Over at the Star Tribune, Steve Brandt did a great job covering the looming Minneapolis residential street reconstruction funding crisis. I’m grateful for the coverage, since the city’s presentation on the matter is a little light on narrative, and not everyone can attend city council meetings to hear the details and political opinions.
In a nutshell, most residential streets across the city were reconstructed in a 20 year window starting around 1965:
That means many are coming up on the end of a 50 year useful life. Despite concerted efforts to up the preventative maintenance (pore over these five-year capital planning documents if you dare), a street can only be patched so much before it needs full reconstruction. In many cases, this will include replacing utilities and other pipes beneath the surface in addition to the road bed and pavement itself.
If we don’t take action soon, street pavement condition (of all different classifications) will deteriorate well below the goal for a citywide average of “Fair,” basically above 70 on a pavement quality scale:
There’s the tricky part, though. Taking action means we need to spend more. Based on current city funding levels, there isn’t enough in the Public Works budget to do it all. They estimate that Minneapolis has a $30 million annual gap for the next ten years:
Almost all of that gap is for completing full street reconstruction, not more basic maintenance. Also, given the number of streets approaching the end of their useful life, we can likely expect this funding need to extend well beyond a 10-year horizon, likely at least 20 years (**unprofessional opinion). Either way, this is a funding problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Toss in that the city is grappling with other funding crises from deferred maintenance on parks, and the city will have many tradeoffs to weigh in the coming budget years. Council Member Lisa Bender’s quip “We do not have a magic money tree in City Hall” rings true here.
Thinking Outside the Box
I know it’s easy to say this as an outsider behind a keyboard. There are tons of factors I’m probably not considering when talking street and utility redesign, so I want the following discussion to be a constructive one and hope planners, engineers, and elected officials know I mean no disrespect.
With that said, I have a hard time accepting the two options in front of us being: 1) pay $30 million more a year to maintain our residential streets, or 2) accept deteriorated residential streets. We know that narrowing streets by just two feet between the curbs shaved 3.4% off Brooklyn Park’s project budget. What other options are there? How much would they save? Does the cost savings include other future annual public expenditures beyond street maintenance? What about public safety, housing affordability, vehicle emissions targets, stormwater management, or other issues we may be able to tackle? Our residential right-of-way is often 60 feet wide, with 30-32 of that often being black pavement – could it be better used?
I’d like to see Public Works put forward, or the city council ask for, a much more creative range of options to close the gap between costs (bring them down!) and revenue (how else can we pay for this?). I’ve brainstormed a few, ranging from fairly reasonable to potentially crackpot. But we have a once-in-60-year opportunity to re-think our residential street designs to meet broader societal goals. So here we go!
Idea 1: Simple Narrowing
This is simple. Narrow our residential streets. Take out one side of parking and move the curb in. A standard 32′ curb-to-curb street becomes 25′ wide.
The space formerly devoted to parking can be used for stormwater management, space for more street trees, and double as snow storage in the winter. I’d like to know the balancing act of additional landscape costs vs. pavement savings (and if smaller storm drains could be used), and how this might lower annual operating costs like plowing, street sweeping, and pavement maintenance.
Let me take a minute to talk parking. Many streets across the city see much less than 50% on-street parking utilization on most days. Even then, a solid chunk of the cars parked out front actually have an off-street space or garage, but residents choose the convenience of the street. I’ll admit to this. Snow Emergencies are a pain in this city, but we get by. In fact, Minneapolis banned odd-side parking for over a month due to piled snow back in 2014. Life moved on. Life would also move on for many residential streets losing half their parking on a permanent basis.
Idea 2: Narrow with a Chicane
This option is very similar to Option 1, but it introduces a traffic calming element to the street design: a mid-block chicane.
This design sacrifices a couple more parking spaces in exchange for slower traffic. While our side-streets are pretty calm relative to the main drags, cars still zip by way too fast in my opinion. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
Idea 3: Parklike Street With Vehicle Access
What if more of our streets were focused on pedestrians and cyclists, tolerating the occasional personal and emergency vehicle? We have an example of a street designed like this already, people seem to like it:
How much would the trees and concrete cost relative to replacing the pavement? Is concrete a better solution over its useful life? We know the proposed 29th St shared-use street will cost around $750,000 for an eighth-mile stretch. And the proposed North Minneapolis Greenway, which has these design elements in chunks of the 3.5 mile route, is estimated at $15 million. What if we standardized this design?
