redesign, so I want the following discussion to be a constructive one and hope planners, engineers, and elected officials know I mean no disrespect.

With that said, I have a hard time accepting the two options in front of us being: 1) pay $30 million more a year to maintain our residential streets, or 2) accept deteriorated residential streets. We know that narrowing streets by just two feet between the curbs shaved 3.4% off Brooklyn Park’s project budget. What other options are there? How much would they save? Does the cost savings include other future annual public expenditures beyond street maintenance? What about public safety, housing affordability, vehicle emissions targets, stormwater management, or other issues we may be able to tackle? Our residential right-of-way is often 60 feet wide, with 30-32 of that often being black pavement – could it be better used?

I’d like to see Public Works put forward, or the city council ask for, a much more creative range of options to close the gap between costs (bring them down!) and revenue (how else can we pay for this?). I’ve brainstormed a few, ranging from fairly reasonable to potentially crackpot. But we have a once-in-60-year opportunity to re-think our residential street designs to meet broader societal goals. So here we go!

Idea 1: Simple Narrowing

This is simple. Narrow our residential streets. Take out one side of parking and move the curb in. A standard 32′ curb-to-curb street becomes 25′ wide.

Narrowed Residential

The space formerly devoted to parking can be used for stormwater management, space for more street trees, and double as snow storage in the winter. I’d like to know the balancing act of additional landscape costs vs. pavement savings (and if smaller storm drains could be used), and how this might lower annual operating costs like plowing, street sweeping, and pavement maintenance.

Let me take a minute to talk parking. Many streets across the city see much less than 50% on-street parking utilization on most days. Even then, a solid chunk of the cars parked out front actually have an off-street space or garage, but residents choose the convenience of the street. I’ll admit to this. Snow Emergencies are a pain in this city, but we get by. In fact, Minneapolis banned odd-side parking for over a month due to piled snow back in 2014. Life moved on. Life would also move on for many residential streets losing half their parking on a permanent basis.

Idea 2: Narrow with a Chicane

This option is very similar to Option 1, but it introduces a traffic calming element to the street design: a mid-block chicane.

chicane

Image via NACTO

This design sacrifices a couple more parking spaces in exchange for slower traffic. While our side-streets are pretty calm relative to the main drags, cars still zip by way too fast in my opinion. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

Idea 3: Parklike Street With Vehicle Access

What if more of our streets were focused on pedestrians and cyclists, tolerating the occasional personal and emergency vehicle? We have an example of a street designed like this already, people seem to like it:

Milw _AV_6

Milwaukee Avenue, Minneapolis

How much would the trees and concrete cost relative to replacing the pavement? Is concrete a better solution over its useful life? We know the proposed 29th St shared-use street will cost around $750,000 for an eighth-mile stretch. And the proposed North Minneapolis Greenway, which has these design elements in chunks of the 3.5 mile route, is estimated at $15 million. What if we standardized this design?

Idea 4: Charge for On-Street Parking

The first three ideas have come at the problem from a cost side. But, if we’re really short on revenues to re-build streets, let’s maybe find a way to charge people who use the acres of pavement for parking cars. Remember, 19% of Minneapolis households don’t have a car. Many more have fewer cars than adults. I won’t get into the legality of assessments for regular maintenance, but charging a fifth of our population 25% of the project’s cost for road space they’re not using is unfair. Why not charge people using the parking and funnel that money into a street construction fund? As a side benefit, putting a price on narrowed streets curbs the demand for now-scarce parking.

Idea 5: Let’s Do Something Crazy With That Road Space

Our side streets almost always have 60 feet of publicly-owned right of way. Given the setbacks found on single-family homes (even many apartments), this 60′ is often flanked by grassy yard space and trees. This is a LOT of room to carry triple-digit vehicle counts. I can’t be the only person who see this as a major opportunity.

What if we decided that the middle 25 feet of our right of way was a better spot to put housing than moving and storing cars?  How would that work? Imagine the city coordinated with private developers and non-profit housing organizations to pour foundations small structures as the streets are dug up and utilities moved:

Housing Middle of Street

25 feet doesn’t sound like much, but there are many examples of 1.5-2 story structures that could act as 2-3 BR homes or an up-down duplex. I’m sure there are many ADUs out there that can show us a thing or two about small-footprint living.

