Trunk Highway Main Streets

One of the more challenging issues facing Main Streets in Minnesota is situations where that Main Street is also a Minnesota Trunk Highway. For most small towns, the designation of their Main Street as a Trunk Highway is bittersweet. Sweet, because it means the city is probably located along a trade route (or former trade route) deemed important enough for the roadway to be a Trunk Highway, which means that there will be non-residents passing through that may stop and spend money at local businesses. Also because it means there are additional pools of money available for maintenance or improvements to that roadway. Bitter, because it means the City may also have to endure the traffic from folks passing through that have no interest in stopping and just end up speeding through town on their way to somewhere else. Also, it means that the city doesn’t really have control over their own Main Street – the City can’t make any improvements without MnDOT’s approval.

[Edit 1:20 PM- one commenter referred to the Municipal Consent laws that require cities to give approval to anything MnDOT wants to do to a roadway as well. This is important, and establishes a balance of power of sorts. The purpose of this statement is only to point out that if a small town wanted to implement changes to their Trunk Highway Main Street that they believed would improve the Main Street, they are not empowered to do so on their own, and can only do so with MnDOT’s approval, which may or may not be obtained, depending on the circumstances and the proposed changes.]

This works out well for some Cities, not so well for others. A lot depends on whether the roadway treats a particular City’s Main Street as a valuable destination, or more of an obstacle that drivers will face on their way between other destinations. Roadway designs often send some pretty clear messages about whether drivers are expected to pass through town quickly without stopping or slow down to interact with the surrounding community. Other times, these messages are subtle. Of course, in all cases, some drivers want one thing, some drivers want the other.

Trunk Highways and Main Streets are an awkward combination, no matter how you look at it. Trunk Highways exist to link destinations, to provide routes for heavy trucks and freight movement, and to provide high-speed mobility between destinations. Main Streets, by definition, are a collection of destinations within close proximity. Main Streets exist to provide convenient access to these destinations. A roadway will rarely do both of these things well. When demands for mobility and accessibility are placed on the same roadway, both sides usually end up compromising, and sometimes, nobody wins.

The City of Ely’s Sheridan Street (TH-1, US-169) is a good example of a “destination” Trunk Highway Main Street, and it has fared pretty well from the situation, in my opinion.

Sheridan Street in Ely, also TH-1 and US-169

I’m not holding up Sheridan Street as a best-case scenario, but I think it is one of the better Main Streets in the State. It’s a two-lane, 30 mph roadway, with permitted parking and frequent intersections (~350′ o.c.), and a relatively active Main Street (even if a bit touristy, and only during the Summer). Traffic here is generally pretty calm. I attribute the good fortune of Sheridan Street primarily to two factors:

1) Ely is an end-of-the line destination simply based on it’s location. If you’re driving on this street, your destination is probably somewhere in or around Ely. It’s not a through-route to anywhere.

2) Traffic Volumes have probably never been high enough to warrant anything else.

But, for every end-of-the-line town on a Trunk Highway that isn’t facing congestion issues, there are probably a dozen other towns in the opposite situation. They are located between two larger destinations, and their Main Street is actively feeling stretched to provide both mobility and accessibility at the same time.

St. Peter’s Minnesota Avenue is an interesting case study of a Trunk Highway Main Street facing a bit of an identity crisis. For some, it’s a lively historical business corridor and traditional Main Street. For others, it’s a frustratingly slow 35 mph zone that forces them to slow down as they travel between Minneapolis and Mankato. For most, it’s probably both, depending on the circumstances. Minnesota Avenue was reconstructed in 2009, and it is often held up as a good example of how Trunk Highways and Main Streets can coexist.

Highway 169 Through Saint Peter, MN

What do you think about Trunk Highway Main Streets? Can Trunk Highways and Main Streets coexist? What do you think are the biggest challenges to these dual-purpose roadways? How can Minnesota or MnDOT improve the policies that govern how these streets look, feel, or operate? Are there any examples of best-case Trunk Highway Main Streets that should be held up as an example to emulate? Any worst-case scenarios? What do you think of the 2009 recent reconstruction of TH-169 in St. Peter?

17 thoughts on “Trunk Highway Main Streets

  1. Peter

    An interesting scenario that you don't bring up is when a trunk highway that formerly passed through a town's business district is upgraded and re-routed around the town. Some towns which thrived on the commerce that this direct traffic brought wither and fade. Clearly rural towns throughout the Great Plains and Midwest confront economic challenges beyond changing traffic patterns down main street, and perhaps these changes hasten a demise that is already in progress.

