Podcast #104: Redesigning Maryland Avenue with Jim McDonough

The podcast this week is a conversation with Jim McDonough, who is a County Commissioner on the Ramsey County board representing the East Side of Saint Paul. Commissioner McDonough and I sat down in his office a few weeks ago to talk about the recent “public works test” along Maryland Avenue on Saint Paul’s East Side, where the county is experimenting with reducing the number of travel lanes on the street from 4 lanes to 3 lanes in an effort to improve safety. The conversation covered a lot of ground about how County government works, why 4-lane roads are dangerous, and McDonough’s hopes for what the test can do for the future of Ramsey County and Saint Paul. I hope you enjoy the conversation.

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[rough transcript follows]

On the role of county government:

County government is pretty integral to our community. So much of what we do is when a family comes in crisis: human services, mental health, adults with disability, public health, corrections. Those are some of the main functions of counties, but we do so much more: parks, libraries in suburbs, roads. We own an extensive county road system, we run elections. We do a lot.

On County roads:

County roads are typically the arterial feeder roads. They tend to be a mile or half mile apart, every mile or so you have these major arterial type roads that feed. Those tend to be the county roads. So our roads are pretty critical in the city of Saint Paul its tough because our roads — White Bear, Maryland, Johnson Parkway on the East Side — so many are those arterial-type roads and the right of ways are extremely narrow. They never were built to carry the amount of traffic they carry today.

On changing priorities at Ramsey County Public Works:

At the board level from the top and through public works we’ve adopted a transportation for all policy. When we’re looking at our roads we look at pedestrians bikers transit and automobiles. Int eh past roads were truly focused on automobiles and how to move cars through communities as efficiently as possible. That worked for cars, but the bad part was that it became extremely unsafe for pedestrians bike users. And it was tough for transit to integrate into that system. So with our transportation for all we truly look at peds first, bike users second, transit third, and then for people driving in their cars.

It’s an evolution, right? We’ve been pushing for bike lanes on our roads. Its always hard so our dollars don’t go as far because its more costly. Its always easier to focus in on county road E or J out in the suburban community large right of way you can do a lot of things.. But coming into the city white bear avenue you can’t build that road to the standards they say they should built these days. In the past we tended to just patch those roads but now we’re actually committed to doing what we can in that right of way to make it safe for the users. We’re putting the first HAWK light we’ve used in the system at White Bear at Margaret Street for folks using the system and the trail there.

On safety for County Roads on the East Side, and the Maryland Avenue test:

White Bear and Maryland are probably the two toughest streets in my district. I can remember when both of those streets had parking and only one lane of travel. Things have changed.  When I grew up, it was pretty common for a lot of folks to not even have cars. And most families that did only had one car in the family. Now we’ve got families in the east side with 4-5 cars. The numbers of vehicles traveling on our roads has increased.

We’re trying our best here. We’ve got this great opportunity on Maryland. We’re repaving this year, and we had that tragic death on Greenbrier and Maryland. That brought the community together. We had conversations about that, and there were some questions about whether or not we could take a look at turning Maryland from a 4- to a 3-lane road.

The number of cars on that segment of Maryland are at the high end of what engineering and modeling say you can do, but it’s not absolute. Most Saint Paul public works and Ramsey County public works thought this was an opportunity for a “real time test” to actually see what happens. It’s hard to predict human behavior, so we’ve converted Maryland to a 3-lane road and we’re doing a six-week test here. We’re getting all kinds of data, we’re watching interactions. We’ve met with shop owners. We’ve had pop-up meetings. We’ve got ways for people to weigh in.

On 4-3 road diets:

One of the thing about roads and pedestrians and cars its engineering its enforcement and its education. There is a law you have to stop for pedestrians when you’re in an intersection. A car did that. She starts to cross, another car assumed that the car stopped was probably taking a right turn, they didn’t think there might be a pedestrian in the crosswalk, and killed that person. It happened to a young boy on Rice Street, it happens.

That’s one of the reasons why pedestrians get leery. Unless you know and have that eye contact and you know that both lanes of traffic are stopped and that it’s safe… but to do that on four lanes of traffic on Maryland street is risky.

Now we’ve taken it down to where you’ve got one lane east, one lane west, and the center lane which is a refuge so that people crossing can be confident that folks coming from the other direction is safe for them to cross.

On the Maryland test so far:

It’s actually functioning quite well from an engineering data driven [perspective]… there’s traffic flowing and there are certainly some times when someone might have to wait an extra [traffic] cycle to cross Arcade Street or slight delays or other issues. I believe we will continue it and continue to get data and maybe get some fine tuning on signal timing.

One of the positive experiences is certainly for people within public works is to have this real-time opportunity. There have been other opportunities within the city — Dale Street, Rice Street — you can name many streets. Having this real time test can really help give people not only the data but the experience to say we can push it here.

On street design priorities in Ramsey County:

Certainly you’ve got community opposition, but this also helps to temper community opposition. I know of folks who said “no” but once it’s been put in place they actually changed their mind, they actually liked it. I’ve seen that where people actually go from a “no” to a “yes” on this.

One of the hardest parts especially for the people that are a “no” is to think that this right of way that the city owns is not just for cars. It is to move citizens. A lot of folks choose to walk or have to walk, they have no choice, or they choose to bike or have to bike, or choose to use transit or have to use transit. And those rights of way have to work for all those modes, and not just cars.

There’s been this slant, I think, as we’ve developed out our road system to focus in on cars and being safe for car interaction and how to move cars as efficiently from point A to point B. And when you do that you take away from other people who also have to use that right of way, walkers bikers and transit users.

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