Small House Example

Plan images via coolhouseplans.com

On either side of this new development, we’d be left with a 17 foot wide narrow street plus whatever private setback exists on the existing lot. This is a common design across the world, even places where it snows.

We still retain private driveway and emergency vehicle access but lose on-street parking altogether. And yes, I’m aware there are many vacant lots across the city that could use development. But we know that low-cost and/or subsidized housing is rarely being built in high-amenity neighborhoods of the city. This is an opportunity for Minneapolis to control that while adding neighborhood-scale infill and significantly calming streets. Calm enough that people should feel comfortable walking (and children playing) right down the middle.

At 45 feet lot widths (accommodating either a parking pad or small patio on one side of the house), each long block could fit 14 of these on every block we reconstruct. Not every “lot” needs to be housing, we could decide to put a “parklet” (not these, thinking something more like this or this) or a stormwater basin. If we sell half of the lots to private builders for $75,000 each, that’s half a million toward construction cost on each block, with seven additional lots yet to allocate to other uses. Is more housing and calmer streets worth the loss of parking and boulevard trees? Will the net result be a cheaper project than just re-paving? I don’t know!

Pulling It All Together

I don’t expect any one of these issues to be a standard practice across the city. I think it would be valuable for citizens and leaders to have the tradeoffs and options at their disposal. I’d go so far as to say blocks should have the power to decide how their street looks, and be rewarded by saving on their assessment. I’m enough in love with the idea of small housing where asphalt currently sits on my block to suggest the city wave the 25% assessment entirely for property owners who choose it. But also, since the city at large is paying for 75% of any given street project, we should consider a broader shift in design practices, even if that goes against the generally-accepted status quo.

I should also note that most of my cost-saving measures likely won’t move the needle by much. A project has many fixed costs like city staff, design, curb/gutter/utility work, project setup time, etc. The width of the pavement does have a linearly varying cost, but even a 10 foot wide street won’t cost 66% less than a 30 foot wide one. That’s why I appreciate all the #luxury development helping broaden our tax base, and believe more of it is a good way to help defray city costs on the horizon.

In any case, street reconstruction will require different solutions across the city. Some areas lack alleys, some may be hilly or curvy enough that ADA accommodations can’t be made with certain designs, and some have tighter parking than others. It might sound crazy to do anything but work with what we have, but I think it’s crazy to think we might cut funding for affordable housing or parks any other important city function so that we can keep free parking and streets designed for 25+ mph where people live and play. So, what other ideas do readers have to close this funding gap?


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38 Responses to Five Ideas to Help Fund Minneapolis Street Reconstructions

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 21, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

    I’d be clear on options 1-3 that in situations other than a full reconstruction, this would be a lot more expensive than simply replacing as is. I definitely agree that if a street’s being reconstructed anyway, narrower would be better on many streets — especially those on the far south side that see little on-street parking usage.

    Although you note that the greatest funding gap is in full reconstruction, that’s also the most expensive. Is there actually a need to fully reconstruct a lot of miles of residential street? Or is the most imminent need to mill and overlay streets to get another few decades out of them? On an equally unprofessional level, most residential streets seem to be in pretty good shape, particularly compared to St. Paul — sunken curbs, serious drainage issues, etc are rare.

    Option 5 gives me a headache. You’d be left with streets that are barely wide enough to function (4′ sidewalk to the immediate back of the curb). You’d either have to run two sets of underground utilities for each street, or have the sewer laterals for one side of the street run underneath this new housing. I think we could use the 60-66′ better, but I think any city would be crazy to give up ROW below that level.

    And in general, I think you should have given assessments a much fairer shake. These streets exist to serve single-family homes. It seems perfectly fair that homeowners should pay a portion of the cost. And the practice of assessing for street reconstruction is well-established across cities all over the state. Paying for streets out of the general fund, or via more novel approaches mean that apartment dwellers subsidize extensive, low-intensity lane miles to serve single-family homes. Does that really make sense?

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini March 21, 2016 at 12:53 pm #

      To your first point, yes. The majority of the $30m gap comes from street reconstruction needs. I’m operating under the assumption that we’ll see full reconstruction of most residential streets over the next 20 years, since it’s been 50 since that process started last time around. My understanding from the presentation and reading into things a bit is that more mill/overlays to extend the life will end up costing the city more once full reconstruction is needed given the state of the sub-grade. I won’t necessarily disagree with your assessment of residential street condition, but I can’t say with certainty as I’m rarely on side streets outside my larger neighborhood.

