The I-35E Freeway Apocalypse

 

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Interstate 35E played a major role in destroying downtown Saint Paul. Along with Interstate 94 and Hwy 52, it forms a series of concrete trenches and highway interchanges that pin downtown against the Mississippi River and cut it off from its neighborhoods. In addition to destroying downtown, Interstate 35E creates a huge, north-south chasm that cuts Saint Paul in half, separating east from west. There are only a few places to cross this chasm– Phalen Blvd, Cayuga Street, Maryland Avenue, Arlington Avenue and, at the northern border, Larpenteur Avenue. With the exception of Cayuga Street and maybe Arlington, all of these crossings are awful, car-choked, arterial boulevards with little or no provision made for pedestrians and bicyclists. The only pleasant and marginally safe places for pedestrians and cyclists to cross I-35E are the Cayuga Street underpass, a bicycle-pedestrian bridge on the Gateway Trail and a bicycle-pedestrian underpass near York Avenue. Unfortunately, MnDOT’s “I-35E/Cayuga Project” is about to destroy all three of these crossings.

The federal government no longer gives out money to widen highways, unless a state DOT is creating “High-Occupancy-Vehicle” or “HOV/Tolling” lanes. HOV/Tolling lanes (what we call “MnPASS lanes”) can be used by buses and multiple-occupant vehicles to speed trips into and out of traffic-congested downtowns. The new twist is that single-occupant vehicles can also use these lanes if they pay an electronic toll. It’s called “Fast Lane Tolling” and was slipped into Federal Highway Legislation almost a decade ago by Mark Kennedy, former US Representative from Minnesota. State DOTs love Fast Lane Tolling because it generates extra, dedicated revenue for their agencies with which they can build yet more highways. This and the fact that it qualifies for federal money is the reason that MnDOT and many state DOTs are building these new lanes. They sell them to cities and states by saying they’re somehow “progressive” or “innovative transportation solutions” that will get users to pay road costs, decrease travel times and enable Bus Rapid Transit. In reality they are just road-widening projects that generate revenue for highway departments. If DOTs were really committed to Bus Rapid Transit and progressive transportation, they could convert existing lanes to HOV/Tolling lanes for a fraction of the cost. By taking away a regular travel lane, they would reduce the volume of single occupant vehicles entering a downtown and they would create real incentives for people to stop driving and use transit. What’s more, if DOTs were really committed to progressive transportation, they would use the toll revenues from these HOV/Tolling lanes to subsidize land use changes and better city and regional public transit. In reality, they just use the toll revenues to build more highways.

The I-35E/Cayuga project is a road-widening project. It will add a northbound and southbound MnPASS Lane to what is already a six-lane freeway, from downtown Saint Paul up to Little Canada Road, near the I-694 interchange. To do this, almost every bridge over I-35E must be torn out or rebuilt because the abutments for these bridges are not far enough apart to accommodate the additional lanes. As a result, the project is projected to cost $225 million– a quarter-billion dollars for five miles of roadway. This is more money than is spent on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure in the entire United States! MnDOT says that “many of these bridges needed to be rebuilt anyway” but this is not entirely true and the fact that they have to be rebuilt longer, with brand new abutments is adding major costs to the project. In addition, MnDOT will be adding on-ramps and off-ramps at Cayuga Street to ease congestion on the University Avenue ramps, further south. The east end of Cayuga Street will simultaneously be reconfigured to connect to Phalen Blvd. By adding this connection and all these freeway ramps, a sleepy, pleasant-to-bike-on street that crossed I-35E, will now become another dangerous, car-choked, arterial boulevard.

To cut costs, MnDOT is tearing out both the Gateway Trail bike-pedestrian bridge and the bike-pedestrian underpass near York Avenue and not replacing them. Bicyclists and pedestrians will be forced to cross I-35E on Maryland Avenue (a motor-vehicle hell-hole), on Cayuga (a soon-to-be motor-vehicle hell-hole), or on Arlington Avenue. The Arlington Avenue Bridge has been widened slightly so the Gateway Trail can be redirected over it. Cyclists, joggers and pedestrians will now have to cross at Arlington but there won’t be a direct trail link on the west side of I-35E to take them south for several more years, because completing this link and making up for the loss of the bike-pedestrian bridge is simply not a priority for MnDOT.

