As the legislature slogs through another session, the House Transportation Finance Committee has a queue of bills to sort through. Most of these would provide specific appropriations to fund a single transportation project. A few may succeed on their merits and statewide significance, some may gain popular support resulting in a project’s inclusion in a bonding package, and many others may simply die an uneventful death.
There’s an Ethiopian proverb which states, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” An affordable and effective transportation system is only one of the many lions of policy which need to be tackled in St. Paul. For Minnesota’s communities, the livability issues to tackle are more intricate and nuanced than the web cast by a project scoping document or a bill in the legislature.
The Maple Plain example
Included in the list was a request for a quarter million dollars for a single crosswalk in Maple Plain, a small community on Highway 12 in rural Hennepin County.
Appropriation.$250,000 is appropriated from the bond proceeds
account in the trunk highway fund to the commissioner of transportation for a grant to the
city of Maple Plain to install a High-intensity Activated crossWalK (HAWK) pedestrian
signal on marked Trunk Highway 12, near its intersection with Budd Avenue.
Since the completion of the Hwy 12 bypass around Long Lake, Maple Plain is now the first town requiring drivers to slow down all the way from where Interstate 394 starts 22 miles to the east in Downtown Minneapolis. It is 3 lanes plus shoulders through town, 35 MPH without any stop signs or signals, serving just over 16,000 vehicles per day.
Sometime since then, sidewalks were extended a half block on the north and south side of Hwy 12, and the crosswalk was pushed to be midblock between Budd and Main St. No refuge island, and not at an intersection. We’ve already spent money to address this intersection. This solution was probably chosen because it checked all the boxes on some engineering standard for crosswalks at high capacity state highways.
Is this how we should “make infrastructure?”
I don’t doubt that everyone involved in these decisions had good intentions. They wanted a safe, cost effective, and community-friendly outcome just as much as anyone else. But at multiple points along the line, it seems like the system has transformed into a bad outcome machine, and we keep pressing the beg button waiting to get to a different outcome. Wouldn’t it make more sense to sit down and see what makes sense for this community, and what can be done to make a safer crossing?
Instead of looking at one intersection and one crosswalk, it helps to look at the system as a whole. It’s true, the majority of people traveling in Maple Plain are in cars, and they might get upset if the speed limit were lowered from 35 MPH to 30 or 25. Most are likely not coming from or headed to a destination in the downtown node, or even in the city itself.
Yet if this inter-regional corridor travels through an old town, don’t compromises need to be made? Isn’t the only solution to find a balance between speed and safety, local access and highway mobility? It has been shown that 90% of car/pedestrian accidents at 40 MPH are fatal while only 10% at 20 MPH are fatal. Highway 12 is still a slow route for regional travel, and it’s still a chasm separating many towns. Even as we spent so much money trying to solve the balance between highways and our communities they cross. No, it’s too simple, costly and dangerous to think in terms of trade-offs.
What options do we have?
The speed limit at one intersection isn’t as big of a deal to drivers as how fast they can get through town. While engineers and the public balk at the idea of a 25 MPH speed limit for 3 blocks through a downtown node, they’ve stood silent while highway speeds and safety have been compromised at the edges of towns.
In Maple Plain, just like most towns, highway traffic now slows further out as the edges of towns have expanded at a rapid pace. There are dozens of private curb cuts and many new streets connecting to the highway. A half mile east of this Maple Plain intersection, there’s a full rural stoplight to serve Baker Park Road, a bar, and a gas station. A half mile west, a stoplight at Halgren Road, serving an industrial park and a residential neighborhood.
Instead of expanding our 45 MPH world and then wondering why a town’s sole highway pedestrian crossing is unsafe, let’s think about a structural fix. Highway 12 should function as a road between these old communities built as station stops on the Great Northern. Cars should safely be able to travel at 55 MPH, and new development should not degrade the speed or safety of highway traffic.
In these towns, there should be a clear point where the highway ends and the street begins. This could involve cues such as a vegetated median or roundabout, or even perceived lane width reduction, that would accentuate the border between rural highway and urban street. This street section would not only feature low speed limits, but design cues that cause drivers to drive slow without relying on enforcement. In Maple Plain, this would be possibly 1500 feet of 25 MPH zone, and then a quick transition to 55+ MPH.
Instead of having miles of 35 to 50 MPH speed limits with private property entrances and rural-ish stoplights which cause highway traffic to stop and bunch, the local road network can route into town to access the regional corridor such as Highway 12.
Let’s make it happen
I don’t claim to have the answers, and I don’t expect that any one person will. That’s not how effective governance happens. What we can see is that the status quo is failing us with poor results at high cost. We need to look at how the disperate proverbial spider webs interrelate, and we need to see how they can unite together in unconventional ways to tackle the problems affecting our built environment.
We just need to ask the right questions and give up our fear of challenging assumptions. A HAWK light may be a new technology in our state, but I don’t consider it to be a groundbreaking solution. We need to empower people to think a little differently, and we need to have the guts as a state to try new solutions (even if it means the occasional failure).
In this case, I’d start looking for solutions here:
- Get rid of a legislature-driven mobility agenda.
- Except for extremely basic guidance, MnDOT gives up design control of urban sections of trunk highways to local cities or even downtown neighborhood organizations.
- In return, MnDOT protects trunk highways from sprawl zones on the edges of town, where limited access can be restored to provide speed and safety.
- Cities will have to take a risk and potentially sacrifice growth in these sprawl zones, although that growth could of course happen so long as it did not compromise the trunk highway.
Do you have other ideas for how we could improve the interaction between our regional highway system and our smaller communities? Any specific ideas for Maple Plain or another city? I’d like to know your thoughts in the comments.