Is Ramsey County Stopping the Bike Plan Before it Starts?


From yesterday’s city budget address.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Saint Paul bike utopia. As it turns out, the key streets where we need bike lanes aren’t really controlled by the city. Try as they might, the Mayor, City Council, and the Public Works department can’t build safe bike infrastructure on its own, because almost all the most dangerous streets in Saint Paul are designed and controlled by Ramsey County or Mn-DOT.

And judging by their most recent meeting, Ramsey County doesn’t seem to have much interest in helping with the city bike plan. Last week, the County Board voted to postpone bike lanes on the two most crucial routes that were on the agenda. One of them, Cleveland Avenue, was somewhat controversial, and has been thoroughly covered here. A lot of thought was put into the decision to delay the project pending meetings a task force being put together as we speak.


Commissioner Rettman asking County Public Works to repave the street without bike lanes.

But the other one, Front Avenue, which runs through the city’s underpriveleged North End neighborhood, is a bike lane no brainer. At no extra cost, the county would stripe bike lanes on a street that’s part of the recently passed city bike plan, with the only downside being the reduction of minimally used parking spaces.

Yet the County, led by Commissioner Janice Rettman, voted to table the bike lanes pending a community meeting, claiming a lack of “public process.” Instead they’re going to be having a meeting at the last minute this Thursday.


The Parking Data


Just one snapshot of Front Avenue.

The main sticking point for Commissioner Rettman was that parking would be lost along Front Street. That’s a common problem with almost any proposal to increase infrastructure for biking and walking, because pretty much anywhere you can think of to park a car, someone has tried to park a car.

That why, after passing the bike plan back in May, Saint Paul developed a new implementation process for making decisions about building its bike plan.

Here’s the key part: they actually count the parked cars.

The reason this process is so ingenious is that parking is one of those things that, along with taxes, traffic, and rooting for the Vikings, can incite wild amounts of hostility. (Here’s an extreme case.) That’s why using data to inform policy is far better than relying on emotional anecdotes.

It turns out when you actually count the cars using cardinal numbers, people rarely park on Front Avenue. Partly that’s because much of the street is along a cemetery. (As they say, “dead men park no cars.”) The majority of the actual parked cars are located in one spot in front of one popular bar. And because the project only removes parking on one side of the street, the city is basically asking people to walk an extra two dozen feet to their car.

As far as bike lanes go, this is one of the least controversial projects that is ever likely to happen in Saint Paul. Which is why the recent delay begs the question: If we can’t put in a bike lane here, on what Ramsey County roads can we do it?


Results from 2 of the 9 parking counts using cardinal numbers that were done by the City of Saint Paul.


Community Engagement


A flier I found on Front Avenue the day before the public meeting, put out by a political candidate.

The cherry on the cake here is that Commissioner Rettman is convinced that the existing city-led public process was irrelevant because, as she said at the (very confusing) County Board meeting, she went door-to-door over the weekend and talked to people who complained to her.

It’s a free country. Rettman knocking on doors is fine, but not if it replaces actual public engagement. That’s because there are better and worse ways to do community engagement, and cities and counties should be careful about how they plan meetings and get public feedback.

charles avenue 2

The gold standard for public engagement on street design was on Charles Avenue back in 2012.

Some interesting questions: Where is the meeting held? What time of day? What kind of notice did you give? What services for people who speak other languages will you provide? How about daycare? Can you comment online? What kind of questions are you asking? Will the participants be given actual decision making power?

Note that this is particularly challenging for public works departments, which are staffed mostly with engineers who are almost always better at math than public speaking. That’s why in the last few years, Public Works departments around the country have been trying to do better at engaging the public.

(Here are two good ideas, or check out this conversation I had with Saint Paul’s Public Works director on MPR earlier this year.)

The last thing a responsible government should do is to announce a public meeting at the last minute, leaflet a neighborhood with disinformation, and then throw a staff person in front of an angry mob.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in Saint Paul this week, thanks to the highly-confused vote.

(To be fair, during the meeting, a few of the Commissioners expressed concerns about conducting an on-the-fly last-minute public process, and the Public Works director was on the record opposing having a meeting. But it’s happening anyway…)


What is the County Role?


