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

smith_ave_bikeplan_excerpt350

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.


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39 Responses to MnDOT’s Smith Avenue Bridge Project

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller February 17, 2017 at 10:11 am #

    “It’s not safe for pedestrians” is never an acceptable answer for a city street.

  2. Michael Stoick February 17, 2017 at 3:50 pm #

    Is there a petition started to support a bike lane on the bridge and a safe intersection for bikes to cross at the top and bottom of the bridge?

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer February 20, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

      Not that I’m aware of.

  3. Paul Nelson February 17, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

    This is also designated as a highway. A highway is defined as a public way freely open to everyone, by high legislative intent forever. As such a highway is always designed for all people to be able to walk and pedal drive a bicycle safely.

    The project website reads: “MnDOT is asking ‘motorists’ to provide input on potential improvements to the Hwy 149 High Bridge project…”

    That statement is incorrect, as I see it. It should read: “MnDot is asking *everyone* to provide input…” , NOT “MnDot is asking motorists to provide input…”

    If Hwy 149 is a real hwy, then it should b designed, built and maintained for everyone to walk and pedal drive a bicycle.

  4. Ken Paulman February 17, 2017 at 8:52 pm #

    I was on the community advisory council for the project last year, along with several other cyclists, and unfortunately there’s a lot that this piece leaves out.

    Quick overview – it’s a state trunk highway with a lot of design limitations (the bridge deck can’t be widened, for instance, and also has to accommodate inspection trucks). The design was a compromise to meet needs of pedestrians, casual cyclists and roadies doing 35 mph down the bridge – not to mention suicide prevention advocates pushing for taller railings along the outside. Car lanes are being narrowed from 12′ to 11′ in an effort to slow car traffic (current speed limit on the bridge is 40 mph btw, not 30) and the monuments that create the blind corners Andy references are being removed. It’s not perfect but a significant improvement, a lot more like the Wabasha bridge in terms of function.

    There are other safety inprovements elsewhere along the corridor, including bike lanes in Annapolis, sidewalk bumpouts on Smith at Baker and Curtice, and fixing a severely dangerous trail crossing leading to a middle school in Mendota Heights.

    I agree more could be done but I can tell you that this project manager fought hard on our behalf in the face of some severe design limitations.

    I’ll try to find time to write more on this later.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell February 18, 2017 at 7:03 am #

      From a practical standpoint (ignoring antiquated MNDOT design guidelines) the motor vehicle lanes could be 10′ or less which allows more room for safer walkways and bikeways.

      Many countries with much safer roads and much lower fatality rates will adjust motor vehicle speeds to fit the ped/bike infrastructure. E.G., if there is not sufficient room to provide the protected bikeways (along a roadway and at junctions) that are required for 40 MPH traffic then motor vehicle speeds are lowered to match with whatever facilities can be provided. If only a painted bike lane then motor vehicle speeds are limited to 25 MPH (which will then have 2.75 meter or 8′ motor traffic lanes).

      Would this bridge be a good candidate for a reversible center travel lane (E.G., 4 to 3 conversion)? From what I’ve seen it is quite low traffic volume other than during morning and evening rush which do largely flow in opposite directions. This could allow for higher motor vehicle speeds and appropriate safety for people walking, riding bicycles, and using mobility scooters.

      • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 8:32 am #

        I think the problem here is that talking about what’s theoretically possible is different from what’s practically/politically possible.

        A 25 mph limit on the bridge? Sounds great. Get that done for us.

        • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 8:33 am #

          Also the current bridge is two car lanes with wide shoulders. The deck cannot be widened. So squeezing all different uses in is a challenge.

          • Walker Angell
            Walker Angell February 18, 2017 at 11:42 am #

            And that’s where priorities become important. How do engineers prioritize people’s lives vs saving drivers a few seconds? Interestingly that may not even be a compromise — if we can get enough of a safe bikeway network in that more people will choose to ride bicycles instead of drive then drivers will benefit from less congestion.

