A Twin Cities Paving Moratorium

(No Exit) A Highway Map of the USALast Wednesday (February 4)  I attended a public presentation by Ramsey County engineers for a proposed redesign of the Randolph and Lexington Avenue intersection. They are proposing to spend a million and a half dollars to purchase four properties on the northeast corner of the intersection and bulldoze them to make space for a dedicated right-turn lane. They also propose to get rid of the sidewalk boulevard grass on Lexington, north of the intersection so they can add an additional northbound lane to that street and various other changes. All are designed to move more cars through the intersection at a higher rate of speed.

There are lots of reasons to oppose this intersection widening. One reason is that adding additional vehicle lanes (in an effort to increase vehicle speeds) will only make pedestrian crossings of this intersection more dangerous. It’s simple math. The more lanes pedestrians have to walk across, the more likely they will get hit by cars. When they get hit, the higher vehicle speeds will make crashes more deadly. This intersection has multiple bus stops and a Trader Joe’s supermarket. Many of the people going to Trader Joe’s come by bus or entirely on foot and have to cross some part of this intersection to reach the store. The county engineer gave no serious presentation of possible pedestrian improvements to the intersection and gave no presentation of pedestrian count and crash data. This was not surprising given that Ramsey County and Saint Paul don’t systematically collect this data. Bottom line, the proposed redesign would be good for cars (at least for a while) but terrible for pedestrians and cyclists.

Another reason to oppose widening this intersection has to do with economics. Spending $1.5 Million to acquire four properties for demolition is a huge waste of public money. Even at a measly rate of 1%, the annual interest on this money is $15,000 per year. More importantly, $1.5 Million in property value translates to over $30,000 in annual property tax revenues and right-of-way assessments. So to increase peak-hour driver travel times by less than one minute, the city and county will lose over $45,000 per year, forever. That’s the salary of a teacher, library worker or public safety employee, or the cost of an after-school program. Thus, if we widen this intersection for cars, we’ll be firing a public employee and diminishing the city’s social services.

Freeway construction and lane-widening projects have been doing this for fifty years or more. Look at this old plan set from 1953 from the then “proposed” I-35W in downtown Minneapolis and you can see each property that had to be eliminated just for this one interchange– at least 100 properties in all, some of them large apartment buildings.

highwayplan_detail03_600

If you conservatively assume an annual property tax of $5000 per property, I-35W eliminated a half million dollars of annual city revenue just for this one interchange, plus whatever they had to shell out to acquire the properties through eminent domain in the first place …and the interest on that money! Now multiply this one section by at least a hundred, for all of I-35E, I-35W, I-94 (through Rondo), Highway 55, 62 and countless other Twin Cities roads built since WWII and you’ll see how they eliminated tens of millions of dollars in annual Twin Cities property tax revenues. New parking requirements did the same thing. The post-war freeway building boom, which hasn’t entirely stopped, decimated American Cities, wiping out vast swaths of tax revenue and gutting urban areas with noise, traffic, smog and parking lots.

The car’s need for driving and parking space destroys cities and destroys walkable density. For this reason and all the environmental problems associated with cars, the Twin Cities and the entire nation could use a “Paving Moratorium.” This is a legal commitment on behalf of city governments and Departments of Transportation that we shouldn’t build any new roads or parking lots and that we shouldn’t be widening or expanding existing roads, parking lots, bridges and automobile infrastructure. After all, where will it end? Are we going to keep widening our streets and roadways and adding more parking until there’s no city left or until we’ve paved over the entire state?

The idea of a “Paving moratorium” is not new. I first heard the idea proposed by a guy named Jan Lundberg who set up a non-profit group in the early 1990s called “Alliance for a Paving Moratorium” (APM) and tried to get some of the major environmental groups to sign on. Sadly, groups like Environmental Defense, the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club wouldn’t do it. They were too busy doing cross-branding campaigns with car companies to acknowledge that cars and highways are “environmental enemy number one” and perhaps the biggest sources of pollution and greenhouse gases on the planet. Unable to achieve its mission, APM eventually faded out of existence.

Recently Charles Marohn at Strong Towns effectively made the case for a state Paving Moratorium strictly on economic grounds in his excellent post in early January at– http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/1/5/no-new-roads …which he followed up in more detail at– http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/1/18/the-classic-case.

As the Star Tribune and others have done before him, Marohn points out that the lion’s share of transportation dollars are going to incredibly wasteful new highway construction and expansion projects rather than maintaining the system we have, and almost no state money is being spent on improving conditions for bicycles or pedestrians.

