Making West 7th Street Less Auto-Centric Involves MORE Roads

This post is an abridged version of a paper for a class at the University of Minnesota.

West Seventh is one of the most important corridors for the City of Saint Paul. Originally called Fort Road, West Seventh is the straightest route from Downtown Saint Paul to the airport and Mall of America. The road is a bustling corridor of activity with four bus routes near downtown, the road goes from a 4-lane, congested arterial, to a 4-lane DEATH ROAD™, to a nice three lane configuration as you get further from downtown, and the traffic thins out.

It all feels like a small city spreading out nicely, until you hit Otto. Now, it’s not Otto in itself that’s the issue, a tiny little collector road just north of I-35E. No, Otto is not what troubles me; however, around Otto is when the road expands from three lanes to four to five, and no doubt the conditions warrant such capacity expansion. On the northeast side of Otto (towards downtown), less than 9,000 vehicles per day use the road; once you cross the interstate, 31,000 vehicles a day are trying to squeeze through West Seventh’s lanes and the volume stays at 31,000 vehicles until it reaches grade separation at the river, heading for the airport*.

Why would the interstate have such a big influence on traffic, and why would it only be in one direction? The answer is the reason that MORE ROADS is the correct call in this situation.

Through Traffic vs. Local Traffic

Streets Airport to the north

Even the Google machine wants me to cruise this wonderful avenue… to get home fastest.

West Seventh has become a through route for traffic from the northeast metro to reach the 494 strip, specifically the areas like the airport (when it’s congested Google will even send people from the Mall of America up good ol’ West Seventh). But surely, there must be a better way for people from the entire metro to reach the airport than along a commercial corridor within city limits! And there IS…almost, Shepard Road runs just to the south of West Seventh. As these pictures show, it is built to accommodate high speed through traffic much more than West Seventh is. (NOTE: A friend took these pictures from the passenger’s side, do NOT photograph, snapchat, text, eat, shave, or do anything else while driving; both my mother and I would prefer it if you didn’t kill me.)


Shepard Road, with the median, guard rails, frontage roads, and overall design mimicking that of a divided highway.


West Seventh, with sidewalks and buildings abutting the street.

From these two photos, you wouldn’t know it, but the road in the lower photo moves nearly twice as many vehicles as the road in the upper photo. Why does this happen? It happens because there is no way to use Shepard Road. Shepard’s interchange with 35E is only a half diamond, only allowing northbound traffic to exit the freeway, and southbound traffic to enter. Even if the road was nicely aligned** on the south end, connecting seamlessly to Minnesota Trunk Highway 5, people would still have to use West Seventh.

So what can we do? MORE ROADS! Actually, really this is MORE RAMPS LESS ROADS! Now, this ramp will be difficult to construct (either taking parkland or some serious engineering difficulties), but if it was built we could reduce the traffic by two lanes on West Seventh. Room for a proper buffer zone, street parking next to businesses, and bike lanes? What about a sidewalk on the opposite side of the street? These improvements could happen with no right-of-way acquisitions, if we could only get through traffic to use Shepard instead of West Seventh.


Two indequate Shepard Road intersections


Final notes –

1 – West Seventh also has a high speed limit, which could be reduced if it was not a through route.

2 – Maybe Sibley Plaza is just the place to be, I don’t actually KNOW how many people are making this through routing. That would require funds well beyond’s capacity, much less my own.

3 – Selling the businesses that less (40+ mph) car traffic is good for business might be really hard actually… The corridor has become very auto-centric south of Montreal. And while the numbers show that the businesses should not have much to worry about, these businesses look more like the exceptions than most other urban arterials.

4 – If you would like a more full version of the paper, detailing how to sell businesses on the idea, how to use the space provided, and why this is a good idea otherwise, comment below and I will try to work something out, but my internet does not seem to like adding links to documents right now.

5 – Something that I didn’t write into the article, West Seventh IS Minnesota Trunk Highway 5, for these improvements to be made that designation will have to be shifted to Shepard, or relinquished overall.

*Minnesota Department Of Transportation, Traffic Forecasting and Analysis, mapping application, last update 2013. Accessed November 15th 2014

**Fredrick Melo. Luxury Apartments Planned for Shepard Road; river views at issue. Saint Paul Pioneer Press.
11/22/2014 last update, accessed December 8th, 2014.


