Whose streets? Hennepin County’s streets!

Hennepin county roads in Minneapolis.

Hennepin county roads in Minneapolis.

On the map above, the thick black lines with numbers in circles represent county roads in Minneapolis. These are roads that are designed and maintained by Hennepin County and can’t be changed without the OK of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, the majority of whom have no constituents in Minneapolis whatsoever. These urban streets are designed by county engineers in rural Medina (pop. 4,892), where they have an office that is west of more than 95% of the residents of the county. None of these engineers takes the bus or train to work, because neither buses nor trains go to Medina. Few, if any, are able to ride a bike or walk to work, because there are neither bikeways nor sidewalks near the department’s office.

These streets in Minneapolis, where 19% of the households don’t have access to a car (and many people who do have access to a car still bike, bus, or walk to work) are designed by people who drive to work approximately 100% of the time.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone does it this way. In other parts of the country, cities design and maintain their own streets, and county governments focus on taking care of roads in unincorporated areas. If Seattleites wants to implement the best bike plan in the country, the only thing that might stand in their way is other Seattleites. Here’s a map of the the Multnomah County roads in the Portland area. Notice how county roads stop at the city border. Cook County doesn’t do anything inside the city limits of Chicago (yes, I’ve heard that Chicago politics is unsavory; and no, I’m not arguing for a wholesale adoption of their structure). In this map of Austin, the green lines indicate roads maintained by Travis County, and the yellow area is the city. The twain don’t meet. Denver is a city-county, so it retains municipal self-determination. Madison, WI takes care of its own streets, and Dane County’s purview is limited to highways. Hopefully, you’re noticing a pattern by now.

This is all to say we do streets in a weird way, but everyone just seems to accept it. This summer, I was talking to a mayoral candidate about the reconstruction of Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, and the push to calm traffic, install protected bike lanes, and enhance the pedestrian realm. (We won, btw.) He proclaimed that Washington had been designated as an arterial street, and that its purpose was to allow motorized traffic to move quickly. The unspoken second half of that sentence is “at the expense of the suckers who live and play nearby.” Why? When did that happen? Can we revisit the issue?

That candidate lost, thankfully, but his sentiment remains. It’s time we questioned it.  What are Minneapolitans gaining by ceding control of major streets to engineers in Medina? Couldn’t we raise the state gas tax to ease the burden of property taxes, as David Levinson suggests? If Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Portland, Austin, and Madison can manage their own streets, I want to hear a good reason why Minneapolis can’t.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.

27 thoughts on “Whose streets? Hennepin County’s streets!

  1. Jeff Klein

    Great article. This seems like one of those seemingly unimportant bureaucratic details that has a really big influence on our ability to design good streets. It also seems like it might be hard to change, given the interlocking layers of government involved. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on what the process would look like for changing this?

  2. Froggie

    Keep in mind that, due to Municipal Consent, the city still needs to sign off on anything the county proposes, so it’s not like Minneapolis residents are totally out of the loop when it comes to county routes within the city.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      True, city council could veto the County’s plan for a project like Minnehaha and get no improvements at all. The street would then fall into a state of (further) disrepair, and Minneapolis would suffer more than the rest of the county. That would be like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

      1. Froggie

        For the county to do that, however, they’d start catching flak from MnDOT. It’s really not as dystopian as you’re making it sound like.

      2. Ian Bicking

        What exactly does happen when municipal consent isn’t given? I can’t imagine the road simply goes unimproved. There’s got to be a process.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I do want to challenge your assumptions a bit. Just because the county engineers are located in Medina (and just because the site itself is a ridiculous piece of exurbanism) does not necessarily mean the streets reflect that.

    As a Richfielder, I can certainly sympathize with your concern. Our county roads are by far the worst streets, both in design and condition, for walking and bicycling. But if I’m to look within the City of Minneapolis specifically, especially at recent projects, I don’t see that.

    Is CSAH 22 Lyndale Ave less bike/ped-friendly than the City-owned Nicollet Ave? CSAH 3 Lake Street’s not great, but neither is Hennepin Ave through Uptown and Lowry Hill, despite being a City street. It was the City of Minneapolis that actually prevented a continuous bike lane on CSAH 35 Portland Ave near Diamond Lake Road (in order to save some seldom-used parking spots at Pearl Park).

