The Infrastructure Debate in a Nutshell

Minnesota’s bridges are still out there aging as the title of this opinion piece by Lori Sturdevant announces. When it hit the pages of the Star Tribune earlier this week Sturdevant makes the argument that transportation funding at the State level is needed or taxpayers will “pay a high price if they continue their habit of neglect.”

If only things were that simple.

Explaining infrastructure financing: 10th Avenue Bridge example

The problem with infrastructure funding can be boiled down to the example given in this Strib Opinion piece: the 10th Avenue Bridge.

The 10th Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis is a local street with a local bridge that serves local traffic. Yet, we find it necessary to criticize state legislators for not allocating money to support a project that has no state or regional significance. Herein lies the disconnect between how we think transportation financing works and how it actually works.

Different levels of government are responsible for different roadways. For example, you can pass a major Federal transportation bonding bill that will allocate money to highways, interstates or some choice transit projects, yet none of that money will trickle to local streets or bridges. Also, 57% of the funds would go to new projects and not maintenance.

Why can’t Minneapolis afford this bridge?

This bridge does need repair work. No question about it.  Minneapolis claims it cannot afford the bridge. This is probably a true statement. So at this point, we should ask ourselves: why can’t Minneapolis afford this bridge?

In my mind, this is the billion dollar question.

Minneapolis can’t afford the bridge because it doesn’t want to. Why? Because Minneapolis doesn’t truly see the value to build it entirely by itself. This is reminiscent of the Chuck Marohn-ism of eating lobster. It goes something like, “I love lobster and am will eat it every day if someone is willing to continually pay 75% of my bill.” This is the position in which the City of Minneapolis finds itself.

Prior to the construction of the adjacent I-35W Bridge it would have made financial sense, but transportation preferences have changed and we should adapt. It might sound crazy, but what if we radically changed how we view and use this bridge?

Does Minneapolis need the 10th Avenue Bridge, or what’s the real problem?

Does Minneapolis actually need the 10th Avenue Bridge? When I-35W was non-existent during its reconstruction in 2007-2008, travel times weren’t drastically affected. So, why would 10th Avenue be any different? I mean, take a look at this four-lane road on StreetView.

10th Ave Failure

The Strib op ed states if there is no transportation bill this year, the 10th Avenue project could grow from a $42 million repair job to a $100-million-plus replacement. I reject this claim. If we blindly rebuild 10th Avenue, then yes. But, if we look at other options, then no! Other options are available and can yield a better result.

I vote we close the bridge, or drastically reduce it car capacity and add another low-impact bike/ped connection between the two banks of the University campus. This would be much cheaper and have far more benefit.

We can’t keep throwing money at a problem without a good feedback loop. The four lane local street/bridge combination has likely run its course, and let’s seriously re-evaluate if this is what we actually need or want.

25 thoughts on “The Infrastructure Debate in a Nutshell

  1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

    Two items of note:

    – First, there’s been ongoing negotiation over a number of years for all Twin Cities-area major river crossings to be transferred to MnDOT jurisdiction. I do not know what the status of this is.

    – Second, the 10th Ave Bridge is on the MSAS system, so it’s not like there isn’t a funding stream available. Catch there is that MSAS only gets about 9% of state gas tax and vehicle registration revenue, and as more cities go over 5,000 population, it needs to get spread out more.

    You may be right that this is a case where Minneapolis doesn’t want to afford the bridge. That said, major rivers can be even more of a barrier than freeways due to their width and the lack of crossings over them.

    One more item of note: because this is downstream of Lock and Dam #1, this is on a navigable section of the river. Which means any potential “low impact” crossing will not be as “low impact” as you might want it to be.

  2. jeffk

    I’m with you on the general philosophy but I am a little puzzled by your conclusion. Shouldn’t we be working to build more connectivity in small ways and focusing less on giant freeway bridges? How does having only a freeway effect the ability of people to make short local trips and patronize local businesses? How does it effect the movement of pedestrians and cyclists?

    I know we can’t go back in time, but it seems to me the reason we can’t afford this bridge is we’re taxed to support the building of the I35 bridge, and we lose tax base because of it. Ideally w should have never rebuilt it, shut down 35 inside the beltway, and fixed our local city bridges. Now that it’s too late (and of course that was politically infeasible anyway), it’s not absolutely clear to me what the solution is but tearing out a local bridge seems like acquesing to the freeway model. Maybe we should fight to cut MNDOTs budget, which is spent building stroads in Ramsey, and then raise our local taxes and fix our bridge.