Minnesota transit and bicycle advocates have hitched their cart to a statewide effort to get more money for transportation via a state lobby group called “Move MN.” In exchange for an additional metro sales tax for public transit and some dedicated bicycle/pedestrian money, Move MN is proposing to raise the state gas tax to pay for more highways. They did this same thing in 2008 and, while it helped to fund the state’s share of Central Corridor light rail, it also funded highway widening projects inside and outside the Twin Cities and made money available for some brand new, totally unnecessary roads and bridges. It’s part of the horse-trading that goes on between urban and out-state legislators. While I’d like to see additional bike/ped infrastructure and transit funding, it’s likely that a major infusion of new highway money will result in more proposals like widening the Randolph/Lexington intersection, or a northern connection of Ayd Mill Road and other awful widening and off-ramp projects that have laid festering for years, waiting for possible funding.

Clearly Marohn feels the same way. But, for opposing Move MN’s agenda, he’s gotten threats to his professional engineering license and other harassment. I guess this is to be expected from a group that’s mostly composed of asphalt, paving, and road construction companies. Rather than lobbying for more highway money in order to get some crumbs for transit, bikes and pedestrians, perhaps our time would be better spent trying to create ways to raise revenue for transit, bike and pedestrian needs at the local level and passing a Paving Moratorium for the Twin Cities.

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17 Responses to A Twin Cities Paving Moratorium

  1. Aaron Berger February 9, 2015 at 9:03 am #

    Thanks for this piece. I just bought a house in Longfellow after living in Cedar-Isles-Dean for a long time. Within the first week, I have had to literally run across Minnehaha Avenue from my bus stop to avoid getting hit by cars, and at a break in traffic a left-turning car almost ran me over in order to avoid missing “their” opening in traffic – and this at an intersection with major pedestrian destinations (Peace Coffee, Moon Palace, and the Trylon). Pedestrian travel should unquestionably be a human right. I’m tired of putting my life in danger so that cars can go faster.

    • Rosa February 9, 2015 at 10:29 pm #

      If I were queen of the world, there’d never be any right turns on red ever, because it leads to cars turning right across pedestrian walkways while the drivers look left (where the danger to them from other cars comes from.) Left turning cars do the same thing – they only look at what might hit them, not where they’re going.

      But also, the bike lane on Minnehaha functions as a de-fact car passing lane. It was really noticeable a few years ago when we had that super mild winter and lots of people were out walking and riding after dark in the winter. Cars don’t even slow down before veering over around any car waiting to turn left.

      • Kevin February 11, 2015 at 7:14 am #

        In Montreal, Canada, where I leave, no right turn on red for cars, and we intend to keep it that way!

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele February 9, 2015 at 9:17 am #

    #slowthecars
    #nonewroads

  3. Jack Fei February 9, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    I attended the same meeting as the author and agree with the idea of a ‘paving moritorium’. However, Randolph Avenue (a county road) is in very bad condition. Ramsey County needs to propose a design to use to guide reconstruction.

    The properties in question across the street from Trader Joe’s are an eyesore and should be demolished and redeveloped to create affordable housing with multi-modal transit access. The City of Saint Paul has included this as part of their 8 to 80 initiative. .

    Ramsey County owns Randolph Avenue’ and the City of Saint Paul owns a nearby property development initiative. It would be best if both projects initiatives are incorporated in one urban design plan. The alternative of doing a separate Ramsey County a Randolph Avenue street plan in 2016 then a St Paul redevelopment plan in 2017 & 2018 would incur greater cost, rework and disruption.

    Strong coordination between the City of Saint Paul and Ramsey County in the ’40 year impact Randolph reconstruction’ coupled with a high degree of public input and transparency in the planning process would greatly serve the public good.

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer February 9, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

      Redevelopment of the property and widening of the intersection are two different things. The former might potentially make sense (though the city’s redevelopment record is mixed), the latter does not make sense (to me). Also, I am not seeing the “High degree of public input and transparency in the planning process.” I see the Mac/Groveland District Council Transportation Committee expressing strong disapproval of the County intersection widening proposal and asking them to revise it (to consider pedestrians and other issues) and the county seemingly ignoring them and continuing to make the same presentations. I’ve also seen city council e-mails to the effect that condemnation proceedings may already be under way but I saw no opportunity for input prior to these recent meetings.

    • Mathias Fitzer February 9, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

      I am very glad to see support for the opposition of this proposal to widen a city street. I am not familiar with the area, though it does seem to be a good example of the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves.

      However, the comment about the existing properties at the intersection being an “eyesore” could use a little questioning as well. Sure, they are in dire need of repair, but forcing them out would only be repeating a mistake we’ve made too many times in the past. They already function as affordable housing, and are certainly connected with several modes of transit.