So, to summarize, we will be spending a quarter billion dollars on an unnecessary road-widening project that will enable rich people to get to work ten minutes faster, that will make bicycling and non-motorized crossings of I-35E worse, and will pump thousands more vehicles into downtown Saint Paul, a place already destroyed by parking lots, freeway trenches and traffic. The I-35E/Cayuga Project is the worst thing to happen to Saint Paul in the fourteen years I’ve lived here.

Cities are required to give “Municipal Consent” for large highway projects. Unfortunately, Municipal Consent hearings are often just meaningless, pro-forma speed bumps. The hearing for the I-35E/Cayuga Project wasn’t advertised but was just one item on a regular Saint Paul City Council Wednesday night public hearing. I was the only person to testify against the project. The city council vote in favor of it was unanimous, including at least two council members who should have known better. Mayor Coleman gave his blessing and the project is now well under way.

If we want to revitalize our cities and save ourselves from catastrophic climate change, we simply cannot keep building new highways and new highway lanes. It’s that simple. No amount of greenwashing can make this project look good. MnDOT just took an asphalt dump on our city. At meeting after meeting, MnDOT says they don’t have the money to make bicycle and pedestrian improvements to Snelling Avenue or other state highways in Saint Paul, something they could do for the cost of a few HAWK signals and some traffic islands. Yet they have a quarter-billion dollars for this horrible highway project or three quarters of a billion dollars for a new Stillwater Bridge.

Somehow, we all need to become informed about where and when these projects are happening, pressure our elected officials to reject them and show up to these municipal consent hearings. We need a state or national organization that is dedicated exclusively to stopping all new highway projects and redirecting this money to alternative modes of transportation and better land use. The existing environmental and alternative transportation groups aren’t getting the job done. If we don’t act, MnDOT will just keep building roads from now ’til doomsday. Given the rate of climate change, doomsday might not be far away.

MacArthur Maze

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31 Responses to The I-35E Freeway Apocalypse

  1. helsinki May 12, 2014 at 3:37 am #

    In a recent Wall Street Journal article (“Highway Funding Faces Bumpy Road”, May 8) Utah Senator Orrin Hatch blamed the insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure spending. Although depressing to read, your piece’s description of a casually and non-transparently conceived mickey mouse road widening project to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars costing more than all annual bike expenditure in the US really clarified the issue for me. Conspiracy theories are nonsense; yet it really makes you wonder whether some leaders can really be so totally ignorant or whether there truly is some malign intent behind these terrible policy choices.

  2. Jeff Z May 12, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    It should be noted that Cayuga will be car choked once the On/off ramps are moved from Phalen, to Cayuga.

  3. Chris L May 12, 2014 at 8:32 am #

    helsinki: Can’t believe that politicians are just allowed to blithely lie like that. Its even more depressing that this is Orrin Hatch, who is nowhere near the worst of ’em.

    There is one reason why there is a shortfall. We haven’t raised the gas tax in about two decades and due to natural inflation driving has gotten cheaper and cheaper since then. We simply don’t collect enough from drivers to pay for what they use. Every other factor here is absolutely dwarfed by that systemic shortfall. Bicycle and pedestrian projects are a percent or two. It’s sickening.

  4. Doug Trumm
    Doug Trumm May 12, 2014 at 8:37 am #

    Wow. Thanks Andy for testifying and raising awareness on this issue. How disappointing! I can’t believe MnDot would spend $225 million on this boondoggle. Per mile this rivals SWLRT and all the public are getting is a lane which will translate into to very minor reductions in commute times. I’m going to contact my city council member Russ Stark who I would put in the category of officials I thought would know better.

  5. Joshua May 12, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Well said, Mr. Singer. You’re 100% correct.

  6. Alan May 12, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    It’s unfortunate the Gateway Trail bridge will not be replaced. I read the news a week or two ago. From White Bear Lake I use Vento and Gateway as key trails for bicycle commuting down to Midway every day. Granted I head west on Arlington, which is a relatively quiet road, especially west of Rice, but it’s unfortunate Gateway will have its “flow” impacted with what I can imagine are after-thought, right angles and confusion. I had high hopes for Cayuga cycling improvements, but wow, what a let down and an opportunity wasted. The quadrant from Arcade to Rice and Larpenteur to Phalen Blvd is really a disaster. There are some toss-ups depending upon the time of day. Wheelock is so-so, as well as Roselawn (a bit north though), but those are inconvenient and just out of the way for improving cycling/pedestrian infrastructure down to St. Paul. Thanks for the informative article Andy. Now for a sigh…

  7. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele May 12, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    If we are doing wholesale urban freeway rebuilding, I hope we can get better outcomes than this. The problem isn’t really the freeway itself, since that scar has existed for nearly a half century now. The problem is really the connections that bridge over that scar. As the Crosstown project on 35W/62 has shown, our transportation department is great at adding lanes but pathetic at building stronger connectivity between neighborhoods across freeway scars.

