Hey Transit Investments, Don’t Skimp on the Sidewalks

stp university-ave-lrt

University Avenue sidewalk.

What if you built a transit line, and nobody came? More and more that’s a distinct possibility because, as projects face tighter fiscal realities at all levels of government, it’s getting harder to fund the actual pedestrian infrastructure that makes transit useful in the first place.

The SWLRT offers a good example. You’re probably so sick of reading about the (underinflated?) political football that you missed this intriguing Star Tribune article a few weeks ago about how the Federal transit funding formula had changed recently. Here’s the important part:

In what several local officials call a “clawback,” the Federal Transit Administration recently ended its long-standing practice of allowing cities to seek grants from unused contingency money for local improvements related to light-rail projects. The locals first learned of the change in October, after giving their required municipal consent to the rail line over the summer.

Such grants in the past have been worth tens of millions of dollars to local governments for items like parking decks, road and safety improvements, pedestrian bridges and trails linking light-rail stations to the surrounding areas. The $1 billion budget for the recently completed Green Line provided about $23.5 million from unused contingency funds to local governments.

That kind of “penny-foolish” approach is nothing new; transportation investments have long prioritized large expensive (and simple) automobile projects over the relatively cheaper (but complex) infrastructures like sidewalks. Think of the cost of an expensive bridge or overpass versus the kinds of street grid or land use approaches that encourage walking, and you’ll get the idea. More and more, it seems to me that local governments will be left holding the bag that contains all the important details. That’s the wrong approach.

The CTIB Bike/Ped Cap

This kind of mis-prioritization happens at the regional level too, as part of the CTIB (Counties Transit Improvement Board) legislation that currently funds many of our transit projects. Written into the 2008 legislation is a small detail that reads:

No more than 1.25 percent of the total awards may be annually allocated to planning, studies, design, construction, maintenance, and operation of pedestrian programs and bicycle programs and pathways.

Now, this isn’t as big a deal as you might think, because according to a friend of mine who works closely on transit legislation at the capitol, currently CTIB hasn’t spent ANY money on bike or pedestrian improvements. They have pretty limited funding, and most of those dollars have gone for big-ticket infrastructure like the Green Line or park and rides.

As I understand it, this means that for regional transit projects, the money to construct the valuable connections between the new station areas has to come from the strapped city budgets, where sidewalks compete against libraries, recreation centers, or police and fire services.

State And Federal Money Doesn’t Pay for Sidewalks

stp-universityave-before-and-afterIn a way, the new Green Line along University Avenue is the exception that proves the rule. As part of the billion-dollar project, the entire sidewalk and streeetscape on University Avenue was reconstructed, installing nice new trees, sidewalks, and rain gardens that make walking along the Green Line stations a relatively pleasant experience (even if the street lacks the parking buffer, bike racks, or bike lane amenities).

But with the new changes, I fear that future transit projects will not be so lucky. Rather, they’ll come to resemble the status quo for state infrastructure projects, where cities have to fund pedestrian improvements while state money goes for the road infrastructure.

For example, MNDOT is re-decking the Smith Avenue “high bridge” by my house in a few years. Unless Saint Paul ponies up a bunch of money for nice sidewalks, the state agency will install bare bones lighting and railings along the bridge. This seems backwards to me. “Transportation” should be more than about simply moving cars, and MNDOT should offer high quality of service for everyone, drivers, walkers, and bicyclists included.


A spot on the High Bridge, aka MN-149, that badly needs ped improvements.

New Legislation with Dedicated Funding

No matter how you feel about increasing taxes for transportation, one of the really nice things about the Senate’s proposed transportation package is that it includes dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. Here’s what the Senate (DFL) proposal would dedicate (again, according to my legislature friend):

The Senate bill (SF 87) introduced last week by Senator Dibble allocates nearly 10% of a ¾ cent metro sales tax increase to bike/ped in the twin cities metro.  It’s slightly less than 10% because a small portion of this 10% can be used for streetcar planning (not more than 10% of 10%). And because about 1/16 of the total ¾ cent sales tax increase can be used by all metro counties (except Hennepin) for transportation purposes. Note: Hennepin OK with all sales tax to transit and other counties could use this small allocation for bike/peds/transit or roads.

