End of the Road for the TIGER Trail in Northfield

On October 7, 2014, the Northfield City Council voted to reject all bids received for the construction for what’s been called the TIGER Trail, killing the project. It’s been almost 3 years since Northfield received word it had been awarded a $1.1 million TIGER grant and almost 3 years of decisions and discussion to reach this dead-end. Although this project is dead, the issues are certainly not.

Looking north on Highway 3

Minnesota Trunk Highway 3 is a perfect stroad. Designed (only) to move traffic through Northfield, its single-purpose objective created a large physical and psychological barrier through Northfield. The TIGER trail was intended to make the stroad more permeable and help reconnect the two sides of town. With the demise of the project, the challenge of making Highway 3 safe, easy and pleasant to cross remains.

Southbound Highway 3 into Northfield

Southbound Highway 3 into Northfield

The two sides in this debate have been the obvious opponents who focus on cost (too much) or need (not enough) and the strong supporters (including a bare majority of the City Council) who cite transportation equity, reducing automobile demand (for public health and environmental reasons), and the many benefits of active transportation. I’ve supported this project, but now’s the opportunity to look back and learn from the process.  This post is less about the design specifics and more about looking back at the politics of getting from A to B both on the street and in the Council chambers.

Planning it

The project began with the 2009 Modal Integration Study which identified possible grade-separation projects on Highway 3 and Highway 19 to improve multi-modal integration; the multi-modal trail under the highway was one of them.

In hindsight, that grade-separation limitation seems especially significant. Looking only for grade-separated solutions narrowed Northfield’s vision and perhaps incentivized grant-seeking behavior. Identifying bigger projects coupled with the availability of big grants drives the planning decisions toward projects we would not otherwise attempt and/or are not likely to be included in the ongoing capital improvement planning process. Grants start driving what we plan so that rather like teaching to the test, we plan for the grant.

The policy big picture also got in the way. Grants, of course, are tools to carry out policy by incentivizing types of projects. TIGER grant projects, according to the federal grant guidelines, were to be

“multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional or otherwise challenging to fund through existing programs. The TIGER program enables DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits, explore ways to deliver projects faster and save on construction costs, and make investments in our Nation’s infrastructure that make communities more livable and sustainable.”

The grant policy seems like a near perfect fit for just the issues which make Highway 3 challenging. Northfield’s trail is multi-modal (bike/pedestrian – and “multi-modal” really just means “not cars), multi-jurisdictional (city, state and two railroads) and it is challenging to fund given MNDoT’s previous planning and construction of TH3. Northfield’s TIGER project was also well grounded in city policy and earlier projects (read the history in the grant application) and not just plucked out of the air.  MNDoT’s decision to help with funding helped reinforce this goodness of fit between policy and project and bridging jurisdictions.

Questions I’m left with (and I was a member of the City Council while this project was planned and initially approved, so I’m implicated here) include (1) why didn’t we question the grade-separated limitation in the modal integration study and planning the TIGER project, (2) did identifying a big project distract from continuing to look for additional improvements along the highway, and (3) would Northfield have attempted to plan a project like the TIGER trail if grant funding were not available?

Execution

The TIGER trail project (here’s the Project Memorandum) faltered when the idealism of the grant application met the realities on the ground. The grant awarded $1.1 million with $500,000 in local matching funds creating expectations this would be the total project cost. Unfortunately, the project almost immediately proved to be more difficult than the grant application anticipated including roadblocks with railroads, changes in design requirements for a retaining wall, bids higher than anticipated, and other needed design variances. Each change brought additional costs causing a struggle to either “find” more money or reduce the project scope.

TIGER project original trail plan

TIGER project original trail plan

TIGER trail redesign

TIGER trail redesign

A big grant brings a large chunk of money, but also imposes costs (Northfield’s annual budget is about $10 million; a $1 million dollar project is very big). Some are obvious (but still not budgeted), like local matching dollars. Then there is the significant cost in staff time (and remember, Northfield has 20,000 people with the small engineering staff to match), unanticipated costs when the project scope is changed as it is designed and the immense political capital cost of trying to defend the project in the face of each dollar cost adjustment. Add to that the inflexibility of the grant funding – Northfield was limited to a grade-separated crossing and could not redeploy grant dollars to a different project serving the same general policy goals.

What’s next?

First, a deep breath. The community support for the idea of the TIGER trail was strong from the outset with multiple letters from community groups accompanying the grant application to stalwart supporters at Council meetings throughout the process. Retirees, residents of Northfield’s manufactured home park, young families spoke to the Council about how they would like to be able to cross the highway safely and easily but don’t see the current design as adequate. The TIGER project focused both the supporters, but also made it an easier target for opponents and made it easier to dismiss improving bike/ped transportation as big ticket/small impact.  Aiming for the 8-80 standard which is easily understood – would you let your elementary school child or grandmother cross Highway 3 (alone) on foot, bicycle, motorized scooter, skateboard, etc.?

Next, a step back.  In the bigger picture, the case for active transportation continues to grow and push bike and pedestrian improvements from nice extras to necessities for public health, environmental issues, livability, and economic development. Building grassroots support for change is still needed for systemic change rather than special projects, but the likely supporters keep growing as the benefits are recognized. The most important development during the TIGER Trail was the emphasis on equity and making not driving a real option in Northfield. Let’s not lose this.

Smaller and/or different projects: If Northfield can build on the TIGER trail’s support, broaden it with continued education, then what projects can happen?  I’ve indicated a preference for trying to keep the planning and funding as local as possible, so what pieces of the TIGER project still be built with more local dollars extended in time? Which portions might bring the biggest impact?  Beyond grade-separated crossings, how do we make sustained improvement using the capital improvement process? Can other Northfield plans like the Corridor Improvement Plan be marshalled for planning purposes? Streets.mn readers can probably imagine different solutions along the corridor from road diets, intersection improvements, and other stroad-reduction design changes (suggestions welcome).

Finally, vote: If Northfield is to be an 8-80 City, Northfield (and other communities) needs elected officials who understand the bigger picture of linking transportation improvements and land use, multi-modal transportation as an equity issue, and the longer term benefits which can result.

Betsey Buckheit

About Betsey Buckheit

Betsey rides her pretty blue city bike, walks her energetic black dogs, and agitates for more thoughtful, long-range decision-making in Northfield, MN. You can follow her blog at BetseyBuckheit.com.