      Yes, a discussion about assessments (currently 25%) could and should be had. I agree that apartments and other intense users end up cross-subsidizing SFH streets. I would imagine that most neighborhoods could not afford a 50-100% assessment to rebuild their street as-is, so these design alternatives present cheaper options. Or, maybe I’m crazy and people really could afford the extra few hundred a year in property taxes.

      I stated up front that Option 5 was way out there. But, it does add to the tax base (up-front via land sales and long-term properties on the tax roll), calms traffic down to alley speeds fronting houses, provides an opportunity for more development that doesn’t knock down existing homes or tower over them, and is a potential source for small parks, affordable housing, etc — in places where people actually need it. All in a design that actually exists already across the world, even in cold/snowy climates. At the very least, it’d be nice if we could point to actual costs (compared to other options) and how much demand for housing like this there is (and how much it’d net the city) to be able to say losing boulevard trees & free parking is/isn’t worth it. I dunno.

  2. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller March 21, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

    We could probably afford to maintain our streets if we just stopped funding all these bike lanes.

    (Sarcasm is hopefully clear)

  3. David Levinson
    David Levinson March 21, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    Just thinking about magnitudes, $300M divided by 400,000 people is $750/person over 10 years, or $75/year/person, or $0.20/day/person, or 1.3 minutes of work per day at minimum wage, which is less than 0.1% of daily time. This is not a lot of money (or time), all things considered, and should hardly be considered a crisis. Certainly there are smarter ways to do things, but if everything is a crisis, nothing is.

    • Alex Cecchini
      Alex Cecchini March 21, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

      I hear people are reeeeeeally opposed to a gas tax increase that costs $10/month per household.

      I’ll retract the word “crisis,” words should have meaning. But I suspect there are many households that really wouldn’t like the idea of an additional $200-250 tacked onto their annual property tax statement. At least not without having had the opportunity to see other options.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke March 21, 2016 at 2:55 pm #

        Little known fact: the Chinese character for “crisis” also means “cliché.”

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 21, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

      I agree with David. I think it’s all about how people perceive the cost. Homes are expensive to maintain — one of those costs is paying for the street that gives the property access and value. When people pay $20,000 for a new roof or siding, $10,000 for sewer replacement, $8000 for new driveway, the relatively minor assessments for efficient shared street reconstruction projects aren’t that catastrophic. Especially since roadway assessments can be effortlessly, publicly financed over 20 years — unlike those other items, which people pay out of pocket for, or must go through the hoops of getting a home equity loan for.

      Burdensome, yes, and not to be thrown around unnecessarily. But in in the grand scheme of things, they’re not a crisis.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini March 21, 2016 at 3:39 pm #

        So I don’t know, maybe I framed this post the wrong way, too much about the cost and burden and less about the opportunity we have here. This is more about using the fact that we’re going to be digging up hundreds of miles of low-traffic, over-built streets over the next 10-20 years, and that’s maybe a big opportunity to go after some other city goals, all while saving a few bucks.

        Even though they’re loads better than arterials, I don’t know of anyone living on a side street in Minneapolis who thinks traffic couldn’t move just a little bit slower. I hear we have trouble building affordable housing in high-price areas of the city. I’ve heard we’ll have more unpredictable rain events in the future as climate changes. etc.

        The cost savings (or parking revenue) are a nice side benefit (what, 10-15% at most if we narrow them?) to accomplishing some of those other goals.

        • Julia March 21, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

          I get what you’re aiming for and totally agree. I’ll give the example of Douglas Avenue* in Lowry Hill/Kenwood. That street was fully reconstructed in 1994 (maybe 1993) and took all summer. It was widened at that time, though I’m not sure what the thinking was behind it. They also removed the streetcar rails & cobblestones. There were consequences to the poorly-thought-out road widening. For one, there seemed to be an uptick in boulevard tree deaths (anecdotal observation shared by others).