Joseph Totten

About Joseph Totten

Joe is a graduate of Civil Engineering-Transportation and Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota, and has a masters degree from Portland State University. Born and raised in Saint Paul, Joe has worked with nonprofits and public agencies in MSP and Portland.

18 thoughts on “Making West 7th Street Less Auto-Centric Involves MORE Roads

  1. Nick Hannula

    Would we need to strengthen connections between Shepherd and downtown STP, or are existing connections sufficient?

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      From my understanding there’s not as much traffic between DT St. Paul and the Davern/Sibley Plaza area. Most people going to/from DT St. Paul take 35E between DT and the West 7th interchange near Lexington/Montreal. Or they’ll take Shepard the whole way, then Eagle Pkwy and the Exchange Street tunnel, or Sibley/Jackson under the railroad tracks.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

        Not horribly, West Seventh’s traffic down from Downtown St Paul is pretty minimal. The connection from Shepard does suck, but downtown’s connection to 35E is better, so I’d say they would be able to take such a path.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Just an option for grade reasons. It’s hard to tell topography, layers, etc on the map. But the LRT (and recreational trail) would be on a hypothetical second deck of the Ft. Road bridge. And it would help simplify intersection elements if there’s still significant vehicular traffic on West 7th (via the Davern cutover to Shepard/Ft. Road Bridge) though I hope that wouldn’t be the case. I was trying to avoid skewed intersections as well. Though the LRT could just as easily use the West 7th alignment and turn off at the CP Ford Spur RR crossing.

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

          I had the portals in the parking lot of Sibley Plaza (another project was designing this LRT).

  2. Monte Castleman

    It’s nice to see an opinion that has realistic plans for car traffic, instead of that car drivers are the supreme evil and should be riding bicycles or buses down 7th instead. Significantly 7th is not a principle arterial and Shepard east of I-35E is, which means that switching trunk highway designations would further the long term goal of aligning trunk highways and principal arterials.

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      This plan would eventually allow for the redevelopment of the auto-centric businesses on W 7th now and they could become anything, even 6 floor bike and bus riding hipstervilles. But we can’t expect Forest Lake to stop existing in the next 30 years.

  3. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    A couple comments:

    – For clarification, it’s the segment of West 7th between Victoria St and Randolph that is around 9000 vpd. Immediately northeast of 35E is just over 13,000 vpd.

    – For the most part, it’s topography that precludes connections between Shepard Rd and 35E North. Just too steep of a grade to realistically add those connections. Matt’s loop ramp idea MIGHT work (with park/wetland impacts), but his southbound off-ramp won’t.

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

      Hence the note that there would be serious engineering challenges or park impacts in the story.

      It’s what? 25′ maybe 30′ difference, so it wouldn’t be impossible to have the exit split and have one ramp descend below the entrance ramps from 7th and meet without tunneling much at all.

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten Post author

        Sorry, forgot to add, Matt’s ramps (using these numbers) would have a grade of 3.5-4.5%… not horrible, not great, but it’s plausible. The bigger issue is how close it is to 7th’s entrances, and if there’s too much merging in that area.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Wikipedia tells me 6% grades are allowed on interstates in hilly urban areas. OTOH a reason the tunnel options for the St. Croix Crossing were rejected were the 5% grades.

      2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        It’s actually a bit more than that. Shepard Rd where it crosses under I-35E is at about 725′ elevation (Google’s elevation is not quite correct here). Where I-35E crosses under West 7th is about 782′ elevation. At a max 6% grade, that requires about 1000ft of distance for the elevation change. That would put the ramp terminal right about where the northbound exit to West 7th is. But this would be a consistent grade all along the ramp. Putting a 6% downhill grade right into an intersection at Shepard Rd (as a southbound off-ramp would do) is not a good idea, especially in the winter.

        For comparison purposes, the grade on nearby Elway St is about 5%.

        But there’s more than just the grade change. I-35E travels through a narrow ravine in the stretch between West 7th and Shepard Rd, which would require a good bit of blasting in order to build the suggested ramps, especially on the east side of 35E.

        I see what you’re suggesting here, and while it might be possible, it couldn’t be done within the existing right-of-way.

  4. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Folded diamond to the south would have the aforementioned park/wetland impacts. The “short tunnels” would be anything but. Given the grade, the tunnels would have to extend to north of West 7th.

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