One Small Breath of Fresh Air at the DOT

Strong Towns recently highlighted this video from the Tennessee DOT which is worth 4 minutes for anyone who thinks about land use and transportation issues.

In the video, Tennessee DOT Commissioner John Schroer says: “A lot of cities did a poor job of long-range planning in how they did zoning and how they approved projects and took very little consideration into the transportation mode” and then the city call the DOT and ask for help treating this self-inflicted wound. Hearing a DOT official connect land use and transportation was surprising enough to be part of Sh*T DOTs Never Say rather than something a DOT Commissioner really did say.

Northfield’s Planning Mistakes

He’s right. Northfield has made some poor long-range planning mistakes which we’re asking MnDOT to help fix. Commissioner Schroer (who spent 13 years on his local school board) seemed eerily familiar with Northfield when he said cities will build a school “in the wrong place without thinking of transportation” and “put the building on the cheapest piece of property they can find and that usually has no transportation” rather than an initially more expensive location which is better connected and could save money in the long run.

Indeed. Northfield Middle School was built on 60.6 acres of farm fields at the southern edge of town in 2004, but the lack of “consideration into the transportation mode” went back decades. The fringe location was driven partly by Northfield’s planning; the 2001 Comprehensive Plan guided schools – because of their vehicle traffic impacts – to the edges of residential developments. But, state school siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students (these were rescinded in 2009) so the planning issue was not purely local.

Northfield Middle School

Northfield Middle School

Not only did the southern fringe location increase the distance to school for many students, but prior planning decisions make the Middle School hard to reach even for those living within sight of the school. The school sits on the west side of Minnesota Trunk Highway 246 which is the only continuous north-south route through Northfield except Minnesota Trunk Highway 3 (Northfield is not unique. Recent posts here on tell a similar story in Mankato).

Northfield did make long-range planning mistakes by approving the residential subdivision to the west. The design with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop of street means the only exit from the subdivision is onto Jefferson Parkway which is the only continuous east-west connection. And, the City also made mistakes on the east side of 246 where any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway were also cut off by residential development. Add the 45 increasing to 55 mph speed limits on 246 and Northfield effectively prevented most pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off-street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing. All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).

Northfield's Middle School and how to get there

Northfield’s Middle School and how to get there

Northfield is now asking MnDOT for help to fix the problem intersection by applying for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant to study this intersection and determine the best, most cost-effective improvement at a total project cost of $477,250. Possible fixes for the intersection included in the 2009 Safe Routes to School Plan were signalization, underpass or overpass, and a roundabout; each of these solutions would bring its own price tag plus issues with wetland mitigation, right-of-way acquisition, and related issues, so costs will rise.

Could (or should) MnDOT have been able to save us from this? MnDOT might have been able to help Northfield address redesigning the intersection at the time of construction, but their concerns were limited to impacts to their highway such as the number of new curb cuts (limited to three), the degradation of the level of service on their trunk highway (to be monitored) and whether the intersection would meet warrants for signalization (no).

DOTs Planning Mistakes

On the other hand, while Northfield has approved projects like the Middle School without regard to the transportation issues (especially non-motorized transportation), MnDOT (and Rice County) have approved transportation projects without regard to land use which are also costing Northfield and MnDOT more in the long run.

Northfield's Highway 3

Northfield’s Highway 3

Trunk Highway 3 is the big mistake through the middle of Northfield, of course. Northfield was awarded a $1.1 million TIGER grant to construct a grade-separated crossing (plus a $500,000 local match), but engineering difficulties and increasing cost killed that project. On the plus side, MnDOT has begun to recognize the impact of their projects on the local landscape by agreeing to pay for some of the increases in the TIGER project before its demise.

MnDOT has another opportunity to share costs of retrofitting the highway this year as Northfield has applied for a Local Road Improvement Project grant to redesign the intersection at 3rd Street. The project is estimated at $273,647.00 ($50,000 local funds). Finally, a further improvement north of downtown at Fremouw Road has been penciled into the CIP at a cost of $280,000.

3rd Street and TH3 Northfield

Northfield is currently working to avoid the next DOT-imposed mistake. Woodley Street, also known as CSAH 28, is being planned now. Rice County’s engineer is insisting on 12’ travel lanes and resisting bicycle and pedestrian improvements to this county arterial road while Northfield is trying to work its Safe Routes to School plan and tailor the roadway to the residential neighborhood through which it passes. Perhaps Commissioner Schroer might take a conference call to lend some support to better local land use/transportation planning?