          But more importantly to this post, drivers started speeding along the street, as a shortcut from downtown to the suburbs. The city tried a number of different (not free, I’m sure) methods to slow them down:
          1. Giant concrete landscaped planters in the middle of some intersections. Fire engines had trouble navigating around these and they were removed.
          2. Additional stop signs. At least one of these stayed. Not sure how effective.
          3. Speedbumps at various places. Some stayed, some were removed.

          And speeds stayed up. This was exacerbated by decreasing density–Douglas has both-side parking, but it’s very sparsely used. In the early 90s the neighborhood served as a kind of park-and-ride, with commuters driving in, parking on its streets, then taking the bus downtown, but that’s subsided. Additionally, with the Guthrie’s move & the Walker’s parking ramp, overflow parking has disappeared, so the demand for parking is really low, despite neighborhood parking restrictions on some sidestreets. Because of the speeding drivers, many residents don’t like parking on Douglas (I know multiple people whose cars have lost mirrors parked there & heard of at least one parked car being totaled in the last year). The problem has yet to be solved.

          I know that’s a lot of perhaps unimportant detail, but that’s one of the few roads redone more recently. It’s a cautionary (and expensive) tale. A poorly thought-out road reconstruction that doesn’t account for people as they walk, bike, or use transit–that doesn’t take into consideration its own role in shaping the environment and the choices people make–still has consequences for decades. We need to work to make sure that, at the very least, we aren’t creating more problems than we’re fixing. Rebuilding roads for cars and parking is expensive & massively disruptive and plenty of trends indicate that we’re exiting the brief era of total auto-dependence. To not use this as an opportunity for the kind of massive rethinking that you’re proposing would be irresponsible stewardship as a city, given the longevity and costs of roads.

          * What are snow emergency routes that aren’t full arterials called? They also seem to be first responder routes and sometimes bus lines but lack decent clustering of commercial.

          • Nick March 21, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

            Douglas has an extra factor. While I didn’t live here in the 90’s to know exactly what happened, I do know that it was a Municipal State Aid route until well after the end of the 90’s. So Minneapolis probably would have been using the MSA guidelines for the street, a likely contributor to over-sizing.

            • Julia March 24, 2016 at 11:51 am #

              Ahhhh! Thanks for the clarification. Do you happen to know what shifts a route to/from the MSA list?

              • Nick March 24, 2016 at 1:55 pm #

                I stumbled across the petition specifically removing Douglas from the MSA network when I was looking for some other information about MSA guidelines. As best as I can tell, the City of Minneapolis asks for streets to be added/removed from the MSA network. It’s not clear to me who approves it, but I know there’s at least one committee of local government representatives that are involved with oversight/policy-making of the MSA program details.

                As best as I recall, Douglas was removed because MNDOT wouldn’t allow speed bumps or speed tables on an MSA route. The City of Ramsey got scolded for it, so when the City planned do traffic calming using the same measures on Douglas, they pulled Douglas off and added a few other streets onto the list.

          • Sean Hayford Oleary
            Sean Hayford Oleary March 21, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

            I think the term you want is collector, re: streets that carry some amount of through traffic, but aren’t arterials. I’d call Douglas a collector, at least.

            One detail with that area is the broad intersections, which are common in the 1920s-developed areas (although that area is older, it follows the pattern) — sweeping, curvilinear modified grids. (Tangletown and Prospect Park, plus Edina’s Country Club area great examples.) It’s quite beautiful and pleasant to ride or drive along, but you do get large turning radiuses and awkward intersections. I’ve been curious what effect that has on speeds. Sounds like whether that, width, or both, speeds can be a problem.

            • Monte Castleman
              Monte Castleman March 22, 2016 at 7:34 am #

              It may function as one but it’s not designated as a collector.

            • Julia March 24, 2016 at 11:57 am #

              That makes sense, but I don’t see the area as full of a modified grid. It occurs at the peripheries of the area, along the hill to the north, curving down towards and around the lakes, but overall it’s a pretty straightforward grid, particularly along Douglas from Hennepin to Thomas (I think?) where it ends. If I recall correctly, the only non-right-angle intersection in its entirety is where Mount Curve intersects with Douglas by Seven Pools/Thomas Lowry Park. Every other intersection (including one T-intersection at Girard) is right-angle. If anything, the rectilinear predictability is a problem, because it’s basically another straight-away racetrack for drivers, like so many roads in Minneapolis.