Idea 4: Charge for On-Street Parking
The first three ideas have come at the problem from a cost side. But, if we’re really short on revenues to re-build streets, let’s maybe find a way to charge people who use the acres of pavement for parking cars. Remember, 19% of Minneapolis households don’t have a car. Many more have fewer cars than adults. I won’t get into the legality of assessments for regular maintenance, but charging a fifth of our population 25% of the project’s cost for road space they’re not using is unfair. Why not charge people using the parking and funnel that money into a street construction fund? As a side benefit, putting a price on narrowed streets curbs the demand for now-scarce parking.
Idea 5: Let’s Do Something Crazy With That Road Space
Our side streets almost always have 60 feet of publicly-owned right of way. Given the setbacks found on single-family homes (even many apartments), this 60′ is often flanked by grassy yard space and trees. This is a LOT of room to carry triple-digit vehicle counts. I can’t be the only person who see this as a major opportunity.
What if we decided that the middle 25 feet of our right of way was a better spot to put housing than moving and storing cars? How would that work? Imagine the city coordinated with private developers and non-profit housing organizations to pour foundations small structures as the streets are dug up and utilities moved:
25 feet doesn’t sound like much, but there are many examples of 1.5-2 story structures that could act as 2-3 BR homes or an up-down duplex. I’m sure there are many ADUs out there that can show us a thing or two about small-footprint living.
On either side of this new development, we’d be left with a 17 foot wide narrow street plus whatever private setback exists on the existing lot. This is a common design across the world, even places where it snows.
We still retain private driveway and emergency vehicle access but lose on-street parking altogether. And yes, I’m aware there are many vacant lots across the city that could use development. But we know that low-cost and/or subsidized housing is rarely being built in high-amenity neighborhoods of the city. This is an opportunity for Minneapolis to control that while adding neighborhood-scale infill and significantly calming streets. Calm enough that people should feel comfortable walking (and children playing) right down the middle.
At 45 feet lot widths (accommodating either a parking pad or small patio on one side of the house), each long block could fit 14 of these on every block we reconstruct. Not every “lot” needs to be housing, we could decide to put a “parklet” (not these, thinking something more like this or this) or a stormwater basin. If we sell half of the lots to private builders for $75,000 each, that’s half a million toward construction cost on each block, with seven additional lots yet to allocate to other uses. Is more housing and calmer streets worth the loss of parking and boulevard trees? Will the net result be a cheaper project than just re-paving? I don’t know!
Pulling It All Together
I don’t expect any one of these issues to be a standard practice across the city. I think it would be valuable for citizens and leaders to have the tradeoffs and options at their disposal. I’d go so far as to say blocks should have the power to decide how their street looks, and be rewarded by saving on their assessment. I’m enough in love with the idea of small housing where asphalt currently sits on my block to suggest the city wave the 25% assessment entirely for property owners who choose it. But also, since the city at large is paying for 75% of any given street project, we should consider a broader shift in design practices, even if that goes against the generally-accepted status quo.
I should also note that most of my cost-saving measures likely won’t move the needle by much. A project has many fixed costs like city staff, design, curb/gutter/utility work, project setup time, etc. The width of the pavement does have a linearly varying cost, but even a 10 foot wide street won’t cost 66% less than a 30 foot wide one. That’s why I appreciate all the #luxury development helping broaden our tax base, and believe more of it is a good way to help defray city costs on the horizon.
In any case, street reconstruction will require different solutions across the city. Some areas lack alleys, some may be hilly or curvy enough that ADA accommodations can’t be made with certain designs, and some have tighter parking than others. It might sound crazy to do anything but work with what we have, but I think it’s crazy to think we might cut funding for affordable housing or parks any other important city function so that we can keep free parking and streets designed for 25+ mph where people live and play. So, what other ideas do readers have to close this funding gap?