Rice County design standards

Rice County design standards

More Fresh Air Needed

Commissioner Schroer is a breath of fresh air which I hope blows all the way to Minnesota, but he only told half the story of the disconnect between transportation and land use planning. Perhaps retrofitting mistakes like the intersection near the Middle School and Highway 3 will cost enough to give cities like Northfield the strength and political will to challenge MnDOT or our own engineers to work for more context-sensitive solutions the first time. And, if cities like Northfield ask for enough money to fix problems, perhaps MnDOT will work with us when planning its own improvements to serve the local land use context better.

This post also appeared on the author’s blog Small Town, Big Picture

18 thoughts on “One Small Breath of Fresh Air at the DOT

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree with you about the Middle School — it does feel almost like the DOT commissioner in the video is talking about Northfield.

    But I don’t totally follow you on your criticism of the intersection evaluation at Division (246) and Jefferson:

    “Northfield is now asking MnDOT for help to fix the problem intersection by applying for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant to study this intersection and determine the best, most cost-effective improvement at a total project cost of $477,250”

    Is this really asking the DOT to fix our problems? Growth is inevitable, even if should have been done more compactly, more incrementally, and more in the spirit of Northfield. Asking for a better intersection than a massive all-way stop seems reasonable. (Although as a matter of detail, bad local design on Jefferson Pkwy, including dedicated left and right turn lanes onto Division, are part of what makes this intersection bad.)

    Also, is that $477k to actually build a new intersection? Or just to study the problem?

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          Would this be an underpass for cars or just bicycles? My reading of this is that it would be only for bicycles which I would think not massively expensive and would work quite well.

  2. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great post Betsy.

    I think something else we should be considering is getting away from centralized mega-schools like this and back to more local/neighborhood schools with no more than about 150 students per grade. This would be better from a transportation standpoint as students would be closer and more could walk or bicycle and I think it’d be better from an education/discipline/development standpoint for the students.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Northfield also failed, massively, by building a hospital in the middle-of-nowhere fringe. Work at the hospital, one of the major employers in town? Good for you! You now have no choice but to drive to work! That’s the message we send with the status quo.

  4. Thomas Mercier

    I recognize that development patterns in Northfield aren’t ideal but are they as horrible as ya’ll are suggesting? The two mentioned developments (school/hospital) aren’t in the center of town but aren’t horrifically misplaced given the context in my opinion. The walking distance between these two far-flung developments is a whopping 4.2 miles despite one being on the NW and one on the SE side of town and limited opportunities to cross the natural geographic barrier that has forced much of the land development orientations of the city (as well as the town’s justification for being there).
    I don’t know of any locations more centrally located within town that would have been able to house either development without destruction of existing structures and the need to build more vertically. The school sits beside the HS and an elem. school which seems like a logical concentration of resources for the school district. The hospital isn’t seated on the edge of development but it’s location had a lot to do with access to financial resources by placing it in Dakota County if I remember correctly.
    I also don’t fully get the criticism of the roadways around the school. Some of the cul-de-sacs highlighted in the included map are not planned to remain cul-de-sacs as residential development continues to expand around the school while others that are used are for short streets and existing walking paths connect many as well. I think this might be a reasonable compromise between home buyer’s desires and good planning. In regards to the major intersection of Jefferson and Dennison, given the expected combination of child bike/peds peak volumes with peak car volumes some signals probably would have been advisable but retrofitting two roadways with 100 and 150 ft. ROW’s (respectively) where three of the four intersection’s quadrants are in public ownership (school or city) should leave plenty of options for improved safety.
    All in all I wouldn’t call most of these decisions ideal but most decisions in the real world aren’t.

    1. Monte Castleman

      At a Middle School at least there’s not a lot of demand for parking relative to a high school, but it looks like their was absolutely zero in the way of outdoor athletic facilities at the old Middle School, and I presume rebuilding on the site or the adjacent park wouldn’t solve that. When I was in Middle school every nice day we were out on the running track, softball fields, and such for Phy-Ed. There’s a lot of that that appears to be now shared with the high school.

      I also sense a lot of people expect schools to be tasked with preserving old buildings no matter what the expense, when they’re in the business of running schools, not museums. Yes, Cass Technical High School in Detroit was a really cool building, but a modern facility was viewed as serving their needs better.

      On the other hand, my old school, Minnehaha Academy, was burdened with obsolete and aging buildings, and in the early 1980s seriously discussed the idea of leveling the original 1912 building and replacing it with a modern structure, or else moving the whole school to the suburbs. At the time they shoe-horned both the Middle and Upper School into the same building, and compounding the problem the proposed auditorium on the front lawn wasn’t built with the 1970s fine arts addition as had been planned. Ultimately though replacement was dropped when Breck decided to decamp to the suburbs and build fresh after their chapel was burned down by a disgruntled student, and their old building came up for sale at an attractive price. Over time the cool (plaster walls, globe light fixtures, wood floors, high ceilings, transom windows) but decaying interior was remodeled to modern standards, and then a few years ago they finally got a seperate gym and auditorium by building to the north and replacing a 1949 addition that had foundation problems.