Javier, one of the kids biking outside of an Open House about bike lanes in Saint Paul yesterday.

Inter-jurisdictional relations are often testy. For years, Minneapolis and Saint Paul have been engaged in a slow debate with their respective counties over transportation planning.  For example, Franklin Avenue, Minneapolis’ most dangerous street, is a County Road. And Saint Paul has many deadly four-lane County Roads, whose results speak for themselves. But in both cities, we’re starting to see some progress around safety and promoting bicycling and walking.

The Saint Paul Bike Plan was unanimously adopted back in May to great fanfare, and involved a large amount of community feedback. There were tons of people at the city hall meeting, and many times more comments collected through letters, emails, phone calls, and on the city’s website. The Bike Plan took years to put together, was delayed repeatedly, and is rooted long-term planning at levels all through the city, county, and region. (Note: I personally testified at the June 17th City Council hearing in support of the Front Avenue bike lanes; there were around a dozen people there sharing their opinion.)

bike-coalition-public-meetingI’m sure that Thursday’s meeting will be entirely unhelpful toward achieving any of Saint Paul’s long-standing goals about increasing walking and biking, reducing pollution, or creating healthy neighborhoods with strong local economies. It sets a bad precedent for Saint Paul’s transportation future.

Thankfully, I’ll be out of town.



PS. Needless to say, if you live, work, or bike in Ramsey County, it  wouldn’t hurt to send your Commissioners an email:,

37 thoughts on “Is Ramsey County Stopping the Bike Plan Before it Starts?

  1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

    Someone tried to ask Commissioner Rettman about her actions on Front last night at the Western meeting (not really sure why she was there), but she refused to answer any of his questions.

  2. Wayne

    Keep county government out of city road planning! It’s the drumbeat I’ll keep marching to and nothing will improve until we either completely throw the counties out of city planning or they get entirely new blood in county government. I prefer the former, because having so many layers involved in something so local is asinine.

      1. Jeff

        Commissioner Reinhardt seems to be in favor of the lanes. And apparently including Lexington and Front Ave lanes was the staff recommendation:

        1. Approve the County staff recommendation to implement bike lanes on Front Avenue
        from Lexington Parkway to Dale Street, including the removal of on-street parking
        along the south side of Front Avenue from Churchill Avenue to Dale Street.
        2. Approve the County staff recommendation to implement bike lanes on Lexington
        Parkway from Nettleton Avenue to West 7th Street, including the removal of onstreet
        parking along the west side of Lexington Parkway between Nettleton Avenue
        and Albion Avenue, and the removal of on-street parking on the east side of
        Lexington Parkway between Albion Avenue and West 7th Street.
        3. Approve the County staff recommendation to complete mill and overlay work on
        Cleveland Avenue as part of the 2015 pavement preservation program and apply
        durable pavement markings as currently configured.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Isn’t the Cleveland striping still up in the air? Seems like jumping the gun to install durable markings (thermoplastic, I assume?) that will last 5-10 years if it’s quite likely to change in the next two.

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            Exactly… sounds like durable pavement markings is a way to un-“up-in-the-air” this… thermoplast is expensive.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    In 2013, you published a post which contained the following quote: “Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

    This seems to apply in this post. The complete disappearance of bicycle facilites on these routes is a waste and a disappointment. But it is St. Paul and lack of direction from the St. Paul city council that derailed the project.

    Commissioner Rettman appears to simply be piling on. The County, in general, has far less interest in parking than the city or the neighborhood — but they do have an interest in ensuring their projects gain approval and minimize friction.

    If the County feels they need to sacrifice bike lanes to avoid even the slightest inconvenience to people parking their cars, I think it’s on St. Paul to turn that impression around. Certainly, what happened on Cleveland did not do that.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Yeah guilty, but the question is there because we really don’t know what the County will decide to do here. I’m hopeful they might stripe the lanes after the meeting anyway.

    2. Stuart

      Considering that 4 of the 7 County Commissioners are all (or mostly) for St Paul districts, I agree that this is as much a St Paul issue as it is a Ramsey County issue. I would expect the St. Paul and Ramsey County Governments to be much more in sync than Minneapolis and Hennepin County are.

