Pierce Butler, American jurist

Piercing Butler

The most famous Pierce Butler was a founding father and US Senator from South Carolina. An apparently unrelated Pierce Butler was the first Supreme Court justice from the state of Minnesota, who became a justice after earning his chops as a lawyer for the James J. Hill interests (Jane McClure writes about him on the web at Saint Paul Historical).

It is this second Pierce Butler (one of many) for whom the Pierce Butler route (map) in St. Paul is named. The Pierce Butler route runs south of the east-west railroad mainline through St. Paul, complementing Energy Park Drive to the north. It progresses from Transfer Road, home of the classic mid-late twentieth century future-to-be-restored Midway Amtrak station that served Twin Citizens for decades, below Snelling Avenue, terminating at Minnehaha Avenue just shy of Dale Street.

Pierce Butler, American jurist

Pierce Butler, American jurist

It serves primarily industrial land uses, with some abutting residential.

There is a plan to extend it eastward to connect with Pennsylvania Avenue, and thus I-35E (and onto Phalen Boulevard). Jane McClure wrote about the controversy in 2009 in “Fight over eastern extension of Pierce Butler Route continues,” as did Chris Havens in the similarly timed “Push to extend Pierce Butler could be costly for St. Paul.” Such a route would function as a “reliever” for roads like Minnehaha Avenue and University Avenue, attracting truck traffic off those roads. It would also induce more east-west trips.

As far as I can tell, this eastward extension has not been moved forward in six years.

There is a dream (I dare not call it a plan, since it doesn’t rise to that level of officialness) to extend it westward to connect with Granary Road in Minneapolis through the St. Anthony neighborhood. The concept is to run it along the Railroad tracks, on Capp Road, connect to or parallel Robbins Street through the Community Gardens on the north side of Robbins Street, under MN-280 to Granary Road.  On first blush from a transportation perspective, this seems a logical route. It doesn’t take any houses, it increases connectivity so traffic can be more dispersed, and gets “wandering” trucks off of more obviously residential streets.

The St. Anthony Park neighborhood opposes this. People garden in the local community gardens (though surely these gardens could be re-sited). Local politicians have said “Pierce Butler Route will not be extended into St. Anthony Park.” If politicians were perfect forecasters or highly powerful or unflinchingly ethically who were in office forever, we might take them at their word, however as community groups have long realized, fighting a line on a map is a “forever war.” Once it is built it is not easily unbuilt. But while still unbuilt, that is a more easily reversed decision.

Pierce Butler's Route

Pierce Butler’s Route


Yet, the western extension of Pierce Butler makes little sense from a freight distribution perspective. Granary Road/Pierce Butler would not interchange directly with Minnesota 280 in any case, the interchange spacings are too tight. Instead traffic would be routed north to Energy Park somehow (e.g. circling back to Raymond Avenue or across railroad tracks) or south to the intersection at Territorial Road, which they can do now (and could do better if Territorial were eventually extended to Transfer Road).

Going further west, Granary Road would run into Saint Anthony Main, bypassing Dinkytown, and not directly intersect with I-35W either, requiring local streets for the connection. While Saint Anthony Main is a lovely place, it is no longer a freight destination. None of which is to say a Granary Road for the circulation of vehicles in the neighborhoods of St. Anthony Park and the University of Minnesota wouldn’t be valuable, and better access to Saint Anthony Main from Saint Anthony Park in Saint Paul is not of itself a terrible idea, but not one justifiable from a freight perspective.

The industrial/distribution center neighborhood immediately to the east of St. Anthony Park (the West Midway Industrial Area) is still economically active. To extend Pierce Butler would likely require taking at least one building between Capp Road and Transfer Road (or skirting around it very circuitously). Building the Pierce Butler route to serve trucks by destroying one of the buildings the trucks serve is right out of an O Henry story: The Gift of the Magi.