Earlier this week, news surfaced that the Kellogg Ave-3rd Street bridge connecting Lowertown and Dayton’s Bluff is structurally deficient. The bridge, built in 1982 by MnDOT, has four vehicle lanes, the outer two largely supported by concrete cantilevers with pier supports built in the middle.
It took only one day before the Infrastructure Opportunists in our state started taking advantage of this situation, and St. Paul officials were happy to play along. Doesn’t this example show the need for more money for roads and bridges? Isn’t this bridge a prime candidate for replacement? Of course, we need to maintain safety for bridge users. But let’s not get tunnel vision when looking at rational responses.
So Far, Irrational Responses
What happens when a bridge overbuilt for capacity and underbuilt for structure becomes a liability after merely three decades? It becomes a battle cry for the wrong reasons.
City Council president Kathy Lantry says St. Paul is working with “county, state and federal partners to identify funding sources to build a new bridge as soon as possible” according Finance & Commerce.
The City of St. Paul seems set on replacing an already-too-big bridge with an even bigger bridge. “Do we have to repair the piers or not to widen the deck?” asked city engineer John Maczko. He notes that the existing bridge is not suitable for walk/bike/bus. Well of course it’s not, on a bridge where 80% of the deck profile is used for unneeded lane capacity for motor vehicles.
And maybe if MnDOT had invested in a design with a longer lifespan for the city rather than a wider wingspan for cars that never showed up, we would have been able to avoid this jam in the first place.
Yet a rational response must look forward, not backwards.
Four lanes not needed
This bridge carries 9,900 vehicles per day (MnDOT, 2013) less than half the traffic of parallel E 7th St four blocks north. By comparison, the 2-lane Smith Ave High Bridge over the Mississippi carries 13,900 vehicles per day – 40% more vehicles with half the lanes. 9,900 vehicles per day falls squarely into the space where two lanes is more than adequate, especially considering that this half mile stretch has no turns or conflict points.
One complicating factor is the Gateway BRT project, designed to connect park & rides in undeveloped Lake Elmo with our urban transit network. The locally preferred alternative would approach Downtown St. Paul by way of Mounds Blvd and this bridge. But this isn’t much of a complication: signal prioritization at the bridge approaches would be likely sufficient to keep buses moving. Dedicated turn lanes at 3rd Street/Mounds Blvd intersection or even a dedicated bidirectional transit lane on the bridge would ensure transit advantage even if there was some shocking increase in vehicular usage of this bridge, despite the overall trend that we’re past peak car use.
Human-scale connectivity to the east side
It’s true, this bridge is hostile to those who walk or bike across it. It has a narrow sidewalk, sandwiched between a curb and a guardrail, and no bicycle facilities. Luckily, there’s a large amount of bridge deck that is not structurally sufficient to support the loads of massive steel cages moving across it, nor is it needed for vehicular capacity even if it was structurally safe.
Our broken funding process is making things worse
The strange way we fund infrastructure repair contributes this current irrationality.
If the city spent $8 million to get the bridge to last for another four decades, it would then forfeit the opportunity to get a new bridge (estimated at $40 million) with “outside assistance,” as Public Works spokesman Dave Hunt notes in the Finance & Commerce piece.
So it sounds like St. Paul would rather have someone else build them a larger, fancier bridge that costs at least $32 million more because it would potentially save them from a $8 million expense – at least until the next bridge is due for repair. Don’t listen to the Infrastructure Opportunists: the root of this problem is not a lack of funding, but the inefficient way we plan and fund projects.
A cheap, effective rational response
To recap what we know about the Kellogg bridge:
- Structural issues with cantilevered piers means no vehicular traffic on outside of bridge deck. Emergency striping change will reduce four lanes down to three, causing Mayor Coleman to direct agencies towards “short-term traffic flow alternatives until a new bridge can be built.”
- The traffic isn’t there to begin with – seriously, Mayor Coleman. The bridge had far too much lane capacity. The Smith Ave bridge by comparison carries 40% more vehicles on half the lanes.
- The bridge is hostile to bicyclists and pedestrians, a major factor separating the thriving Lowertown neighborhood from the downtrodden East Side. Stronger links could encourage placemaking on the hill and encourage private investment in the neighborhood which would result in long-term growth of tax base for St. Paul.
- The city and the Infrastructure Opportunists are already salivating at a $40 million+ replacement rather than a $8 million repair.
Considering this, the obvious solution is to repair the existing bridge in a way that accommodates existing traffic, welcomes new walkers and bikers, and prepares the way for future transit service — for about 75% less than a new bridge. Seriously, it’s that simple. Here are a few potential ideas which would enhance the bridge with sidewalks and cycletracks on both sides, while saving a cool $25-30 million.
St. Paul: Take some of the money saved and invest it elsewhere. I hear you have some potholes that need filling.