It’s less complicated than it sounds. To me, this dedicated funding is a key reason to support the expanded CTIP transportation package (provided the language isn’t stripped out in conference committee negotiations). While there are some problems with dedicated funding (which can sometimes lead to nonsensical boondoggles), having money set aside for cost-effective and overlooked sidewalk and bike infrastructure would really be a game changer for walkability and transit in the Twin Cities. For once, it would force cities to focus on the devilish details, instead of just the big picture.

18 thoughts on “Hey Transit Investments, Don’t Skimp on the Sidewalks

  1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    As I recall, MnDOT’s cost-sharing policy (i.e. the local jurisdiction ponying-up) applies to aesthetics moreso rather than function. MnDOT will pay for functional bike lanes/bus lanes/etc etc (think of all the shoulders they’ve beefed up for bus use over the years). They will also pay for necessary lighting and fixtures. Things like decorative railings and lighting, however, squarely fall under aesthetics.

    Not saying that it’s right or wrong…just that it’s the way it is.

    Here is MnDOT’s Cost Participation Manual, which has the force of state law behind it. Relating to the High Bridge redecking project that Bill mentioned, the applicable sections would be II.D.3.d.2.i. (Lighting), II.D.3.e (Sidewalks/Bikeways), and II.D.3.f (Aesthetics). Per MnDOT’s Complete Streets Policy, they are required to consider bicycle/pedestrian considerations, so I don’t see the sidewalks or bike lanes going away. In fact, MnDOT will fully pay for replacing the sidewalk to its current width (I don’t know what that is) or 6 feet, whichever is wider. If it’s determined that wider sidewalks are needed, MnDOT will fully pay for that too.

    Where the issue comes in is with aesthetics. Though this is likely a Level A (high impact) project given its location, it is also a Priority 3 as it’s a preservation project (these designations come from the cost sharing manual). As a Priority 3 project, MnDOT is not required to cost-share for aesthetic items. They will pay for standard lighting and railings…but anything above the cost of those will have to be paid by the city.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      But aesthetics are really important for walking, just as important as getting rid of the 7 seconds of congestion by adding a million dollar turn lane (or whatever, pick a thousand examples).

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Just think how much city money there could be for Smith Ave bridge and many other projects if the Infrastructure Cult didn’t con St. Paul Public Works into thinking they need to replace the Kellogg Blvd bridge to maintain excess car capacity that was never needed in the first place.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        But is the goal to get state (federal, grant, etc) money? Or is the goal to invest wisely in our infrastructure?

        There’s no need to replace the bridge, even with Gateway BRT on the horizon.

        The way the cantilevers are designed, they can fit two lanes of traffic plus a dedicated bus lane (and buses don’t get held up in free-flowing bridge traffic since bridges feature an absence of conflict points) to help buses get past intersections on both ends of the bridge.

        But even if the money is “free” — why not do it?

        First, it becomes an increased liability for maintenance and eventual replacement. Even if the bridge has a 75 year lifespan rather than 30, you still have an eventual liability to replace the bridge. That’s in effect allocating future dollars to more road spending at the expense of spending on place or human investment.

        Second, the city may see “free state money” but there are (high) opportunity costs at the point source of the funds. The state *could* spend $40 million in transit capital funding for an unneeded bridge. OR the state *could* spend $40 million on something that *actually* would improve transit (even Gateway transit). That would probably pay for two online freeway stations in Woodbury, or HOT lane conversion all the way out to the eastern fringe, or two aBRT lines connecting to 3M, etc. All investments that would have a much higher ROI for people in the immediate vicinity of this bridge.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      well, compared to a car, people walking have far more options and variables; compared to a bridge, the variations of land use and design factors (including sound, smell, texture, “comfort”) are so much more nuanced. it probably doens’t seem that way, but sidewalks are far more “complex” than simple road systems that reduce the wide potential world of human interaction to little more than speed and a car horn.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    This is perhaps the most charitable account of the new University Avenue sidewalks I’ve ever read.