      Also, if a “City Bike Plan” is based almost entirely on putting lanes on “County Roads” it does not control, then maybe the city should be working with the County from the early plan creation stages all the way through construction (maybe they were?). It seems ridiculous that someone comes up with a plan and then punts it over the fence to someone else and expects them to implement that plan without doing their own analysis. That said, opposition to the Front Avenue bike lanes seems pointless based on the analysis that St Paul already did.

    3. Monte Castleman

      It seems a knee-jerk reaction to blame the “counties’ or “Mn/DOT” whenever a road gets built the way people don’t like. But nothing happens without local support. If St. Paul (both the residents and government) uniformly wanted bicycle lanes, they’d get built. As of now the road needs rebuilding whether or not the city can make up it’s mind. What’s the county supposed to do? Push through it’s plan for bicycle lanes despite opposition from some in the city? Isn’t counties pushing through their own designs what they’re criticized for?

      Is this like the Blue Line, where half of the residents wanted it through north Minneapolis and half didn’t. Or is it just a few business owners that oppose bicycle lanes.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

        It’s a city plan for bike lanes, and passed by the Council unanimously. IMO it’s pretty clear where the city stands on this. If you ask most people, the county ought to respect local wishes about street design. Adding this extra step is highly unusual.

        You and others are right, though, in that it probably wouldn’t be happening if the Cleveland planning hadn’t turned so sour.

  4. Emily Metcalfe

    This is baffling. The “popular bar” even has a parking lot. I wrote to my commissioner yesterday.

  5. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Great article. I really appreciate your insight of what’s happening behind the scenes.

    In the northeast suburbs it is always Ramsey County roads that are the problem for people who want to walk or ride bicycles anywhere. When parents say that they are afraid for their children to ride bicycles to school the problem is always a Ramsey County. When people don’t want to ride to dinner or for ice cream for fear of being killed by someone driving a car it is always a Ramsey County road that’s the problem.

    Ramsey County (and Hennepin, Washington, …) need to reprioritize and make every road appropriate for every person. The baseline for every Ramsey County road needs to be one traffic lane in each direction, one protected bikeway in each direction, and if appropriate one sidewalk in each direction. This should be the minimum, the starting point. Only once these requirements are met should additional travel lanes, turn lanes, or parking be considered.

    Emails sent.

  6. Stuart

    In Defense of Counties

    County roads are the worst because counties are consistently responsible for the roads with the highest traffic counts. This is on purpose because cities don’t want be saddled with the higher maintenance costs associated with them. Also, those are (normally, but not always) roads with “Regional” significance. There are exceptions; Front avenue appears to be one, Franklin Ave in Minneapolis also appears to be an exception.

    Counties maintaining roads for a larger region is important for the same reason that we a have MN/DOT and a Metro wide mass transit authority. No one here thinks the bus “opt-outs” are great because the regional transportation becomes fragmented. Counties controlling major roads/road networks over larger regions serves the same purpose.

    That said, there is no reason (other than politics) that a County Government can’t be just as supportive of bike lanes and complete streets as a City government can be. County Government is just the “hidden layer” of government that gets little attention and thus is not at all responsive to changing opinions.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Very well-put. Unfortunately, it seems that counties are often putting bicycle facilities in a “local preference” bin — same as how wide the cities want the sidewalks to be, if they want to plant flowers in the median, etc — and not giving them the same regional priority they are for automobiles.

      A major frustration for me is Portland Ave (Hennepin CSAH 35), which has continuous bike lane from the Stone Arch Bridge to 76th Street in Richfield — except for a critical 6-block gap straddling the Minneapolis border. Because neither city has really taken initiative on the gap, the county hasn’t done much either.

      But opportunities abound for important bike connections on county roads that cross individual city lanes. For example, Hennepin CSAH 152 (Brooklyn Boulevard/Osseo Road/44th Ave N/Washington Ave N) could be a great bike connection from the northwest into downtown Minneapolis. Because Minneapolis has been leading the show, only bike lanes downtown and in the Warehouse District have been discussed at this point. CSAH 1 (Old Shakopee Rd + Pioneer Trail) through Bloomington and Eden Prairie could also be an important bikeway on the southern edge of the county.