              My understanding is the area was developed a bit earlier, around the 1900s-1910s, though I don’t know if that’s a significant difference in terms of your comment.

              I’m not sure how their original width compared to other streets, but if they did indeed start out wider, it’s even more egregious that they were widened additionally in the 90s.

              • Sean Hayford Oleary
                Sean Hayford Oleary March 24, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

                Sorry, I was thinking about Mount Curve Ave when I was talking about modified grid and irregular intersections. Douglas, you’re right, is mostly straight.

                As far as eras — yes, my parenthetical note was intended to reflect I know this is pre-1920s. I just referenced that era because Mount Curve and its vicinity share a lot of features of those 1920s developments. (I imagine in part developers of more middle-class Tangletown were looking to established upper-class areas like Mount Curve for inspiration.)

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary March 21, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

          And that much I agree with: as streets have to be fully reconstructed, it is always an opportunity to do something better — saving money, saving pavement, calming traffic, etc. One trend that seems to hold very consistent across different cities is that major streets are seeing a lot of innovation: great transformations, with an eye toward making more multimodal and safer. On the other hand, minor streets seem to get zero attention, and the standards haven’t been touched in decades.

          The only exceptions that come to mind are Maplewood and Edina, which both have living streets policies that allow streets as narrow as 24-26′, in addition to adding sidewalks and environmental features like rain gardens. (Edina’s narrowness relies on a pretty hardcore parking policy that would probably not fly anywhere in Minneapolis.)

          As far as the cost crisis goes, my biggest concern isn’t the dollar figure, but finding an equitable way to pay for it. On the one hand, streets are an important city services, and on a grid, we all benefit to some degree by having it all well-maintained. Plus, special assessments are burdensome to elderly and low-income homeowners, and relying on them generally means that wealthier areas have much better streets than poorer areas.

          On the other hand, it’s the homeowners who benefit the most by far from the streets in front of their houses, and it seems wrong to ask the city at large to pay 100% of that cost. I actually think Minneapolis’s 25% assessment is reasonable — although it’s weird to charge only 25% of the roadway, but 100% of lighting and sidewalks.

      • Betsey Buckheit
        Betsey Buckheit March 24, 2016 at 8:47 am #

        Special assessments have equitable, political and psychological problems.

        For collector and arterial streets especially, assessing property owners for a street which benefits the entire community (using the same allocation formulas for local streets and cul de sacs) seems unfair. Because we are trying to build/maintain a street network, the burdens and benefits could be shared more equitably.

        As a homeowner, having the city demand a $7000 payment (roughly my assessment in 2013) seems overwhelming. Of course, I can roll it into my property taxes and not pay it in one lump, but then I’m paying interest, too. Although property owners can follow the city process and be able to anticipate when their assessment will come due, almost no one does and the sticker shock factor is high. I can plan for my roof, driveway, remodeling expenses (and take out a tax deductible interest loan to pay for them) in a different way. I’d be happier paying incrementally higher property taxes rather than a special assessment.

        Finally, special assessments create a very powerful sense of entitlement which local politicians find difficult to ignore. When the angry residents along a street reconstruction project flood Council meetings saying “I don’t want sidewalks!” and “No bike lanes!” or “Don’t take away my parking!” with the implication that because residents are paying for it through special assessments they also get veto power over project details. Really changing street design could be done far more easily without special assessments.

        • Sean Hayford Oleary
          Sean Hayford Oleary March 24, 2016 at 3:03 pm #

          In Northfield’s context, I don’t object to relying more on property taxes, because the lots are relatively similar in size, and there are proportionately a lot fewer high-density apartment buildings.

          Even in Northfield, however, is it fair that somebody paying property taxes for a $400,000 condo at The Crossing — who’s packed four stories high with other folks also paying taxes — would be paying the same toward street work as somebody living in a $400,000 house on a 3/4-acre lot on Mayflower Hill? There might be other ways to approach this, like a land value tax, but with the current system, the person with the more resource-intensive housing choice benefits, and the person with the more efficient housing choice loses. Special assessments, which are generally based on amount of street frontage, help address that.

          I’m a little surprised that you have an aversion to special assessments, honestly, knowing your concerns about wastefulness of culs-de-sac, etc. Shouldn’t folks pay their way — at least to some extent — when they chose to live in a way that requires more street to service them?