    1. Nathaniel

      My opinion on the bridge is that the $100m to rebuild it to what is currently is (basically the plan) is subpar. Transportation options and travel behavior (and our city) has changed. We should be able to consider this.

      Minneapolis can’t afford the bridge. Transportation financing is goofy and must people (rightfully) don’t understand it. I struggle sometimes, and I follow this stuff pretty closely.

      1. jeffk

        Right, but we could afford the bridge if local money wasn’t being sucked away for stupid suburban development and city freeways. So why not fight against that system instead? Your outlook appears to be a bleak one of, we built it the wrong way and now we’re too poor to fix it because we’re still building things the wrong way.

  3. Evan RobertsEvan

    I agree that the debate/discussion about this bridge illustrate some of the absurdities of taxes raised in a city by the state then being handed back to the city after lots of time-consuming discussion and paperwork, and that the whole process confuses local priorities since the money appears to be “free”.

    But I would note that bridges have a high marginal value for connectivity compared to other parts of the network, and this bridge in particular has a high value for pedestrians and cyclists.

    That said, it’s absurdly overbuilt for the car traffic it carries, and there would be few moments of the day when anyone would lose any time from it being one lane each way.

    The view from the northern side is really quite nice, and I think they should put a protected pedestrian / bike lane there just for the views.

    1. Rosa

      IF a bike/ped (motorcycle? moped? who all would be excluded and shunted onto the highway, here?) bridge were built FIRST, it might be OK to close the bridge to most traffic. But what about all the local traffic if, following the general pattern, only car traffic were considered, it was shunted onto 35, and for several years there was just nothing? That bridge is an important connector.

  4. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Gonna try to make sense of the thoughts in my head 🙂

    A bridge is the quintessential piece of infrastructure that should be paid in one of two ways. In an urban context, bridges cost many, many multiples of providing a similar link on the ground. The value of property on either side of the bridge should be great enough to not only pay for their own infrastructure, but to make the link between them. As Adam (F) points out, there are only so many river crossings, even near downtown, so they better count. And, to the extent you can accomplish it given geological constraints, the impact on either side should be as minimal as possible.

    Not that every street exists to serve only the properties directly surrounding it. How local do we define a section of street? At the block level, nearly everyone is a “through” user. In the case of bridges within cities, you’ll definitely have people using them (by transit, bike, car) that come from and/or end at locations beyond the immediate neighborhood on the other side.

    But here we have a 10th Ave bridge directly paralleling a (much more expensive) freeway with exits that serve (what remains of) the exact same neighborhoods 10th Ave serves. I’m not saying we should encourage the use of freeways for such local trips, but the impact of 35W on either side of the river is pretty obvious. Perhaps Minneapolis could have afforded to maintain this bridge on their own using a slice of property taxes mostly from the areas served on either side of it had 35W not carved through. Certainly there would have been more intense redevelopment of those places over the last 60 years absent the freeway.

    I’d rather have 2-3 additional local bridge crossings in or near downtown (with the land uses they support) than one $234m freeway bridge. This new bridge in Portland carries bikes, peds, LRT, and buses. It’s 40% longer than the 35W bridge and cost ~50% to build. But, we live in a world where 35W exists through Minneapolis so asking MnDOT to pay for part of the bridge rehabilitation may not be that crazy.

    1. Nathaniel

      1. Transportation financing is difficult to understand, and often times, makes us do things we don’t want to do to get money. There is, rightfully so, public confusion over all this.
      2. The 10th Ave Bridge as it stands isn’t optimal for the surrounding land use. To spend $42m to fix it (or $100m to replace) in the same design isn’t a wise choice. We don’t need a big bridge here, so we should consider the following:
      – Essential repairs only, and limit car traffic (which causes a majority of the wear and tear).
      – Add a needed (comfortable) bike/ped connection (which is low cost). This would have much more benefit than keeping the car-oriented design (which may have made sense prior to 35w).

      I also want to address that this is essentially a local bridge that serves local traffic, and we shouldn’t fault state-level politicians for not funding something that doesn’t have a regional/state significance.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        I’m with you on the recommendations. I struggle to believe its current design was really all that necessary pre-35W anyway (hell, bridges in much more populated London/Paris have the same number of thru-lanes on their river crossings), but it certainly doesn’t need to be so today given traffic counts.