  8. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson May 12, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Exhibit A for why and how St. Paul will never be the cycling-friendly city Minneapolis is. Shame to St. Paul’s leadership.

    • Alan May 12, 2014 at 9:30 am #

      “Exhibit A for why and how St. Paul will never be the cycling-friendly city Minneapolis is. Shame to St. Paul’s leadership.”

      Eric. I agree 100%. When I take the long way home and meander over to Minneapolis it’s a different world, vibrant with cyclists and pedestrians due to some well thought out infrastructure. It’s quite depressing when I cross the river back over to St. Paul and only encounter a handful of cyclists and pedestrians.

  9. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele May 12, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Also, it could be worse, we could be building new general-purpose freeway lanes like I-494 will get between TH55 and I-94 in Plymouth. At least these lanes will be tolled. We need more tolls, ideally on existing capacity though.

  10. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele May 12, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    I agree with Andy, that I’d much rather see us convert existing lanes to HOT lanes. But IIRC in most cases we would have to pay back the federal government for the 90% of the highway cost that was paid with FHTF dollars (think we’d build such massive and oppressive urban freeways if the feds didn’t pay 90%? well, another topic). Anyone know the legalities of that?

    • Froggie May 12, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

      Something close, but not completely that simple. With the exception of 3 pilot projects, new-construction routes not build with Federal funding (examples in suburban Chicago and in South Carolina), and the old toll roads that were grandfathered in (mostly Chicago to the East Coast), Federal law prohibits tolls on existing Interstate highways. The pilot projects, all of which are “taken” (but not existing yet) allow states to toll existing Interstate highways to pay for their maintenance and reconstruction.

      This does not apply to HO/T lanes, which as a general rule are allowed on the Interstate system as long as the non-HO/T lanes remain free. It also does not apply to major bridges and tunnels, which can be tolled to pay for their maintenance…one reason why tolls were recently reintroduced to an Interstate tunnel in Norfolk, VA.

      All of this may change if the Administration’s planned transportation bill makes it through Congress. One notable part of that bill would lift the prohibition on tolling Interstates…the caveat being that any tolls added to a given stretch of Interstate must be used to pay for projects along that Interstate corridor, subject to the approval of the US Secretary of Transportation. Transit projects could be funded, but only if they’re along the Interstate corridor.

      So, for a theoretical example if that part of the bill passes, MnDOT could decide to toll I-94 between the downtowns. The tolls could then be used to maintain and rebuild I-94. They could also be used to cover bus service along I-94, and possibly even Unversity Ave and the Central LRT line that closely parallels the freeway. But they could NOT, however, be used to pay for extending the Central LRT beyond the downtowns, or for the Riverview corridor (DT STP to the airport), or for I-94 outside the corridor.

  11. Chris L May 12, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    Wait, helsinki — I read that Wall Street Journal article and I see no evidence that Orrin Hatch said anything like that. Some Googling does turn up this quote from an unrelated source:

    “Since its inception in the 1950s, the Highway Trust Fund has been called upon to fund an increasingly broad scope of activities, such as bike paths and other so-called ‘enhancements,’ Additionally, there are many requirements and regulations that increase the costs of federal highway projects. So, if we’re going to talk about revenues, we should talk about reforms that will address costs and outlays as well.”

    Not exactly the same thing as blaming the insolvency on bike paths. It is a related viewpoint, of course.

    • helsinki May 12, 2014 at 10:50 am #

      Apologies, Chris L, I was referencing the quote you cite (from the AASHTO Journal – here: http://www.aashtojournal.org/Pages/050914SenateFinance.aspx). It was mixed into a discussion of the WSJ article on Planetizen (See http://www.planetizen.com/node/68740).

      The point remains, however, that Sen. Hatch is identifying bike paths as a driver of the HTF’s insolvency. This is, of course, bogus. Compared to the gigantic amounts spent on highways, next to nothing is spent on bike paths.