          As for a $7000 charge. I don’t expect many folks to have that lying around, ready for a special assessment. You can finance it over 20 years — yes you’ll pay interest, but so too would the city be paying interest (if somewhat less) on the bonding they’d do otherwise to pay back with property taxes. Although you can plan for a roof, many household expenses of similar magnitude come out of the blue — like foundation repairs or sewer line replacements.

          Maintenance for through streets is a different matter. I agree that wear-and-tear that is a factor of through traffic should not be the cost burden of local homeowners. And I think it usually works out like that; mill and overlays are not paid by residents in most cases, and in the case of reconstructions, homeowners don’t pay more on a wider busy street than they would on a minor street.

  4. Nick March 21, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    I think the hidden factor we should really be talking about is timing. Triage the streets that are at the end of their actual life and get use above a certain threshold to prioritize for reconstruction. Stretch the others that might have a low pavement rating but see limited traffic. I’m not a pavement engineer either, but it would seem logical that by doing an extra mill and overlay or two with some slightly more extensive patching on low traffic could give enough extra life so we can wait 25 years to reconstruct.

    The end goal should be to avoid this bubble in another 50 years.

  5. Peter Bajurny March 21, 2016 at 2:19 pm #

    Lisa Bender mentioned on Facebook that if you fall behind on maintenance on a road you don’t really save any money, because you can’t overlay a road that’s degraded so far and it may need a premature rebuilding. I don’t know how true it is, but I don’t have a reason to believe it’s not true either.

    Basically, it’s apparently cheaper to maintain our roads at a certain level in the long term than it is to let maintenance slip and do full rebuilds more often.

  6. Janne Flisrand
    Janne March 21, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    It’s my understanding that 50 years ago we were installing curbs on all the streets for the first time and paving some streets for the first time.

    What about reconstructing without curbs as a cost-saver? I know some first-ring suburbs (and more far-flung suburbs) forego curbs, so why couldn’t Minneapolis? I suspect that might also have some speed-slowing side effects given the less clear delineation of space. Which could be wonderfully augmented by narrowing streets even just a foot or two.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman March 22, 2016 at 7:29 am #

      Not a good idea. You typically see this only on very rural subdivisions, where the residents want the rural feel. Curb and gutter aids drainage and protects the edges of the asphalt from encroachment and damage by flora. Bloomington had a lot of curbless streets during their rapid growth phase, they’re now building curbs as the streets get reconstructed.

      • Janne Flisrand
        Janne March 22, 2016 at 1:36 pm #

        I’ll note that speedy drainage is actually another problem in the City. My neighborhood has low-lying blocks that consistently flood because they super-effective drainage sends all the water to them faster than the sewers can get rid of it. And it has a host of other negative effects on the lakes, the trees, and the hyperlocal environment.

        I’m asking whether this shouldn’t be considered — and I don’t know — but a lot of the pictures I see Sean posting don’t have curbs.

        This certainly wouldn’t be a universal solution, but for low-traffic local streets? That encroachment might be a feature rather than a bug.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller March 22, 2016 at 1:42 pm #

          The alleys in my neighborhood are kind of scary. Big expanses of concrete, attached to yet bigger slabs of “driveways” that collect water that accelerates down the hills more or less straight in to the creek.

        • Adam Froehlig
          Adam Froehlig March 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm #

          Part of THAT problem is the result of the city draining and developing former lakes and wetlands. Some areas had habitual flooding bad enough that over the past 30 years (at additional city expense, of course), the city bought out the properties and recreated wetlands and drainage basins at the sites. Examples of this include 60th and 1st (across from Cub and the underlying issue was actually separate from the Crosstown Commons rebuild), 42nd and Bloomington (I recall this one being done when I went to Folwell…passed by it on the school bus), and 29th and Logan on the north side.

          • Janne Flisrand
            Janne March 24, 2016 at 9:20 am #

            That’s not the issues at 22nd and Emerson, though. It’s simply lower than the blocks on either side, and all the impervious pavement in the surrounding area means that in big storms, the storm drains aren’t big enough to let the water out into the lakes.

            I’m actually curious about what the curb savings could be, and how horrible it would be to live without the curbs. Given that most residential streets in Minneapolis were curb-free for 80 years, how back could it have been?

