Disappointing outcomes for Snelling Avenue project

View Snelling & Montreal repaving, 2012 in a larger map

The Minnesota Department of Transportation just held an open house meeting on Tuesday, January 24th, showing their plans for a $2 million mill-and-overlay repaving project along the southern end of Minnesota State Highway 51 in Saint Paul—Snelling Avenue just south of I-94 down to Montreal Avenue, and along Montreal down to West 7th Street.  The overall length of the project is about three miles.

The Sierra Club and Transit for Livable Communities became aware of the project a little over a year ago, and held their own public meeting in a packed room at the Highland Park arena last January, which Mn/DOT representatives attended. Despite that meeting and other private ones with bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups over the past year, the current plan is to make virtually no change to Snelling other than adding or improving pedestrian curb cuts and pushbuttons for signalized crosswalks—changes required by the Americans with Disability Act and subsequent regulations.

Bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups had hoped to see bike lanes added on the street as well as improved crosswalks, potentially with median islands to provide pedestrian refuges. One segment of Snelling Avenue next to Macalester College had been rebuilt in 2010 with an added median, but that treatment is not being repeated on other parts of the street at this time.

One bright spot is that Montreal Avenue is getting a modest “complete street” makeover, with bike lanes being extended all the way from Snelling down to West 7th Street. Today’s short 4-lane segment east of Juniper Lane is planned to undergo a 4- to 3-lane conversion to add room for the bike lanes: Two westbound (uphill) lanes plus one eastbound (downhill) lane. This was possible because Montreal has lower traffic volumes than any part of Snelling—less than 10,000 vehicles per day (according to year 2008 traffic counts).

Snelling itself ranges from a massive 43,000 AADT at the northern limit of the project at Dayton Avenue down to 14,400 between Ford Parkway and Montreal Avenue. The road has 4 through lanes for the whole distance from Dayton down to Montreal, plus the occasional center turn lane. One increasingly popular method of calming traffic is the “road diet”, where traffic lanes are removed or narrowed, which typically has the effect of slowing down traffic and can result in lower traffic volumes. Speeding is considered to be a major problem on the avenue, so many people have pushed for some sort of road diet along the route.

The existing high traffic volumes make it difficult to do a road diet. Mn/DOT’s current recommendations are apparently to only allow 4- to 3-lane conversions at volumes below 17,000 AADT—the only segment of Snelling below that level is south of Ford Parkway. Some other cities and states are willing to make such conversions at volumes up to 22,000 vehicles/day—if that standard were used, it would be possible south of Randolph Avenue.

The Mn/DOT representatives at Tuesday’s meeting did not seem to believe in road design as a way to slow down traffic, instead calling current excessive speeds “an enforcement problem”. They said similar things at last year’s meeting, where it was also mentioned that they have to comply with laws and regulations that are biased toward maintaining or increasing traffic speeds rather than bringing speeds down to a level that is safer for non-motorized road users. For instance, a community concerned about the speed of traffic on a local roadway may request a speed study to be performed—but the law is written so that the speed limit would be set to a value near the 85th percentile speed. The speed limit on that road would be more likely to go up than down, and future road designs would be built around the new speed.

It has also been difficult to get changes to Snelling because of its designation as a truck route. Trucks have a limited number of options in Saint Paul, and apparently the state’s roadway design manuals require wider lanes than normal.

As frustrating as the planned design is, things could be worse—one Mn/DOT representative said that their design manuals would actually recommend removing some of the existing marked crosswalks: If I understood their statements correctly, standard practice is only to have painted crosswalks at signalized intersections, but there are several at unsignalized crossings today.  In some cases, traffic signals are half a mile apart.

It seems that the additional crosswalks had been requested by the city over the years. As things stand, no crosswalks will be removed, but none will be added either. The representatives I talked to did seem to leave the door open to adding pedestrian amenities, but apparently such requests have to come from the City of Saint Paul. Representatives from bike and ped advocacy organizations were understandably miffed by this, since their one-on-one meetings with Mn/DOT apparently had little or no effect.

One odd thing is that the current design doesn’t take into account the results of a safety audit conducted along Snelling Avenue just a week or two ago. Apparently the results of that audit are still being compiled.

While I think there’s still some hope for Snelling Avenue getting a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly layout in this project, the window of time for changes to be made is rapidly diminishing. The project is expected to begin in May and will last until the end of the summer. However, it seems more likely that any reconfiguration of the street will have to wait a few more years.

At least one opportunity is waiting in the wings: Metro Transit is planning to come through and add “rapid bus” service along Snelling at some point in the next few years. Specifics haven’t been laid out yet, but the new bus service could include street alterations—the biggest change could be the addition of bulb-outs at bus stops, which extend the sidewalk into the street. Bulb-outs make boarding faster and reduce or eliminate the need for the bus to wait for an opening in traffic before leaving the stop.

Still, if Snelling Avenue simply gets rebuilt with today’s configuration, it proves that Mn/DOT is still doing business as usual rather than looking forward to a more multi-modal future. While the state now mandates a “complete streets” policy, it is considered fairly weak. Certainly, if Mn/DOT officials consider it a victory just to retain existing crosswalks and not see them eliminated, they’re still operating under “incomplete street” rules. The state Department of Transportation needs to work harder on their design manuals to make multi-modalism the standard rather than the exception on urban projects.

About Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a computer geek at heart, but has always had interests in transportation and urban planning. A longtime contributor to Wikipedia, he started a blog about trains and other transportation after realizing it had been two decades since he'd first heard about a potential high-speed rail line from Chicago to Minneapolis. Read more at http://hizeph400.blogspot.com/