      In any case, I think these are indications that we need to demand more from our counties — not try to strip them of their valuable role in regional transportation.

    2. Wayne

      Planning things “regionally” is great if you get the benefits and someone else bears the burdens. County-led planning generally always prioritizes the flow of traffic to the benefit of long-distance commuters over local users and in many situations makes roads more dangerous for anyone who lives nearby. I find this to be an unacceptable trade-off, because I’m one of the people who bears the costs without reaping any of the benefits. I come back to this again and again but its always the urbanized areas bearing the externalities of ‘regional’ transportation planning. No one planning on a ‘regional’ level seems to care about how it impacts local use or modes other than driving. THAT is my problem.

      And I honestly would prefer more local control of transit as well. Trying to make every transit project ‘regional’ has led to a bunch of commuter lines and truly awful inner-city transit where it has the most riders. If it continues on its current path we’ll end up with all the best options available in the outlying areas and little-to-no actual improvement in increasingly dense urban environments. Park & rides should be much lower on the priority list than they currently are, given their outsize expense per user compared to things like shelters in the city or increased frequency and dedicated lanes in the city.

      1. Stuart

        I don’t disagree that many of our regional governmental entities have unbalanced priorities. I am advocating towards re-balancing them where-as you seem to be advocating towards throwing them out. Bikes, pedestrians, and transit need regional connectivity just the same as cars do.

        Also, I would argue that the more suburbanized areas also suffer from having their roads prioritize fast regional traffic. They were just built that way to begin with and many people there seem to think it is the right way to do it.

        1. Wayne

          I just don’t realistically see the rebalancing happening without some kind of major shift in how they’re run or elected. I’m pretty pessimistic given their track record and the lack of improvement on things around here that they’ll ever really get on board, so I’d rather just remove them and get results now instead of waiting forever for something that might not even happen. Being a ‘shadow government’ of sorts with low visibility but outsized power compared to that visibility is probably why they get away with it. If they get their act together they can ask nicely to participate again someday, but as far as I’m concerned they’ve misbehaved enough to lose their privileges.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            So how does this work? Are all CSAHs just redesignated MSA routes? Everywhere in Hennepin County? Only within the City of Minneapolis?

            Minneapolis is somewhat unusual in that they do their own signs, signals, and I believe even plowing on most county roads within their limits. But for the rest of the county (except maybe Bloomington and Brooklyn Park), the small local governments simply don’t have the staff and resources to manage these things.

            Even before you touch reconstruction, maintaining (seal coat, mill and overlay, signs and signals) would be expensive burdens for most cities in the county. Even within Minneapolis, only three of the 13 road crossings of the Mississippi are City-owned today. Transferring seven major bridges to a city even as large as Minneapolis would be a pretty significant burden. (The other four are MnDOT.)

            The more money Minneapolis is putting out to maintain what is now high-traffic county infrastructure, the less money they have to do other good, meaningful things. At the very least, simply deleting county government from the road process would require redesignating a lot of state aid money to the city level, plus raising the City’s property tax levy and getting the County to lower theirs.

            All those logistical obstacles aside, you’d still lack the benefit we have (and could have) of an integrated system across cities. Minneapolis is a great place with a lot of great destinations; that said, almost every Minneapolis resident I know leaves the City to do things as basic as grocery shopping. Many work outside city limits. Being able to access those destinations by whatever mode they choose is important.

            It seems a hell of a lot easier — and better — to simply elect County commissioners who embody the values you want to see

            1. Wayne

              You act like whatever funding source the county is using can’t be transferred with the roads. In all likelihood the city is more than covering it via the existing funding mechanisms that are being taken away and given back via county management of the funds. If nothing else eliminating a layer of bureaucracy will probably end up saving money in the long run, especially when it means the city doesn’t have to build gigantic roads that cost more to maintain because they’re ridiculously wide.

