Last 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.
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.