          • Adam Miller
            Adam Miller February 19, 2017 at 3:03 pm #

            Does it need two car lanes? I’m not over there often enough to really know, but it hasn’t when I am.

            • Ken Paulman February 19, 2017 at 7:28 pm #

              One lane in each direction, sorry should have been more clear.

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell February 18, 2017 at 11:57 am #

          What I mentioned isn’t theoretical — it’s what is quite common outside of the U.S. It’s what works quite well and produces a much safer road system. It’s what produces a road system that works better for all people whether driving, riding, or walking.

          Traffic engineers here believe that wide lanes and wide curb reaction distances are necessary because our drivers are so bad that they can’t deal with anything else. Engineers in the rest of the world know that narrower lanes with immediate danger in the form of curbs or other hard elements cause drivers to pay much better attention and create a much safer environment. It’s an element of cement being a much better enforcer than paint or rules.

          Talking about these things helps to educate people on what is possible rather than have the only communication come from traffic engineers and politicians who place a higher priority on speed and convenience than on human life.

          • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

            I mean it’s theoretical in the context of this project. I wish we would adopt European standards too. But that’s not the environment we’re working in.

            • Walker Angell
              Walker Angell February 19, 2017 at 7:29 am #

              We need to change the environment.

              Engineers in every other field of engineering I’ve worked with place a high priority on safety and human life. They will not sign off on a design that is riskier to human life than absolutely necessary. That’s not the case with traffic engineers in the U.S. — which is why we have the highest road fatality rates of all developed countries.

              What must we do to get our traffic engineers to design streets and roads that are safe for all users?

              At what point do we begin to say that ‘better’ or even ‘much better’ isn’t good enough? This especially when our U.S. traffic engineer’s ‘much better’ is what traffic engineers elsewhere tossed out 30 years ago as dangerous and insufficient?

  5. Ken Paulman February 17, 2017 at 8:56 pm #

    Sorry – one more key piece of information here is that there is a plan to build a trail underpass beneath the south end of the bridge along Cherokee but it’s not currently funded. That’s why there’s that weird one-block section of bike lanes on George, it’s a “temporary” bypass route. Anyone wants to help find funding to finish this, we’d welcome the help.

    • Andy Singer
      Andy Singer February 18, 2017 at 12:52 pm #

      We saw plan sets for the bridge, we are aware that the deck can’t be widened …but everything being asked for in this column is within MnDOT’s power to provide. They just don’t want to do it. They can make a better crosswalk, at grade. They’ve done it at one intersection on Snelling (at Macalester College) after two women were hit and permanently injured (including brain damage) and MnDOT and the city got a lot of bad press. They simply don’t want to do this stuff and have perfected coming up with spurious excuses to say “no”. Why allow MnDOT to put the burden on residents of Saint Paul to raise money for a bypass and force us to go down and up, out of our way, to bypass THEIR roadway? That’s insane. MnDOT has barely done anything in the last 15 years to improve cycling and pedestrian conditions on its roadways in Saint Paul. These roadways– Snelling, 7th Street and others are some of the most dangerous in the state based on the agency’s own bike/ped crash data (what they call “Crash cost per mile”). I’m against waiting 10, 15 or 20 years and trying to raise money for something that this myopically highway-oriented agency has boatloads of money to fix and should be fixing as part of this project.

      • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 1:09 pm #

        I agree with all of this. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the whole agency to turn on a dime on this project. I was skeptical that the input process would just be window dressing but In reality there was a lot of progess here and I’m not sure what we accomplish by dismissing that.

        Did I get everything I wanted? No I’d did not. Nor did anyone else. I’d close the whole damn street to cars if I had my way but I don’t have that kind of political sway unfortunately.

        What we did have though was a project manager who takes bike and pedestrian issues seriously and went to the mat for us multiple times. She didn’t get everything she wanted either. It’s an example of the kind of positive change that will get us where we need to be.