              And let Bloomington keep its county-designed stroads if it wants to. I’m just advocating for the option to opt out (SEE WHAT I DID THERE?) of the county-led road design process. The needs of an urban community are very different than the needs of other towns the county designs roads for, but they take a one-size-fits-all approach that continues to be very bad news for urban livability. Even if you magically elect a bunch of new super progressive county reps you still have the entrenched professionals in their planning department to ‘re-educate’ that not everything needs to look like those roads in Bloomington.

              Also by the very nature of how the county officials are elected the city (Minneapolis in Hennepin at least) will always be a minority ripe for abuse in county politics. So it makes more sense to opt out of a system that’s inherently biased against you. I don’t see a way you can make me believe county commissioners who represent the suburbs and outnumber the urban commissioner(s?) will ever have the best interests of anyone in the city at heart when making decisions for it. They’ll worry about Joe Excelsior complaining that a bike lane cost him 3 seconds when he went into town to see a monster truck rally at the shiny new stadium.

        2. Monte Castleman

          The difference is in the outer ring suburbs, there’s a separation of function. You have fast high-speed roads like Pioneer Trail, and there local streets. The inner ring has the same problem as the cities do with roads like Old Shakopee, where you have a high volume of traffic on a road full of private driveways, a speed limit that is too slow for regional traffic and too fast to be pedestrian friendly. There’s no bicycle facilities, not a lot of space, and portions carry too much traffic to think of a road diet. Pioneer Trail there’s a MUP along the whole length. At least the city council said no to a Target at Normandale and Old Shakopee. Encouraging more long distance traffic along there is the last thing we want to do.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            Normandale Rd has pretty much the same level of separation as a modern outer-ring stroad, though, doesn’t it? There might be one or two driveways, but it’s pretty access-managed.

            Old Shakopee indeed has a lot more frontage — at least east of Normandale. One of the things I like about it! (But, certainly, not compatible with a 50 mph speed limit.)

            1. Monte Castleman

              Yes, that’s true for Normandale. Bloomington seems to me to be both an inner ring and an outer ring suburb, the boundary being gradual, somewhere between I-35W and Hyland park.

              I’m not sure I’d call the roads in outer ring “stroads”. Isn’t the classical “stroad” something like Robert Street in St. Paul, designed to try to accommodate both private access and through traffic, with multiple lanes and lots of private driveways?

              To me Pioneer Trail is not a street and doesn’t pretend to be; it’s a road only, and hence by definition not a “stroad”. Instead here the word seems to be an epithet hurled out at anything wider than a pair of 9 foot traffic lanes, rather than descriptive term for a very specific style of infrastructure.

              There are things I don’t like about Bloomington, and west Old Shakopee is one of them. I really hope that some day the 4-Lane Death Road segment can be converted into a “Stroad” plus a pair of cycletracks like is being done on 66th in Richfield. Some of the houses will need to be acquired which will remove some of the direct driveways, but unfortunately we can’t easily turn it into a real road like Eden Prairie has. (East Old Shakopee can easily be converted into three lanes, where there’s less traffic since there’s more alternative routes.).

              1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                Fair enough, although I think given popular usage on, I would define stroad a bit more broadly as a street with road characteristics that exists within/integrated with a place rather than connecting two places.

                A two-lane road through farmland is clearly a road. A freeway is clearly a road. Something like Pioneer Trail may be focused mainly on moving traffic, but it’s quite different. It serves as both an arterial and a neighborhood collector that provides access into the neighborhoods.

                The internet suggests “traffic sewer” might be a more general term for overly auto-oriented street, but that sounds a little too bombastic.

                And, yes, I’d love to see OSR go to 2-lane divided (where possible) and 4-lane divided (where not) with cycletracks. I’m not even sure you’d lose many homes, as the majority facing OSR are set back quite a ways — especially those charming prewar homes around Nine Mile Creek. There are some tighter spots east of the 98th concurrency, but as you note, four through lanes are clearly not needed there.

                1. Wayne

                  Yeah the way I generally use ‘stroad’ is a street they’re trying to force to be some kind of regional connector while forgetting it has to serve local users in different modes. You get something that sucks as a regional connector and is dangerous and terrible for anyone using it locally. Worst of both worlds, basically.