    And it’s not just parking: Hennepin County gives a lot of deference to what Minneapolis wants on county roads. Minneapolis controls the signals and signage on the roadways, including county roads and trunk highways. Minneapolis has also artificially lowered speed limits on county roads (like the new 30 zone on Park and Portland one-ways).

    Neither Hennepin nor Minneapolis is perfect and neither is especially egregious, but I really don’t think Minneapolis would do much better as their own road authority on these streets.

    1. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

      I want to similarly challenge the assumption that someone (elected official or staff) who does not walk/bike/transit does not sufficiently understand the needs of these modes and thus can not effectively plan/design for them. There is no doubt much nuance and detail needed to effectively design a good sidewalk, bike lane, etc. and much of it can be learned by simply walking/biking. But any good engineer/planner who listens and interacts with others who walk/bike can similarly learn the nuances and needs.

      Of course I have encountered plenty of engineers (and planners, believe it or not) who are completely clueless about, say, bicycling, but I’ve also known plenty of non-cycling engineers who are very knowlegable.

      1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

        Sure! I don’t want to come off as anti-engineerist. But do you really think that putting an office in a location that totally precludes commuting by bike, bus, or foot doesn’t skew the population and beliefs of the department?

      2. Peter

        I am reminded of a recent engineering decision in St. Paul to remove a bunch of marked crosswalks under some type of crosswalk consolidation program. The theory being if they “deemphasized” crosswalks by removing markings, pedestrians would then detour 1/4 mile to a crosswalk that traffic engineers deemed safer. It isn’t difficult to understand (even if you never walk) that people aren’t going to take and 10 extra minutes to walk to the “safe” crosswalk and then back to get to a bus stop that’s simply across the street. In my experience as a pedestrian, this has done nothing to change pedestrian behavior because they’re still going to use the path of least resistance. It only makes drivers feel more like the pedestrians aren’t supposed to be there even though these are legal unmarked crosswalks under state law.

        The funniest part about all this is the city had just repainted many of the crosswalks they intended to remove, so we the taxpayers paid for repainting these, and then grinding them out several months later. Perhaps we can put some pressure on people to get them repainted.

      3. Cedar

        While I think it’s true that one can be informed and sympathetic to issues that don’t directly concern them, I still think the location of this office really does raise concerns. I don’t drive. I don’t have a license,although in years past I have held a permit and have done behind-the-wheel. Would I, as a non-driver, make as good decisions about road design as someone who understands the design from the perspective of someone who has experience behind the wheel? I’m sure I’d be capable of doing an adequate job (assuming enough appropriate education, etc.), and I’d be able to follow established protocol, but I really do think that, when it comes to transportation, there’s much to be said about the value of personal experience. Now some of that experience can be gained in other ways — bring employees in to spend time walking or biking the streets in question,for example, so I don’t think the fact that everyone drives to work in Medina means they can’t flex their walking muscles and intuition in other ways besides the commute — but it will take initiative and a conscious effort to make sure that pedestrian issues are getting the attention that they deserve. Currently in the Twin Cities, addressing concerns of pedestrians is pretty low on the priority list.

      4. Walker

        I agree Reuben. However, it doesn’t appear that we are teaching much, or anything for some, about pedestrians and bicyclists and even to the extent that we are we’re starting from a deep hole. It seems we’ve a very long way to climb out of our collective ignorance about how pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure should function and much of what is coming along seems to be coming from a very few instead of from a wide breadth of experience and debate.

        Getting massively more engineers (and planners and politicians) out walking, bicycling, and transiting, routinely, all year around, in all kinds of weather, for real purposes of getting places, with groceries and other stuff in tow, should have a very dramatic impact on how our transportation network is designed.

    2. Janne

      Sean, the difference between Minneapolis and Hennepin County is that, while both have done bad designs in the past, Minneapolis has realized they need to invest heavily in not repeating those errors in the future. The City has invested heavily in educating engineering staff. The City has hired a staff to focus on and coordinate bike/ped issues – and they are listened to. And, elected officials are telling the engineering staff to make things bike/ped/transit-friendly. The County is light years behind that, excacerbated by their lack of personal experience and their insistence on doing things their way (the old way).

      So, yeah, infrastructure sticks around for decades, and the past mistakes of Minneapolis are visible. However, what the City designs and what the County designs are pretty different, these days.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        It’s hard to compare apples to apples here, Janne, because I can’t really think of any major streets reconstructed solely by the City of Minneapolis in recent years, except for Nicollet Ave between Lake St and 40th. That section is fine, but it’s really not as good as nearby CSAH 22 Lyndale Avenue, constructed over about the last five years. Nor is it much better than CSAH 153 Lowry Ave in North Minneapolis. Chicago Avenue from Lake Street to downtown is fine, but in terms of bike-ped friendliness, not worth writing home about.