    They’re skimpier than most residential sidewalks — 5 or 6′ wide with a 3′ paved boulevard? Two people can barely walk abreast without one of them with their elbows in traffic — and certainly, they’d need to go single file for any oncoming pedestrians.

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I think we need to attack this from the opposite direction. We need to require and prioritize fairly specific facilities for people walking and riding bicycles.

    Every Road for Every Person

    Every road, stroad, and street should work for every user. If speed limits and motor vehicle volumes are low then no facilities are necessary. If speed limits are above 20 or 25 mph then cities, counties, and state should be required to install appropriate facilities with every new construction and every major reconstruction. As well, 20% of the miles of each years mill & overlay should require the addition of appropriate facilities.

    What’s appropriate? I’d suggest relabeling the Dutch CROW Manual for Bicycle Traffic as the MN Manual for Bicycle Traffic. But we can certainly look at alternatives. While many people, including the Dutch, despise MUPs, I think they are a good interim solution in some situations with low volumes of users. Whilst I (and the Dutch) rather dislike painted bike lanes, there may be situations where these may be a good interim solution. We do need to be specific with this though.

    My fear is that managing this from the funding side only wastes money and puts the focus on the money rather than the people our elected and government worker folk are intended to serve.

  5. Wayne

    I’m going to guess the ‘standard lighting’ is those big tall poles meant to light the road that do nothing for pedestrian safety, right? Maybe a good start is redefining their standard for street lighting to be something more human scale. If the street is darker and the sidewalks lighter, won’t most people slow down naturally like any other traffic calming? Keep those big poles for highways and stop trying to treat regular streets like highways with wide lanes and big lights.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      However, I gotta disagree about roadway lighting not being important. The vast majority of car-ped crashes, after all, don’t occur on sidewalks; they occur in roadways. Sooner or later a pedestrian needs to cross the street — or walk to the driver’s side of a car. In many neighborhoods and cities, pedestrians often need to walk in the street all the time. Many bicyclists have only rear reflectors or have dim rear lights. Lighting all these users is very important.

      I’m not even sure what “standard lighting” would mean in an urban context, since the local city always supplies lighting — except for on freeways and at isolated rural intersections where the DOT lights, indeed, with tall metal things. On many bridges, the “standard” is no lighting (like the Portland Crosstown bridge, and a few of the older 94 bridges), but that may not be the case for a long river bridge like the High Bridge that doesn’t benefit from adjacent freeway lights like an overpass would.

      1. Wayne

        If they had reasonable crossings with proper safety like bump outs, different pavement treatments for crosswalks or even humped crosswalks it would be a start. They could make sure the lighting at the properly-designed crossings was adequate for visibility of pedestrians and have a reasonable assumption that people wouldn’t cross elsewhere because they provided a safe and CONVENIENT crossing. Unfortunately crosswalks now are barely marked with paint (if even) and are often in inconvenient locations requiring you to go very far out of your way so cars don’t have to wait a few extra seconds. But throwing highway-style lighting into the mix certainly doesn’t make jaywalking across 4+ 11-12′ lanes any safer.

  6. wayne

    speaking of sidewalks, I’ve spent way too much time trying to find the relevant part of Minneapolis code where it gives how wide the clearance on a sidewalk must be and how to figure out if obstructions are allowed or they’re just doing it because no one enforces it. I decided to start reporting things that should be very obviously illegal to 311 and hoping they can find the right law. I’m going to be a sidewalk crusader and stop every oversized planter and A frame sign placed in the middle of the walkway. The sidewalk is everyone’s not some business owner who feels entitled to put whatever they want out there. Putting something in my way isn’t going to force me into your store.

    1. wayne

      As an addendum, in various places I’ve seen 4′ or 60″, so I just went with less than 4′ when reporting things. I’m sure they’ll cancel my complaint and tell me they only require 10″ or something asinine.

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