        And, I agree we shouldn’t fault state politicians for not funding something like this. But there is a bit of hypocrisy when they have no problem funding large freeway extensions or major exits (plus portions of the collector roads, etc) that serve mostly local traffic (or, traffic that could have been local somewhere closer in on existing infrastructure), but then balk at paying for part of a bridge like this.

  5. Jason Goray

    This has been mentioned in some of the previous comments, but its significant enough that I think it bears repeating:

    The 35W bridge does not handle pedestrians, cyclists, scooters, or any other non-interstate traffic like people on permits and whatnot.

    Whether the solution is adding those capabilities to the 35W bridge, fixing the 10th Ave bridge, or making the 10th ave bridge only accessible to those who can’t use 35W so we can defer repairs doesn’t really matter that much to me, but one way or another, we have to keep the capability for non-interstate users to cross the river.

    1. Nathaniel

      Jason – We should have a connection via the 10th Ave Bridge, but I challenge the notion that it is a State-level issue (which the Strib Op Ed seems to think). If we limited car travel (lowered maintaince on bike/ped bridge); we’d improve connections for local users (lots of students especially) and limit the cost. It’s sort of a win-win.

      1. Barb

        But if it does serve a significant connection for people bicycling and walking, which is does, shouldn’t the state have the responsibility to serve all modes of transportation?

      2. Rosa

        it does serve the University of Minnesota – does that change things at all for whose responsibility it should be?

  6. James WardenJames Warden

    Whatever (bad) transportation funding plan they settle on, I’d love for them to include some statewide turnback study. This is the source of so many bad decisions.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Iowa had a similar situation where there were a number of short, “dead end” highways that had no business being under state control. They followed the Minnesota process of rebuilding and turning them back at the rate of one or two a year, then the legislature just passed a law that the counties had to take them all without compensation.

      But there’s two things going on. One is the statewide jurisdictional realignment study:

      The other is the repeated long term goal of having the state highway system in the metro correspond to principal arterials. Possible trade fodder to the counties and city in exchange for Mn/DOT taking over the bridges are Highway 5 west of US 212, and MN 47 and MN 65. Hennepin County is probably where the alignment is actually the closest.

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        It should be noted that, with the exception of the Wabasha St Bridge, ALL of the NON-MnDOT Mississippi River roadway bridges in the metro area are in Minneapolis. Going upriver, you have to go to Elk River (and then St. Cloud beyond that) to find a local river crossing that isn’t a state highway.

  7. Rosa

    This is pretty personal for me: I spend the summer working in Northeast, which is stupid hard to get to from South Minneapolis by transit (especially on weekends and late nights, when I work) and so I rely on my bike; 10th Ave Bridge is the most direct route for me to get to work almost every time.

    It would be great if city planners planned around pedestrians and bikes when doing repairs and upgrades, but that’s pretty obviously not what happens; sidewalks and bike lanes are often blocked while a way is found through for car traffic. So any decisions to not fund a bridge because there’s already a highway bridge, no matter how much you can promise/hope for future bike and pedestrian upgrades or replacements, mean at least several years of just losing acccess while stuff is planned/built. And that’s an optimistic timeline that assumes it will eventually be built.

    1. Wayne

      Don’t worry, they’ll have a detour to bridge no. 9 that involves descending about 60 feet vertically then climbing it again and going about ~1 mile out of your way!

      I also love the ‘sidewalk closed use other side’ signs mid-block where you can’t cross to the other side of the street.

      1. Jason Goray

        For what its worth, my daughter’s preschool is literally at the top of the hill on the east side of #9 bridge.

        My partner can’t use that bridge because climbing a ~10% grade for about the distance of a football field is beyond her abilities on her bike when carrying two kids.

        I’m not sure I could do it if I didn’t have a ridiculously low gear on my bike.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Not that it helps for getting to the preschool, but that bridge is a whole lot more appealing now that the Bluff Street Bikeway is done.

          1. Jason Goray

            *nodnod* and the Dinkytown trench as well.

            If you want to get from downtown/northloop to the stadium or over to the State Fair grounds, #9 is great.

            Its much more an east/west connector than a north/south one, though.

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