            Maybe I’m way off base, though. Anyone know?

            • Adam Froehlig
              Adam Froehlig March 24, 2016 at 10:08 am #

              It’s quite possible that the reason it sits lower than adjacent blocks is because there used to be a wetland there that was drained 130-some years ago.

  7. Karl March 22, 2016 at 9:55 am #

    Pardon my ignorance but a question that I can’t find the answer to: does the city of Minneapolis have the ability to tax gasoline and diesel beyond the general sales tax? Seems like that would be the most equitable option.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller March 22, 2016 at 11:00 am #

      In a word: no.

      I’m not sure if there’s something more specific as to fuel, but generally state law says cities cannot adopt sales taxes on their own (a referendum and/or state statute would be required).

    • Matt Brillhart March 22, 2016 at 11:31 am #

      I had the exact same thought while reading this article, though I assume it would require approval by the state legislature. Keep in mind too that the current state gas tax is a flat 28.5 cents per-gallon excise tax, not a sales tax (a percentage of the sales price).

      I too would be interested in legislation that allowed individual counties (not cities, that’s way too complicated) to levy additional gasoline tax, just as the legislature allows counties to levy the $10 “wheelage tax” annually (paid along with your tab renewals).

      Here’s an interesting report that was prepared for the MN House last year: http://www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hrd/pubs/ss/ssgastax.pdf

      The report shows that many local jurisdictions (only the largest city in each state is reported) do indeed levy local excise taxes. I would be very interested to hear what a $.05 or $.10 excise tax would look like for Minneapolis, St. Paul, and for Hennepin County. To the numbers, Alex! Think you can find a source for how many gallons of gas are sold annually by municipality or county?

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary March 22, 2016 at 11:46 am #

        Taxing gasoline for truly local streets seems to miss the point. The streets exist to provide local access to the homes. They serve the property, not the transportation network.

        I get that it’s tempting to say that motorists get the most benefit from this, so they should pay directly. But even if you never drive, maintained right-of-way to your home is important — you need access for emergency services, delivery vehicles, sidewalks to walk on, the street to bike on, etc. Stormdrains collect mostly water from the street, but also excess runoff from homes, driveways, and sidewalks. Similarly, lighting lights the street, but also provides ambient light to discourage crime on private property. And underground utilities that are usually replaced with street reconstruction don’t serve the transportation network at all.

        In general I support a gas tax increase on a state level to provide adequate funding for state and regional transportation needs. But it seems ridiculous to use that money on streets whose functions are 100% local.

        • Julia March 24, 2016 at 11:49 am #

          I think it’s more than tempting to say that motorist get most of the benefit–it’s pretty accurate. I don’t drive. Our sidewalks are primarily, as I understand it, funded in large part by property tax-payers parcel by parcel. The curb and the slope down to street level might be paid for at the city level, but the elevation change from the sidewalk level to street level makes it pretty clear what form of transportation the roads are primarily intended to serve.

          Many of our streetlights are very clearly oriented towards the center of the street/drivers, leaving sidewalks difficult to see and navigate, particularly for elderly people or others with poorer night vision, and particularly dangerous in the winter when they aren’t well-cleared. Additionally, I regularly see streetlights that’re damaged or destroyed by dangerous drivers. I’m not sure of the cost of repair/replacement, but it seems like without speeding drivers, the costs post-installation are minimal (and decreasing with improvements in lighting energy efficiency) and they last decades.

          Regarding stormwater, I get what you’re saying, but the runoff from driveways, parking lots, and wide streets is far higher than sidewalks on both sides that together aren’t even as wide as a parking lane. Stormwater management in Minneapolis is by far an issue of dealing with the many negative consequences of car-centric development.

          And for underground utilities, I’d imagine accessing them would be easier/cheaper if we were laying down the kinds of roads that could handle the wear and tear of foot/bike traffic, rather than allow semis to move through neighborhoods.

          As for delivery vehicles and emergency services, I get the point, but ideally Minneapolis (and other cities) would phase out or really curtail some of the largest, most noxious, and most dangerous vehicles within our city. Almost none of them need to be as large as they to provide the functions they do (maybe some actual construction vehicles?). The width of our streets is a burden, and not just financial, not commensurate with the supposed benefits.