                  1. Monte Castleman

                    Pioneer Trail seems to work pretty well for everyone to me. It has four lanes; it’s in the the 10,000-20,000 range where four lanes make a measurable difference in mobility but aren’t absolutely required. There’s multi-use trails on both sides. The only free rights are at the Flying Cloud Drive, where there’s very heavy turning movements, and Franlo, where there’s an acute angle. It’s similar to the situation that was just written about in Shoreview that was just praised in another article.

                    I’m not sure if there’s a better alternative design. There’s not enough traffic for a freeway next to a two lane collector. The people that live their seem happy with the situation. There’s always other places to live if they wanted something else.

                    1. Wayne

                      How easy is it to cross the street on foot? How safe?

                      That’s my measurement standard. If the answer is “you have to go half a mile down the way to find a crosswalk and stop light then you’re nearly killed by someone making a right on red” then it’s a garbage stroad.

                    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

                      I think Wayne is right here — crossing is likely to be the biggest problem with Pioneer. I can’t speak to Pioneer Trail/Eden Prairie specifically. I’ve biked that road a few times, but I don’t know anyone living along it. Perhaps residents are satisfied.

                      But if they’re anything like the people I know elsewhere (like Apple Valley/Lakeville), they likely do not feel safe crossing the street, do not feel safe allowing their child to leave their cul-de-sac, and do not feel that bicycling — without first driving to a trailhead — is a safe option for them.

                      Most of them don’t want radical upheaval, nor do they necessarily want to live in Minneapolis. But I think they’d strongly prefer a 35 mph two-lane divided street with crossing points every blocks to a wide, 4-lane divided street going 50 mph and only one safe crossing per mile or so.

                      Settlers Ridge Parkway in Woodbury is a little faster than I’d like, but provides a good example of this kind of street. Although the use of both right and left turn lanes at most intersections still means a fairly long crossing distance on one side.

                      Either way, though, this kind of street becomes more of an ongoing expense to the city. To look at something like Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis: homeowners are responsible for a portion of the the lighting costs and street reconstruction costs, plus 100% of sidewalk costs. They maintain the street trees (although the initial planting and removals are done by public agency). They mow the grass and shovel the sidewalk. On the other hand, with the zero-frontage suburban collector, homeowners are likely paying some assessments toward their own cul-de-sac, but nobody contributes to the cost or upkeep of the collector. So everything from replacing sidewalk/trail to mowing the boulevard falls to the city.

                2. Monte Castleman

                  It’s just like “sprawl” in that it’s an incredibly useful term that you can’t use unless you oppose it because of the negative connotations. For “sprawl” I use “suburban-style growth” and “stroad” I use “wide suburban-style road”, since I support “sprawl” and support “stroads” (if that’s what we’re going to call Pioneer Trial).

                  Of course since I think that they would have been a dumb idea as the proposed ring road around downtown Stillwater, I supposed I could have called them stroads in that context.

  7. Daniel ChomaDan Choma

    Full disclosure, I do not like Janice Rettman. She has a tendency to come to the community meetings where we do outreach and preach to us about how she will do everything in her power to be a pedestrian advocate for the East side then moves on to add wrenches into the system that effectively destroy any ability to have meaningful community input. Case in point, after the 35E crap show, she was proud to come before our distrtict council and say that she is supporting a change in state law that requires new construction of paths have City, State AND, County approval. It’s the wrong solution to the right problem, forcing triplicate work is insane.

    People need to be engaged in the process, but it is not fair to the public to expect them to engage with 3 different levels of government in order to do something that is both clearly supported and an obviously good idea.

    If Rettman really wants to support her community and put her money where her mouth is, perhaps she can stop doing a bunch of terribly designed community out reach with the county and utilize the community outreach that has already been done by the city. It’s respectful to the community and it gives the community one well heard venue with which to speak. Nobody in the community wants to deal with Kafkaesque government leverage dealing with three governments and their perspective agencies. Don’t waste the community’s time.

    But half assed community outreach that ends up killing good projects because of poor execution? That’s not what we pay Rettman for. And for those of us who are going to community meetings on our own time leaving families at home this is flagrantly offensive corrupt politics.

    Our time is valuable. Don’t waste it.

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