    Regarding the broader question of trunk highways as main streets, my intuition is that trunk highways are usually good main streets when the region itself is a destination. Ely is a case in point. Another interesting example is the river roads in the Mississippi River Valley between Redwing and LaCrosse. This section of the Mississippi is rife with natural beauty and historical interest.

    US-61 on the Minnesota side of the river is much more of a thoroughfare. It is 2-lane between Redwing and Wabasha, and 4-land divided from Winona south to LaCrosse. In this stretch, it passes through the center of only 2 towns, Redwing and Lake City. Redwing is a destination in itself, and there are some fairly vibrant commercial areas just off the highway but little on it. I can think of one corner pretty close to the St. James Hotel that has seen a succession of businesses (gift shops, coffee shops, and currently a tax preparer) in the past five years. Similarly, Lake City has some businesses, but no vibrant main street commercial district to speak of.

    By contrast, WI-35 is 2-lane most of the way from Redwing to LaCrosse and passes through a number of small towns, including Maiden Rock, Pepin, Nelson, Alma, and Fountain City. Many of these towns have bars and restaurants that cater to the myriad motorcyclists and motorists who pass through. They also feature small art galleries, gift shops, and the occasional museum – the types of businesses that appeal to tourists.

    The other examples that come to mind are in my home state of Colorado. Many of the touristy mountain towns are bisected by highways, and many of these trunk highway main streets support thriving commercial districts. Estes Park, accessed via US-34 en route to Rocky Mountain National Park, is a ready example.

    I've also seen a variety of trunk highway configurations on cross-country bicycle tours. There's nothing quite like experiencing a main street as a bicyclist. One memory comes from riding US-2 from Seattle to Bemidji a few summers ago. This highway is a popular cycling route across the northern U.S., and some towns, particularly on the plains in Montana, had capitalized on this popularity. Cyclists are more likely to travel just off the highway, and this particular town had a sign posted on the city hall next to a grassy lawn that said "Cyclists welcome to camp here".

  2. Alex

    I agree with Peter – T.H.s and Main Streets have to coexist, because the only other alternative is a business-killing bypass. The problem is that the residents often welcome these lethal bypasses, for example a Wasecan who was recently raving to me about the new Hwy 14 bypass that takes traffic two miles away from their downtown. And I can see his point, because the old route used to take hundreds of trucks a day on a two-lane street that was residential through most of the town. But it seems likely that the only alternative MnDot offered was this freeway-style bypass that's all but guaranteed to eliminate any tourism business, when a better solution would have been to create a truck bypass using existing township roads and upgrade the town route to a complete street.

    The reconstruction of 169 (Minnesota St) in St Peter is amazing, by the way. Traffic is about a zillion times calmer. I haven't noticed a big uptick in pedestrian traffic, though.

    1. Froggie

      Trucks aren't going to take a "township road bypass" if it doesn't save them time and/or operating cost. Your suggestion would have not improved the truck traffic through downtown Waseca…which in turn would make implementing Complete Streets that much more difficult.

      Waseca is enough of a destination town, both being a county seat and most of the commerce/retail being along Hwy 13, not Hwy 14, that it likely won't see much of an economic impact from the new bypass.

      1. Alex

        They'll take the bypass if they get a pricey ticket for going through town.

        And regardless of where the businesses are oriented now, they'll orient themselves towards the freeway now that all the property fronting it is rezoned to allow strip retail.

        Why would Waseca be exempt from the pattern that's affected Belle Plaine, Brainerd, Willmar, and pretty much every town along I-90? Waseca may be hit even worse, once residents drive a little further to their new bypass strip mall, and realize it's not much further to Owatonna or Mankato.

        1. Froggie

          What you're talking about speaks MUCH more to local zoning than it does to whether or not a town gets bypassed. Furthermore, as I pointed out earlier, the "strip retail" you refer to already exists in Waseca along Hwy 13 (which is Not the route being bypassd).

  3. Matt SteeleMatt

    When was the last time your average Minnesotan stopped in downtown St. James, Little Falls, Albert Lea, etc? Bypasses are obviously a necessary evil in some cases, but they are destructive to historic downtowns.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      I think there is a point at which increasing traffic chokes out the local uses of a particular street. This happens on trunk highways that are small town main streets, and it happens in the city. One example is Cedar Ave in South Minneapolis. It has so much traffic for so much of the day that it has significantly choked opportunities for small businesses to operate in storefronts along the street.

      1. Peter

        Agreed. To this point and to Alex's comment about pedestrian traffic, there's clearly a difference between mainstreets that serve pedestrians and a mainstreet that caters to passers-by. A trunk highway could cater to both, but the types of businesses that would appeal to one vs. the other is not necessarily the same.