      If the existing public right-of-way was restructured for a better balance between transit modes, and also for local access, it could make the properties more desirable. The owners could either fix the places up in hopes of charging higher rent, sell the properties that are now more valuable to someone willing to fix them up, or even sell them to someone that is capable of re-developing them. This would be left up to the property owners to decide, which would allow the neighborhood to develop more organically. There is a long history of forcing redevelopment in urban planning, and the results are not always a good fit for the community. Take a look at the K-Mart where Nicollet Ave used to be in Minneapolis.

      The local government should really only be concerned with providing infrastructure and other resources to individual areas, rather than their specific use and aesthetics. Yeah, we have zoning laws for a reason, but we can certainly stand to relax them a bit and stop trying to make things perfect.

  4. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel February 9, 2015 at 11:02 am #

    Not to mention this Lexington/Randolph project is using “8-80 Funds” which is supposed to be for making the city more livable. I guess “livability” means different things to different people.

  5. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman February 9, 2015 at 11:22 am #

    This is kind of the counterpoint to Matthias Leyrer’s article, where he just wants what he feels is best for the city, and not to impose urbanism on the suburbs where it’s not wanted.

    • Daniel Herriges February 10, 2015 at 8:04 am #

      I’m curious, what did you see in the original post that implied “imposing urbanism on the suburbs”?

      I don’t see anything here about changing the suburbs. They can stay exactly the way they are now. But given our transportation funding situation, it’s not prudent to do new expansion of the (urban OR suburban) road network.

      The argument is for better priorities. There is a huge amount of necessary maintenance, bridge replacement etc. to do in Minnesota, but a large share of transportation money nonetheless gets directed to expansion projects instead, and there is every reason to think that will be even more the case if MoveMN gets everything it wants. As Andy Singer points out here, road expansion projects often end up destroying value, replacing productive land with an ever-more-expensive liability to be maintained in perpetuity.

      It seems to me that (necessary oversimplification alert) new paving projects only increase value when the added mobility / reduced congestion produces a net increase in the value of affected properties and the economic activity taking place on them, to the point that it exceeds the cost (including maintenance) of the new road or extra lane miles. I’m sure there’s a nonzero number of projects in Minnesota right now that meet that standard. But our current process for approving road projects usually fails miserably at assessing whether the ROI on a new road project is positive or negative before the project is approved. So a new-paving moratorium is a prudent policy for now, in that context. Even if a few worthy projects were casualties, it would prevent a whole lot of bad projects from happening.

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte Castleman February 10, 2015 at 11:53 am #

        Well, from my point of view any new highway project is a good one. But to answer your question, even if you don’t do anything, the suburbs will not be left alone. If you don’t build roads for all the new people coming into the exurbs, they’ll instead come into existing neighborhoods, driving up prices, increasing the density, increasing the congestion on the streets that can’t be expanded, and making them more and more like the cities that I’d never willingly live in. Even without this, I’ve already had developers try to buy out our house (which fortunately was stopped when the last housing bubble burst.

        • Rosa February 11, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

          doesn’t driving up prices increase property tax income for the city and make it possible to keep up the infrastructure you have, though?

          And widening the street is something the city might be able to do eminent domain for, which is like a developer trying to buy your house except you don’t get to say no. I’m not sure why your feelings on that translate into wanting a street widening project.

  6. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell February 9, 2015 at 11:56 am #

    Andy, great post.

    I wonder how many of the cars going through this intersection each day are only going one or two or three miles? How many of these people could just as easily or even more easily walk or ride a bicycle if they had a safe place to do so?

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele February 9, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

      True. Not to mention how the project will actually REDUCE the trip generation density of the infrastructure by eliminating dwellings in favor of turn lanes. We need to increase trip generation density, not decrease it.

  7. Hokan February 9, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

    I was an early endorser of Move MN, a decision I now regret. It now appears to me that it’s just a clever way for the car lobby to get cyclists and pedestrians supporting more highways.

  8. Andy Singer
    Andy Singer February 9, 2015 at 3:43 pm #

    Just to be clear, City, County and State DOTs spending their money on expansion is not unique to Minnesota– http://blog.tstc.org/2015/01/28/will-new-jersey-continue-misdirecting-what-little-transportation-funding-it-has/

  9. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig February 9, 2015 at 8:14 pm #

    I would not support a “paving moratorium”, as there are some improvements that would be very worthwhile in redirecting and reducing traffic on local streets. For example, the idea to improve Shepard Rd to pull traffic off of West 7th that was recently championed here on Streets.MN.

    IMO, a “paving moratorium” is a knee-jerk reaction to the knee-jerk reaction the county made in proposing this right turn lane. They’re both extremes on the opposite ends of the spectrum.

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