        Hennepin County designs a lot of awful roads, especially as you get into the second-ring suburbs (like CSAH 10 Bass Lake Rd or CSAH 1 Pioneer Trail). Even in the first ring, CSAH 81 Bottineau Boulevard through Robbinsdale is pretty bad. But within the City of Minneapolis itself, I think Hennepin County has done a pretty damn good job. If anything, I’d like to see them do more of that kind of work elsewhere in the county.

  4. Adam MillerAdam

    How about closer to home? Long ago, I worked two summers as a temporary worker for the Ramsey County Department of Public Works, which included routine maintenance on county roads. While some of it was probably technically within city borders, it wasn’t much and I don’t any recall doing any work in downtown St. Paul. What’s the situation on the east side of the metro?

  5. Nicole

    It’s things like this that make people complain about “too much government”. Whether or not Hennepin County can adequately design and maintain roads in Minneapolis isn’t really the question. The question is “Why isn’t Minneapolis in charge of it’s own city streets?”. It just doesn’t make sense! Do the homes along Portland or Minnehaha pay extra taxes to HC compared to the rest of us? Yet these residents are not getting the same benefits (or drawbacks?) of being able to call the city and say “Hey, this doesn’t work, it needs to be fixed”. Instead they get, “Ummm…we’ll have to check with the county on that.”

    Having to go to the next level of government in order to make local changes smacks of authoritative paternalism. How many layers of bureaucracy do we need to repave a street? It’s crazy.

  6. Peter

    I think there are several reasons why these streets remain county roads. The biggest reason probably has to do with State Aid funding from MnDOT. I’m no expert, but essentially the state allocates funding to counties for state aid highways using a complicated formula created by the Legislature (cities also have a similar program). One major component of the funding formula is related to lane-miles of highways. With Hennepin County getting credit for these lane miles in Minneapolis, they can keep more of the State Aid funding pie. Another formula component is based on construction needs to bring the county’s roads up to current county engineering standards. Since many of the county roads in Minneapolis do not meet these standards, the county can claim lots of costs here and again get more of the state aid funding pie. Minneapolis’s county roads likely bring in a significant amount of money each year to Hennepin County, which they can then spend wherever they want on the county highway system within certain funding categories. There is a mechanism to make sure a county is fairly distributing its funding to roads in small cities, but not large cities. Why would they want to give their Minneapolis streets up, when they can get by with a minimum amount of maintenance and improvement (as others have noticed) and do big construction projects with the money elsewhere in the County? Maybe with Minneapolis finally standing up and demanding better solutions from the county, they will be more willing to either consider these (as we have seen on Washington Ave) or turn the streets back to the City’s domain.

    Other reasons why they may remain County roads is streets like Lake St and Broadway do extend far beyond city limits and may serve more of a regional purpose. Also, there are some on the Hennepin County board who want to ensure automobile traffic can move in an out of downtown Minneapolis as quickly as possible (so that the people driving to work from the suburbs they represent can get through quickly). This was witnessed during the Washington Ave process.

    The best thing we can do is keep the pressure on your County Board members to do the right thing and make our voices know during public outreach for projects!

    Brief rundown of CSAH funding:

    1. Froggie

      Another factor to consider: the city is statuatorily limited in how much city street mileage can be on the Municipal State Aid Street (MSAS) system (I want to say it’s 7%, but I’m not certain on that). If the city were to negotiate with the county to take over existing County State Aid Highway (CSAH) mielage within the city, they’d have to drop a corresponding amount of mileage off of their MSAS system. For example, which streets would the city give up state aid funding for so that they could fully control Minnehaha Ave?

        1. Froggie

          If you want Minneapolis to take back all the CSAH mileage in the city, you have 3 choices:

          – Take the streets back, and pay for future maintenance/construction/reconstruction entirely with city funds. No state aid.

          – Take the streets back, and drop a correspoinding amount of MSAS mileage off the existing system so that the former CSAH streets will be eligible for state aid (under the MSAS system).

          – A mix of the two.