          In terms of actual usage by larger vehicles, I’d prefer to see businesses pay some of their own costs and pass that along to customers/clients themselves (or figure out cheaper ways of solving the same question) rather than all of us subsidize the largest, dirtiest, and most dangerous vehicles that cause the most wear and tear and emit the most noxious fumes. We need to stop incentivizing (even accidentally) choices that work against what we value.

          Even if taxing gasoline in Minneapolis drove some gas stations out of town or to rethink whether they wanted to sell gas, I think it’d be a net benefit to the city, given how problematic gas stations are as businesses (land classified as brown sites for a reason, often particularly dangerous curb cuts and sidewalks, unpleasant and unwalkable by design, with heavy air and noise pollution and associated public health costs, and often being a center for crime in my observation) and how often they’re situated adjacent to higher-density housing.

  8. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig March 23, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

    Replying to this article late and just skimmed through some of the comments, but here’s a few thoughts:

    #1 and #2 would potentially be opposed by homeowners as, under current city ordinance, they’d be on the hook for maintaining the expanded boulevards. As #1 is shown in Alex’s streetmix graphic, one side of the street would get hosed in this regard. It could arguably be made more equal by keeping the existing centerline and bringing BOTH curbs closer.

    Also, your typical widths are a bit off. Typical residential street in most of the city has 5ft sidewalks and a 6ft boulevard, for a 54ft total sidewalk-to-sidewalk width. You should also include a foot on each side of your streets to account for curb-and-gutter.

    Borrowing from Donald Shoup here, but your #4 will only really work in those areas where you have a high usage of curb space…specifically where there’s 85% or higher utilization.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 23, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

      Sidewalks are 6′ through most of the city. The only areas I know of with 5′ walks are the far southside, and some streets with constrained ROW (Tangletown, etc). See the typical cross sections from the Street and Sidewalk Design Guidelines.

      • Adam Froehlig
        Adam Froehlig March 24, 2016 at 10:13 am #

        I’ve observed a number of areas of the city (including on the Northside like my grandparents old house off Dowling) with 5ft sidewalks. 6ft may be the current standard, but I’d hazard a bet most sidewalks were built under older standards.

  9. GlowBoy March 24, 2016 at 12:33 am #

    I do like ideas 1-3, and hopefully many civic-minded citizens would too.

    Can’t argue with #4 either – most of us are aware of the High Cost of Free Parking – but it’s probably politically unfeasible outside high-density areas where parking is already tight.

    As already mentioned, #5 has a lot of problems but is great food for thought.
    – For one thing, I’m not sure everything actually fits, width-wise.
    – You might have a net reduction in permeable surface area since you’d have to rip out existing planting strips to do it.
    – And you end up creating a couplet of narrow one-way streets, absolutely my least favorite type of street to bike on. Only if you really treated it as an alley – 10 mph speed limits, and maybe lots of speed tables – could it be reasonable to bike on.
    – Maybe the biggest challenge: who owns the land under these new houses? Are you really selling it off? Or long-term leasing it to the homeowners? What if access is needed to the utilities below – or do you relocate them underneath the new streets?
    – On the other hand, developing the center of public ROWs could generate an enormous amount of revenue, enough to pay for everything else assuming there’s demand for it.

    I don’t mean to bash on Idea 5 too harshly. I’m not sure it could be done on a standard SFH residential street, but some are wider than standard. And there are plenty of odd corners and places with excessive amounts of pavement where ideas like this could be tried. I’d love to see a few pilot projects of this done here and there to see what works.

  10. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell March 24, 2016 at 10:24 am #

    Great article. I completely agree with 4/5’s of it. 🙂

    A friend use to run a bunch of car repair shops. As he’d often put it ‘potholes are my best friend’. I wonder how much is spent on damage to cars (alignments, tire damage, suspension damage, etc.) caused by poorly maintained roads? Are people saving $1 in their right pocket by delaying road maintenance but spending $0.60 from their left pocket for the consequences?

    The Netherlands have consistently stated that it’s much less costly to build bikeways that reduce vehicle traffic by even 10% than not. What realistically could we expect here if we switched 10% of vehicle miles to bicycle miles? (We can go a step farther and ask how much money can we save from our left pocket on healthcare costs if we spend a bit from our right pocket on bikeways… but that’s another post for another day.)