      The disingenuous thrust of Sen. Hatch’s otherwise lucid call to “talk about reforms that will address costs and outlays as well” is his insinuation that such reforms would be most cost-effective if they eliminated superfluous nonsense like bike paths. A serious discussion of addressing costs would begin by cutting projects like the one discussed here. It is repeated on this site nearly every day, but is reported elsewhere consistently as though it were a novelty: insufficient revenue exists to maintain current road infrastructure, yet billions are squandered adding additional unnecessary road infrastructure.

      • Chris L May 12, 2014 at 11:06 am #

        Agreed — Discussing bike paths in a discussion on highway funding shortfalls is not really germane, and encourages “draw your own conclusions” thinking to constituents unfamiliar with the magnitudes involved.

        But regardless of whether there is enough funding or not to cover highway needs, we need to raise the gas tax now and then index it to inflation. It provides the wrong incentives to the market to keep it at such a low rate. We know that there are enormous social costs involved with fossil fuels — even leaving aside climate change, there are thousands of deaths annually resultant from particulate emissions, especially from diesel trucks. More-efficient rail shipping would look better if trucks had to pay the full cost of their road use, and the same goes for passenger cars. As it is now, we actually subsidize the less efficient transport mode — forget about pricing in externalities!

      • Matt Steele
        Matt Steele May 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm #

        Without reading that article, here are two primary causes of HTF insolvency:

        – Building urban freeways. These are insanely expensive, and were never a part of early visions for the Interstate Highway System (there’s a famous Eisenhower quote to that effect, and it’s documented in The Big Road by Earl Swift)

        – A federal gas tax that automatically decreases, in real terms. Same problem we have with our state gas tax. If only the average voter understood the difference between real and nominal prices.

        • Froggie May 12, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

          Urban freeways are not a reason why the HTF is facing insolvency. Contrary to some popular belief, it’s insolvent because Congress (and much of the driving public, for that matter) wants projects without wanting to pay for them…somewhat related to your second point regarding the gas tax.

          • Matt Steele
            Matt Steele May 12, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

            But, for the most part, Congress/DOTs/local pols/constituents want urban freeways which are insanely expensive for what we get. $225 million for this redo. $125 million for the 169/494 interchange (not even a full interchange, but flyover ramps and grade separation of the frontage road network), $185 million to redo the 694/10 area, $120 million for the 695/35E project, $100 million for the last couple miles of TH 610, and on and on. And pop-up/one-off interchange projects that push $10 million are common too. Granted, most of these have exotic funding mechanisms, DEED grants, etc but many of them include substantial USDOT components and the Interstate ones usually include HTF dollars.

  12. Cole May 12, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    There are a lot of inaccuracies in the early reporting of this post. Especially with respect to federal law and MnDOT system planning. There is no conspiracy to build freeway lanes, it is a fact documented in our long range plan. To which the federal government has asked why we aren’t just building more general purpose lanes.

  13. Ben May 12, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    That’s pretty sad.
    To cut costs, MnDOT is tearing out both the Gateway Trail bike-pedestrian bridge and the bike-pedestrian underpass near York Avenue and not replacing them.

    They basically are saying they can’t afford the project.

  14. Ken Avidor
    Ken Avidor May 12, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    Excellent article, Andy.

  15. John May 12, 2014 at 12:51 pm #

    Wow. I agree with Cole so many inaccuracies in this article. I’m not familiar with the details of the trails on this project but I did some simple googling and it looks to me like the planned trail network is better than the existing one. http://www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/35estpaul/pdf/trailimprovements.pdf

    Cayuga may be worse but Pennsylvania will be better and both will have better connections to the Vento trail. What bike bridge is being eliminated?

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer May 12, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

      If you look at these improvements and really think about them, some are “planned city trails” or “future trail connection to be determined” …such as a continued bike trail on Pennsylvania Ave or the extension north to Arlington. Those might not be built for decades and MnDOT is not picking up the tab. The city’s Draft Bikeways Plan is being proposed as a “30-year plan,” many sections of which will only be done when streets get reconstructed or get mill and overlays. Given that the city hasn’t even committed to completely fund the construction of the downtown off-street loop in the Draft Bikeways Plan (which they price at $18 Million), some of the things on this map are a long way off. Also, you’ll notice that the Gateway Trail extension to University Avenue arbitrarily changes sides of the street for the last two blocks of L’Orient. Once to University, the connection to downtown will be made on University Avenue to Jackson. So a cyclist will have to cross L’Orient two extra times– at the Pennsylvania intersection, which will be high-traffic and dangerous, and again at University Avenue. We think that riders will end up biking in the street and not using the trail …and the traffic volume impacts on L’Orient as a consequence of this project have yet to be determined. Critically, the main issue with I-35E is traversability, not the quantity of trails along side it. At best, if everything were implemented (and done right/well) this project would be a wash, not an improvement. The bridge is north of Maryland/south of Arlington. I”m not saying this project is a “conspiracy” …just that it’s terrible for non-motorized transportation and isn’t going to improve downtown Saint Paul or the corridor.