    2. Nathanael

      The development patterns in Northfield are god-awful. They’re bad enough that I’d seriously suggest relocating Carleton and St. Olaf to a better-planned city.

      The hospital situation is frankly outrageous. It will probably have to be moved.

  5. Betsey Buckheit

    Hospital: The hospital was sited in Dakota County for the higher metro area Medicare/Medicaid reimbursements (although Northfield removes land from Metro Council jurisdiction when it annexes it to the city) and road connections south to Highway 19 were not considered until the facility was planned.

    Middle School: I don’t have any problem with asking MnDOT for help (financial, technical or otherwise) for improving the intersection, only to suggest that Commissioner Schroer is right – our land use planning created a problem…and now, as he noted, we’re asking the DOT to fix it.

    Specific solutions – roundabouts, over/under passes or other fixes are as yet undesigned, so questions about bikes only, etc. can’t be answered.

    1. Monte Castleman

      With Medicare there’s none of the negotiation that goes on with commercial insurance plans. The government tells what it’s going to pay, the hospital has to accept it, and in most cases they wind up losing money. Medicare payments vary somewhat by how expensive an area is, so technically being part of the metro combined with the number of Medicare patients there are is significant. Anyone have an alternative location closer in where they could have put a new hospital without it costing a lot more money to buy and clear much more expensive land?

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        It seems that the nearby intersection of North Ave & Cedar Ave would have been more appropriate. In fact, that has the same property owner (St. Olaf). The northwest quadrant was completely undeveloped at the time, and it is at least immediately adjacent to a developed portion of Northfield. Had the infrastructure money that went into building out North Ave westeard and Eaves Ave instead gone toward extending North Ave east to Hwy 3 and ped improvements to Cedar/Greenvale curve, this would have been dramatically more accessible to the west side of Northfield, and to Highway 3.

        Even better would have been on the county line on Highway 3, but I assume that was not in the mix because of existing development there (although, not especially high-value) and restrictions on annexing land from Waterford Township.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          ^ All of course, with the assumption that being in Dakota County was inevitable. If that’s not assumed, I would have preferred to see the old site used, at a higher density, with structured parking.

          That, or Riverfront Redevelopment Site (that became The Crossing), or Q-block would have all been dramatically more central than the new site.

          1. Thomas Mercier

            The old hospital was several stories tall already so probably would have had to be torn down and rebuilt even taller (pricier). As a pro/con their parking was multi-modal, unfortunately it was for both cars and helicopters (you had to move your car if they needed the helipad).

            1. Monte Castleman

              Was there even room at the present side to tear down and rebuild all the while continuing operation of the hospital? Sounds like no if they had to move a car to land a helicopter.

              With hospitals you really have two problems, they’re old buildings (energy inefficient, maintenance intensive) and the wrong kind of buildings, they’re difficult to retrofit to modern standards. It’s not just finding place for a new MRI machine, there’s a fundamental shift towards private rooms based on both patient expectations and that the patients that are inpatient nowadays are sicker than in days past. If you take one bed out of each room you have to find someplace on the site to put a new room, and the old room is a lot deeper than needed for a single bed.

              From the hospitals point of view they want to make the new facilities both as inexpensive as possible and attractive for discretionary patients who will likely be driving cars, both of which tilt things towards cheap land on the edge of town. Not saying this is right or wrong, just the way it is.

              This is an issue with big city hospitals too, except they don’t really have the options of decamping to the edge of town. Some are building new private room facilities for specialties where the patients are almost all there by choice, like maternity, Some of them are instead advertising how good their services and doctors are instead of how good their facility is. Rather than rebuild on site North Memorial instead elected to move beds to Maple Grove, which makes sure you know they’re a new facility with all private rooms.

  6. Andrew

    Does anyone else see the irony of holding up a real estate developer turned Tennessee DOT Commissioner as a ‘great example’? Even as he is busy pointing fingers at everyone besides the private sector?

    It is a tad bit ambivalent to suggest that it’s ‘just the cities fault’. Private interests often politically sway local long range plans in the first place, it isn’t by some ambivalence toward proper context sensitive design that produced the outcomes we have today. Zoning is often a representation of local attitudes. To that extent land use planning is not some homogenous thing. It’s not exactly ‘fixing’ what local residents and city officials wanted in the first place. It’s changing attitudes about what we do want to result out of the planning process.

  7. Betsey Buckheit

    Part of the point was to acknowledge the small blast of fresh air of any DOT Commissioner considering local land use and the possibility of longer term cost savings from better integration of land use/transportation. The other was to say DOT’s are just as bad at ignoring local land use with their projects.

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