          To keep existing MSAS streets on the system and add the existing CSAH streets to the MSAS system would, yes, require a change in law. Another thing to factor here is that you’d have a lot more MSAS mileage without a major increase in MSAS funding.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            And again, there’s still the question of whether Minneapolis would do better than Hennepin County. There are barely any examples of City-led projects on streets with over 10,000 ADT in the last ~10 years. As I said before, Nicollet Ave immediately south of Lake Street and Chicago Ave immediately north of Lake Street are the only one that comes to mind. And Penn Ave immediately north of Crosstown is a rather damning example of the City’s ability to handle bike/ped well.

            On the other hand, Hennepin County has Lake Street, Lowry Avenue N, and Lyndale Ave S — plus more minor work on E 46th Street, Park Ave, and Portland Ave. All of these projects turned out pretty well for their context, and certainly no worse for bike/ped than Nicollet or Chicago. In fact the County roads are quite a bit better than what happened on Penn Ave (which is City-owned north of Crosstown). On that street, all options for bike facilities were rejected, despite the City-adopted Bicycle Master Plan calling for a route to Richfield/Bloomington along Penn. Cracked and sunken sidewalks won’t be fixed, and at the insistence of the community, pedestrian-scale lighting was even discarded from the process. The new roadway will be a historically accurate replica of the postwar suburban street it replaces.

            But despite that disastrous project, I’ll give Minneapolis the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the good results on Lyndale, Lake, etc are despite county involvement, not because of it. But even then, if the community is able to get its way despite county engineers designing the road, what’s the problem, if they’re managing the burden of it?

            1. Janne

              Sean, you and I have pretty different opinions about how Lake Street, Lyndale, Park, Portland, and even Lowry turned out for people riding bikes. They are ridable (to varying degrees) for people like you and me, but still VERY hostile places to be on a bike.

              Having participated in public meetings for three of those stroad projects, I can say that to the citizen, it appears the County did what they did kicking and screaming despite overwhelming support for something a little less highway-like.

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                On Park/Portland, I find the fact that the bike lane compresses into the door zone rather exasperating. (I also find the fact that the bike lane disappears at Diamond Lake road exasperating, but that was due to a specific demand from Minneapolis City Councilman John Quincy, not Hennepin engineers.) But in general, the project was a real transformation for those streets, at a very low cost.

                I certainly have no illusions about Lake Street being a great place to ride a bike. But in the general urban balance, I think it came out well: the combination of parking, travel lanes, sidewalk width, boulevard trees, lighting, bumpouts, etc were appropriate. They were quite judicious about adding left-turn lanes (even though they could have done so by skimping on sidewalks at corners). And for vehicular cycling purposes, the narrow lane width was beneficial, since there is simply no question that you must change lanes to overtake a cyclist.

                And then there’s also context to consider: the Greenway, which especially west of Cedar is a viable continuous route, is a block away. On the City Penn Ave project, there is no current alternate route, and the planned alternate route will be circuitous and impractical (winding back to Penn to cross both Minnehaha and the Crosstown).

                1. Alex

                  The sidewalks on Lake are objectively too narrow. This street was designed before Mpls’ Streets and Sidewalk design guidelines set a 15′ minimum for sidewalks like this. On Lake St, most of the sidewalks are 8-10′, with actual walking channels regularly reduced to 4′ (at bus shelters, mostly). This is substandard. Conversely, the Chicago Ave reconstruction gained a significant amount of boulevard space that had been missing for a long time by reducing the roadway from something like 50′ to 22′ in places. That, along with (not enough) bump outs made Chicago a big win for pedestrians (though I might understand if some cyclists would gripe).

                  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                    Although as you correctly detect, the Chicago narrowing did have an adverse impact on cyclists. I love riding on Chicago south of Lake Street — huge wide lane, I can gladly share it side-by-side with cars, but there’s no striping to suggest I should be confined to a bike lane either. Going north of Lake Street (which was a frequent issue last summer when Park and Portland bridges were closed), I always had to steel myself for taking the lane and having a queue of 10 or 20 cars behind me. Even as a vehicular cyclist, I didn’t enjoy this.

                    Which isn’t to say that they necessarily made the wrong choice on Chicago. Perhaps the wider pedestrian space — and parking — were more important than dedicated space for bikes. It’s a question of balance. Similar balance decisions were made on Lake Street. And while nobody got a perfect result, I think everyone — bus riders, motorists, cyclists, pedestrians — was better off than they were before reconstruction.

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