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric S May 12, 2014 at 4:25 pm #

      Why don’t you do some research into when that Pennsylvania bike trail is going to be completed. When I asked Reuben Collins he speculated that even the portion on the Cayuga Project maps won’t be done until the entire span of Pennsylvania is redone – that is to say, no time soon.

      • John May 13, 2014 at 9:36 am #

        Thanks for the local insight. I was truly wondering since, like I said, I don’t know much about the project. It’s true that lines on a map don’t necessarily mean much in the near term

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke May 14, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

          If I could bike on lines on a map, biking in Saint Paul would be awesome!

  16. Monte Castleman
    Monte May 12, 2014 at 7:14 pm #

    Everyone is entitled to their own opinion (As a strong pro-car, pro-freeway advocate I obviously disagree with the article, so so I won’t argue with it on it.). But there’s a factual error that the St. Croix Crossing bridge opponents make all the time. It’s not costing Mn/DOT three quarters of a billion dollars (and one article claimed it was a “billion”.) The extreme high end of it is $680 million, putting Mn/DOT’s share at $320-$350 million.

  17. Vince May 12, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    I live on the border between Mpls/StPaul, commute by bike most days and am an avid long distance walker. In a past life I also drove on 35E with its dangerous capacity constraints and 1960’s era ramp geometries, so I know something of the issues described. I unfortunately found this article so fraught with melodrama and loose facts as to be wholly unhelpful. According to the link Andy himself posted, several off-street bike trails crossing 35E are formal parts of the Cayuga project. Some are city responsibility, not MNDOT’s, which is a funding model that seems about right. Since a JIT Design-Build process is being used where trails get put in after heavy construction, the lack of detail at this stage isn’t surprising and certainly isn’t “apocalypse”. Moreover, the bridges being replaced are part of the State fracture-critical deferred maintenance problem, so including them in this argument is conflating disparate issues. I’ll grant that no dedicated Gateway bridge is a significant concern, however the freeway cost is less and there’s more to the trail plan than this article claims.

    A bigger problem here is Andy’s rhetoric that blames cars, freeways, “rich people” and various government agencies in a rant worthy of Jesse Ventura’s reality show. Like the Tea Party, some local biking activists have an unfortunate tendency to employ language typical of religious fundamentalists: we are pious, outsiders evil, and anyone in-between is either ignorant or a Fifth Columnist. There is absolutely no need for this in public discourse. What we need is rational debate on transit policy and compromises reached with available funding. Is there someone else here who can do a thoughtful analysis of the Cayuga Project without adjectives and with real numbers, pros/cons, and actual dates? I get it, Andy is trying to sell a book, but this is not how to get projects done.

  18. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke May 14, 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Andy’s not trying to sell books. He’s attended more community meetings on transportation than anyone I’ve ever met, and continually makes interesting and relevant points about transportation priorities because he believes deeply that the status quo is a problem. You might not agree with all of his thoughts. In fact, you’re almost guaranteed not to agree with Andy all the time. (If you do, seek help.)

    But I think this is a valid perspective on the larger automobile system and its political and economic incentives (as is yours, I’m guessing). I’d prefer if we could all identify particular critiques of the argument, and avoid ad hominem references.

  19. Sam A. May 15, 2014 at 9:18 am #

    It’s a shame that this conversation couldn’t be more in line with creating a less freeway dominated landscape in the Twin Cities – like in SF!

    http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/place/article/Road-to-rebirth-S-F-s-post-freeway-Octavia-may-5470122.php#photo-6287025

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte May 15, 2014 at 9:22 pm #

      “Apocalypse” could also describe the traffic on Octavia after the freeway was removed- and even in a place like San Francisco it took several tries to get it done because it was actually useful, unlike some of the other freeway removals. People aren’t going to start leave their cars behind and start banging down the doors begging to be let in to buses just because you make it more difficult to drive like the removal proponents thought. I drove around San Francisco a bit on vacation and I’m certainly glad I don’t have to live or work there. I’ll take Bloomington anyday.

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