MnDOT’s Smith Avenue Bridge Project

The south end of the Smith Avenue bridge, looking north

The south end of the Smith Avenue bridge, looking north

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is currently finishing the planning process for re-decking the Smith Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River in Saint Paul. As part of this 2018 project, they are also repaving Smith Avenue, from Grand Avenue all the way south to Interstate 494.

The Smith Avenue Bridge, also known as “The High Bridge” is an important bike route for getting to and from the west side of Saint Paul. Right now, conditions on it are terrible. Bike lanes or “bikeable shoulders” only exist on the bridge itself. At either end there is nothing but high speed motor vehicle traffic.

At the south end in particular, southbound cyclists exit the bridge on a blind right turn where they are temporarily invisible to motorists, only to find that the bike lane disappears. If they stay in the street, they risk getting hit by cars. So many take the first curb cut and bike on the sidewalk. In theory, there is a trail crossing for cyclists, joggers and walkers right at the south end of the bridge on Cherokee Avenue. Cyclists and pedestrians traveling southwest on Cherokee have a decent view of oncoming traffic in both directions and can make it across. Going the opposite way, however, Smith Avenue’s blind turn and high speed traffic increase the danger for cyclists and pedestrians of being hit by southbound cars. I myself have almost been killed there.

Smith Ave S - Google Maps

Blind turn at the south end of the bridge, looking northeast. MnDOT plans to widen the sidewalk, add a low barrier between the sidewalk and bike lane, and narrow the bike lane.

Blind turn at the south end of the bridge, looking northeast. MnDOT plans to widen the sidewalk, add a low barrier between the sidewalk and bike lane, and narrow the bike lane.

Southbound cyclist riding on the sidewalk towards George Street.

Southbound cyclist riding on the sidewalk towards George Street.

Improving that intersection for cyclists and pedestrians wouldn’t be hard. They could put crosswalk warning signs and pavement markings ahead of the crossing, stripe a “colonial” or prominent zebra-stripe crosswalk, and hang a warning sign and pedestrian-activated flasher over the crossing in both directions.

Unfortunately, MnDOT doesn’t want to do that. They claim it’s too dangerous. So they are giving cyclists and pedestrians absolutely nothing and severing access to one of the city’s nicest bluff trails. More importantly, they are giving southbound cyclists no way to safely go east into the West Side neighborhood and, because of the way the neighborhood is laid out, most cyclists ultimately need to go east. When asked about pedestrian crossings at the south and north ends of the Smith Avenue Bridge, David Kuebler, a Saint Paul Public Works project engineer said “It’s too hazardous for pedestrians there.(Highland Villager, Wednesday, February 15, 2017, pg. 2)

The current Cherokee Trail Crossing looking west, across Smith Avenue

The current Cherokee Trail Crossing looking west, across Smith Avenue

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The problem with Mr. Kuebler’s and MnDOT’s position is that The Saint Paul Bikeways Plan calls for an off-street pathway along Cherokee Avenue as the main cycling connection on the west side. It also calls for in-street, shared-lane markings, also called “Sharrows” from the north end of the Smith Avenue bridge all the way to Kellogg– something else that MnDOT has no plans to implement as part of this project. You can see both of these clearly marked on the map of the Saint Paul Bikeways Plan. I include an image of the relevant map section to the right.

If the Saint Paul Bikeways Plan and MnDOT’s promises to improve cycling conditions mean anything, then MnDOT and Saint Paul Public Works have a choice. They need to improve the crosswalk of Smith Avenue on the south end, at Cherokee (as described above) …and/or they need to extend the bridge’s bike lanes one block south to West George Street, where there is a traffic light and southbound cyclists can safely travel east. Otherwise, the Bikeways Plan is just a meaningless piece of paper and MnDOT’s supposed interest in bicycle and pedestrian safety is just a lot of hot air, spewing from the tailpipe of a diesel truck.

If MnDOT really cared about cyclists, they’d also make the bike lanes on the bridge protected lanes, by citing a proposed concrete wall in such a way that it protected both pedestrians and cyclists. Instead, they are just protecting pedestrians and leaving unprotected, substandard, 5.5-foot bike lanes next to the 30mph highway.

If you care about this issue or if you’ve almost been hit by cars on or near this bridge (like me), this is your last chance to weigh in. MnDOT has a survey on the project website (until Sunday, February 19). The survey is largely about meaningless things like “railing designs and colors” but there are lots of areas where you can add written comments and one place where you can prioritize cycling and pedestrian concerns.

In addition, you should e-mail the project engineers Tara McBride and David Kuebler at: tara.mcbride@state.mn.us …and david.kuebler@ci.stpaul.mn.us (the email addresses are also on the project website). CC your message to your Saint Paul City Council members and anyone else you think might have the power to intervene. Whatever MnDOT does to this bridge, we’ll be stuck with it for the next seventy years. So lets make it great for pedestrians and cyclists.

You can see a few additional photos of the Smith Avenue High Bridge on the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition’s Facebook page.

Andy Singer

About Andy Singer

Andy Singer served as volunteer co-chair of the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition off and on for 13 years. He works as a professional cartoonist and illustrator and has authored four books including his last, "Why We Drive," which examines environmental, land use and political issues in transportation. You can see more of his cartoons at AndySinger.com.