        • Andy Singer
          Andy Singer February 18, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

          I didn’t get anything I wanted on Smith Avenue. I don’t see one improvement from what’s currently there (for cyclists) and what’s currently there is awful. From looking at the plans, it’s possible they’ll actually made things worse– narrowing the bike lane and putting them closer to traffic. This isn’t the “8-80 design” that’s been so touted by the City of Saint Paul. I don’t expect the agency to “Turn on a dime” …but they have been on notice that they need to fix this bridge and lots of other stuff in Saint Paul for years. The Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition submitted a list of specific places that need to be fixed 4 years ago and this bridge was #5 on that list …and we’d been fighting with them for two years before that about Snelling Avenue. The agency also periodically held “bike plans” or non-motorized public outreach sessions and I (and others) have attended many. The last one, a couple years ago at the Wellstone Center asked people to place post-its with comments on a map of Saint Paul. There were lots of post-its on that bridge. I personally have spent at least a hundred hours in meetings with agency staff or on their citizen planning committees and I’ve gotten absolutely nothing. They have not addressed a single thing on the SPBC list, a single post-it or even followed through with plan sets that were produced by these committees. If you wanna let them off the hook, that’s fine, but I hold them 100% accountable for anyone who gets hit in the bike lane of that bridge (or afterwards, where they refuse to put bike lanes), and for anyone who gets hit trying to cross Smith. Our entire city is a cesspool of cars and parking thanks to MnDOT. Saint Paul used to have a thriving downtown and a thriving neighborhood in Rondo before MnDOT partially obliterated them. It’s time they fixed this stuff. But if no one holds them accountable, they’ll never fix it.

          • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

            By all means, hold them accountable then.

            I’m not letting anyone off the hook, just trying to help explain the context.

            Appreciate your feedback on this. Let me know how your further outreach efforts work out.

          • Paul Nelson February 22, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

            Sri for late reply, Andy. I think what you are describing here is applicable throughout the state on many roads and bridges. I do not look at infra design for “cyclists” as a separate group of people, rather I look at the bicycle as a mode of transport for all. This problem with MN Dot is everywhere.

  6. Paul Nelson February 18, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

    Do I need to go to the High Bridge and measure the street (I have measured a lot of streets in the past) ? I have used the High Bridge by bike on the old bridge and the current bridge after is was built. I probably have taken over 100 trips by bike from Saint Paul to Northfield, MN.

    I believe there should be enough room for at least one Jersey barrier wall, if not two, to provide full separation between walk/bike and the car lanes. Does anyone actually have the cross section measurements?

    Thank you.

    • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 12:41 pm #

      Paul, the big challenge was accommodating cars, high-speed cyclists, low-speed cyclists (such as families and kids) and pedestrians. There’s only room for one barrier, and you can’t have 35-mph roadies mixing with pedestrians. So the barrier separates the high-speed users from the low-speed ones.

      Also the layout has to be symmetrical because of the bridge structure and accommodate boom trucks.

      • Paul Nelson February 18, 2017 at 12:56 pm #

        The bridge is 54 feet wide.

        • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

          You’d be surprised how quickly that 54′ gets eaten up.

      • Andy Singer
        Andy Singer February 18, 2017 at 12:59 pm #

        We have “35mph roadies” mixing with pedestrians on all our our city trails– MRT trail, River Road, The Midtown Greenway, absolutely everywhere. We paint a line in the middle of the middle of the pathway …and/or vary where the curb edge is located. I’m tired of designing all Saint Paul’s bike infrastructure for “class A” cyclists and screwing everyone else. No one is going 35mph southbound. The wall will serve as a nice surface for cars to mash you against and will make an already stressful ride more so.

        • Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 1:10 pm #

          Yes, would be cool to build southbound differently but the load needs to be balanced.

  7. Matt Steele February 18, 2017 at 1:33 pm #

    It seems obvious… Do 10.5′ lanes with 2′ ridic curb reaction zones, then a concrete barrier, and cycletracks + sidewalk outside the barrier. No need for all that shoulder space. https://goo.gl/maps/7Tu8R4KJxxF2 In 2017 we have cameras with sensor zones and tow trucks that can be dispatched on a moment’s notice to clear stalls.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell February 19, 2017 at 7:37 am #

      We really need to eliminate the curb reaction zone thing. It’s really a don’t-pay-attention-and-text-all-you-want zone.