  4. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins Post author

    I don't think freeway-style bypasses are always a bad idea for main streets, primarily depending on how self-sustaining the Main Street can be without it, and how resilient the surrounding area is to the induced sprawl.

    Not to open a can of worms, but I think the planned TH-36 bypass of Stillwater's Main Street can only have positive impacts on downtown Stillwater, since Stillwater's Main Street is more or less self-sustaining. In this case, the pass-through traffic is a distraction from what the Main Street does best, which is accommodating tourists.

    1. Alex

      I don't disagree, but my guess would be that towns that have enough tourist business to be self-sustaining and enough through traffic to merit a bypass are the exception, at least in Minnesota. And a lot of those towns (like Stillwater) already have freeways nearby, making the bypass pointless (like Stillwater).

  5. Froggie

    @reuben: you mention that "the city can't make any improvements without MnDOT's approval." But a major point you left out is that, due to the state's municipal consent law, MnDOT conversely can't make any improvements without the city's approval.

    I also disagree with Peter/Alex et all about how "bypasses kill businesses". Some studies of this have been done in the Upper Midwest, most notably a Wisconsin study in 1998. As a general rule, they bypasses had little adverse effect on overall economic activity, and evidence suggests that removing through traffic (especially through trucks) assists in making such communities more accessible. Only the really small communities (less than 2,000 population) were more prone to adverse impacts. For the larger communities over the long term, average traffic levels were close to or even higher than pre-bypass, suggesting no loss and in some cases a gain in economic activity.

    True, those businesses heavily dependent on vehicle traffic will lose business, but the city can also remake itself into a destination and promote businesses that aren't heavily dependent on passing highway traffic.

    1. Alex

      Yeah they found no impact on overall economic activity, because the economic activity that once took place on Main Street is now taking place on the bypass.

      Which is fine for most people, because they were driving to Main Street anyway, now they'll just drive a little further to the bypass. It's only a problem for people who think that developing entire sectors of our city that require a car to access is unfair, unhealthy, and inefficient.

      1. Froggie

        Not quite the case, Alex. Downtown/center of town still remained more or less intact, especially for the medium/larger sized towns. Again, a lot of it had to do with what the town did afterwards.

        1. Alex

          I'm a little dubious about that study. They rest their case on the fact that only 5% of traffic-dependent businesses were located within a half-mile of bypasses, which seems a)incredibly low to me based on my own experience of Wisconsin (think St Croix Falls or Hudson) and b) the wrong metric anyway. They should have been looking at relative growth rates of bypass and downtown areas. And based on Hudson a one-half mile radius of exits is too small an area.

          But my earlier caffeine-fueled self was probably too harsh – certainly a town doesn't live or die based on bypasses. I still think they have some effect though, and certainly small town main streets don't need any help dying. I agree with you, though, that zoning can mitigate some of the effect of bypasses. Unfortunately, I'm not confident that Waseca is using that particular tool, as they seem to have zoned the southwest corner of the Hwy 15 bypass' interchange with Hwy 13 for commercial. I'll see you in 15 years to see who was right.

      2. Jeb

        Depends on the town. Larger towns typically don't have this problem, or have it to a much smaller degree. Most of these are due to the fact that they have business routes through town (for example, Willmar, MN has Business 23/71 that has most of the businesses) and most businesses congregate there. For an extremely stark example, look at Le Mars, IA. The only thing even remotely close to the bypass is the Blue Bunny plant…even gas stations have stayed on the business road through town.

  6. Peter

    @Froggie – I don't think we're making different points. My original comment about bypasses was about rural towns, the overwhelming majority of which I would guess are under 2,000.

    I would agree with Reuben that the TH-36 bypass of Stillwater will likely improve the walker's experience along main street, because, like Alex said, Stillwater is a destination in itself. Redwing is somewhat similar in this sense, but the towns I mentioned in WI along the Mississippi are different. Much of their attraction is that they are waypoints along a scenic/historic route.

  7. Jeb

    I think the key is how busy the road is that's using the bypass. Frankly, almost any four-lane trunk highway should not be equated to the main street of a town unless it has a bypass, because otherwise there's too much battling with cars, trucks, and other vehicles to be pedestrian-friendly. As mentioned above, St. Peter's main street/US 169 didn't seem to do as much for pedestrian traffic, and I probably wouldn't want to walk across that street either (unless it's signalized.) To be fair, the routing of US 169 through St. Peter might be due to geography as much as it has to do with a desire to have it cut through downtown. Plus, these roads can cut apart a city if they're too busy, much like the Interstates have. They simply become too cumbersome to cross safely.

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