      • Adam Froehlig
        Adam Froehlig February 19, 2017 at 2:11 pm #

        Also called a “making-sure-my-truck-or-bus-mirrors-don’t-hit-anything-in-the-boulevard”…

        • Matt Steele February 20, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

          You’d think “prudent operation of a motor vehicle at safe speeds” would take care of that concern.

          Of course, side friction – basically the risk of motor vehicle operators running into something that could damage their beloved vehicles – is a proven traffic calming technique that reduces design speed.

  8. Paul Nelson February 18, 2017 at 1:38 pm #

    Well, lets “eat” the cross section space. I am unable to locate the width dimensions of the Hennepin Cty Franklin bridge in Minneapolis, across the Mississippi. However that bridge now has two MV traffic lanes and jersey barrier walls on each side protecting walk and bike space on each side of the bridge, symmetrical. If the High bridge is 54 feet wide and there wer no barriers of reaction space, we could draw 22 feet for two traffic lanes on each side and 16 feet wide walk bike space on each side, equals total of 54. We do not need 16 ft wide for walk bike on each side, so let’s say 12 to 14 feet on each side for walk and bike and measure the needed width for railing barrier on each side and the width of the base of two Jersey barriers, one for each side.

    We should be able to provide *at least* 12 feet on each side for walk and bike, separating walk from bike, and provide reaction space for each 11 ft wide traffic lane on each side, and the needed width for both Jersey barrier walls on each side.

    So, what is the problem?

  9. Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 2:02 pm #

    The problem as I recall had to do with positioning the barricades to accommodate inspection trucks. As I mentioned in this post they tried out 20 different layout concepts.

    I’m not an engineer so I can’t speak with authority as to the design limitations but I also don’t think Tara was BSing us on this. You should contact her to get a more complete response.

  10. Ken Paulman February 18, 2017 at 2:06 pm #

    Also there was no concern from MnDOT or anyone else about leaving space for disabled vehicles. That wasn’t an issue.

  11. Matt Steele February 20, 2017 at 12:29 pm #

    I walked this bridge up the hill for the first time on Saturday night. Wow, traffic goes fast so close to the unprotected sidewalk. It was a simultaneously beautiful yet unnerving walk.

    • Ken Paulman February 20, 2017 at 1:01 pm #

      Exactly. So that’s why the sidewalk barrier was a priority and unanimous vote of the CAC. With that and narrower car lanes (and hopefully texturing between the car and bike lanes) the intent is to slow vehicle traffic from the current 40-45 mph to 30-35. The project manager even talked about leaving the 40 mph speed limit signs off since the speed limit can’t be lowered (if you did a speed study you’d wind up raising it to 45.

      I’ve reached out to Tara to get a more definitive answer on why the barriers couldn’t be moved farther in but she’s out of the office until 2/27. Will report back what I find out, but again I’m 99% sure it’s because of accommodating inspection trucks.

      But MnDOT moving to *slow traffic down* on a state highway is a big step in the right direction, IMHO.

      • Matt Steele February 20, 2017 at 2:45 pm #

        I’m not sure if it’s feasible, but I’d almost rather see a good sidewalk and two-way cycletrack on one side, and two car lanes on the other. As long as there are good (good!!) crosswalks on both ends. That would make it so you’d have one interior jersey barrier instead of two, and probably a wider space to squeeze in a boom truck as well.

        Something like this. http://streetmix.net/-/490732

        • Ken Paulman February 20, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

          That’s one of the ideas they explored, not feasible because the bridge wasn’t designed to carry a traffic load on the edge of the deck. So car lanes have to be in the middle and the layout has to be symmetrical or you risk damaging the bridge structure.

  12. Paul Nelson February 22, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

    What about the Franklin bridge? This bridge already has the jersey barrier walls on both sides. How would an inspection truck be used on the Franklin bridge? The design of placing the wall next to the sidewalk and pushing the bike lane closer to the MV traffic is not best practice of roadway design. It’s bad.

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