The “High Bridge” is best known as an iconic place for photographs of Saint Paul’s downtown, either as a symbol framing the city or as a place to take pictures of the city. But it’s also a key transportation corridor for people on the West Side and West End, a half-mile link between two historic river-adjacent neighborhoods.
Over the last year and a half, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) “redecked” the high bridge, redoing everything above the bridge structure. At the same time, the agency reconstructed Smith Avenue (Highway 149) on both sides of the bridge. That project took over a year, during which time the bridge was completely closed to traffic, and Smith Avenue was torn up to varying and ever-changing degrees.
As a bicyclist/pedestrian, I disliked being cut off from the rest of Saint Paul. As a west side resident, I worried briefly over the past 18 months that all my avenues of access were being severed, one by one. The High Bridge was the first, and most dramatic, severance. Its year-plus closure forced me to go through downtown every time I wanted to walk or bike to the rest of Saint Paul. Then the Wabasha Street cave-in occurred, closing that street for a while to everyone (and eventually only to cars), forcing me to use either the narrow twisting course of Ohio Street or the dangerous multi-lane death road that is Robert Street. (I did not do that.)
And then the rest of the routes flirted with disappearing. Kellogg Boulevard was briefly closed down, Smith Avenue was in various states of deconstruction, and the fates and engineers seemed to be conspiring to prevent everyone on the West Side from ever reaching the rest of Saint Paul.
Once the bridge re-opened last month, all was well again. Here are my not-so-brief thoughts about the result.
- the sidewalks are vastly improved
The old High Bridge design left the sidewalks exposed on the edge, with a 100-foot plummet to the river on one side and fast-moving (40-plus mph) vehicular traffic on the other. Nothing but an elevated curb marked the sidewalk. Walking down the bridge made me feel a bit like Indiana Jones traversing a gorge with a giant boulder bearing down on him.
(BTW, if you think the old bridge sidewalk was bad, you should have seen the pre-1980s version. Back then, you walked on wood boards that allowed brief views, between the cracks, of the river below your feet.)
The new design is a massive improvement, with a small but protective concrete wall erected between the wide sidewalk and the car traffic. Best of all, the lampposts have been moved into the concrete buffer wall, and lovely inlaid limestone accents were installed.
(Incidentally, MnDOT forces cities to pay for pedestrian “amenities” while it foots the bill only for automobile travel. So all lighting came at the city’s expense, rather than out of the MnDOT budget. Thanks, Saint Paul!)
The result is a much more pleasant High Bridge experience, despite a poop sitting squarely in the middle of the sidewalk the second time I walked across the bridge.
- the taller fencing
At first, I disliked the idea of having taller fences on the High Bridge. The best thing about the old bridge was the great view of the river valley, and I worried that a taller fence would ruin that. I hoped the designers wouldn’t completely screen and alter the exhilaration of going over the bridge, the feeling of being high over the river valley, surrounded by tall bluffs and looking down on the city.
But then some of my neighbors began to fill me in about the bridge’s history of suicide. The more I listened and learned, the more I saw taller fences as a benefit. Higher railings would dramatically reduce the number of suicides on the bridge.
The final result is a mixed bag for walkability. Apart from suicide reduction, the new railing has some nice design features. The very top of the fence has a little “arch” detail that mirrors the overall bridge itself. Likewise, the fence goes all the way down to the bridge deck, kind of like a full-length window in a modern apartment. The full-length view offers an interesting effect and accentuates the slight vertigo you get from being up that high in the first place. On the other hand, the new street lights shine off the wall and keep you from seeing a lot of the surrounding river valley or skyline.
It’s also harder to snap photos. Whereas before you could just lift your camera over the 5-foot railing, now you have to dangle the camera between the narrow metal rods of the fence. As in, dangle your expensive phone 100 feet over a river, in wind and rain, to take a decent picture of the city skyline. The fence will save lives, and that’s a top priority, but more smart phones will be plummeting into the river each year.
- the bike lanes are narrower
MnDOT shaved a foot or so off the in-street bike lanes. Not only that, but a 2-foot concrete barrier hems in the lanes on one side, which makes them feel even narrower than they are.
If you want to bike on the street, rather than the sidewalk, the new bridge is worse now. I agree with my friends who have given the bike lanes a negative review.
The High Bridge is the only place where I’ve been hit by a car while biking, so I am sensitive to the bike lane design. It was years ago, in the middle of the winter, and I was biking up the bridge on my trusty ’90s-era winter whip. Ice and snow marred the bike lane, and I was forced to ride closer to the car lane than I would have liked. The side-view mirror of a car that was speeding up the bridge smacked my handlebar.
Luckily for me, the mirror broke off like a lizard’s tail, and apart from being freaked out about nearly being killed, I was fine. Ever since that night, I have always biked on the sidewalk heading uphill on the High Bridge (which is legal).
Space on the bridge was always going to be a zero sum game. If the engineers were going to improve anything, some parts of the right-of-way were going to lose out. In this case, the sidewalk got better and the bike lane worse. There was no easy way out of that spatial pickle.
I would have preferred an asymmetrical bridge design. I would have moved the up-hill, on-street bike lane into the sidewalk, protected by a wall. (Consider: Cyclists move more quickly going down steeply slanted bridges than they do going up. Bicyclists probably average 20 miles per hour on the way down the bridge, posing potential conflicts with pedestrians, whereas they might average 5 miles per hour going uphill. That also means the average bicyclist spends four times as much time in the uphill lane, exposed to cars.)
Having moved the up-hill bike lane, I would have divided the extra 3 feet or so of space between the downhill, on-street lane and the up-hill sidewalk. In short, make bicyclists use the sidewalk going up, but give them more room on-street heading down. It might have been unpopular with folks who use the bridge to train for mountain ascents, but it would have been safer for the bicyclists who need more room as they descend.
But that design was definitely too unorthodox for an agency like MnDOT. (I am told by a contact who worked on the design plans: MnDOT *did* give an asymmetrical design serious consideration. Engineers came back and said an imbalanced load on the deck would require reengineering the entire superstructure.)
- Smith Avenue bumpouts
Another mixed bag is the re-design of Smith Avenue, the two-mile stretch of historic mixed-use commercial street leading from West Saint Paul/Mendota Heights down to the bridge. Smith Avenue always had a speeding problem because there are only two stoplights, and traffic flows quickly and uninterrupted down the street, which is also at a significant grade. Narrowing the right-of-way, reducing the design speed, and calming traffic should have been the top priorities for a street reconstruction.
Granted, MnDOT did add two or three bumpouts at a few key spots, which tightened up the street. When cars are parked on Smith these days, it really does feel like a slower street, one where traffic might actually stop for you as you cross on foot.
But the agency could have done a lot more. I remember one meeting during the “engagement” for the project, where I asked a project engineer about the possibility of adding more bumpouts to Smith.
“It’s not in the budget,” was the answer.
That seems like hogwash. In a complete street reconstruction, the difference between adding a bumpout or building straight curbs is a marginal rounding error; you are laying new concrete and ADA ped ramps either way.
During that meeting, a few moments later, the engineer and I got into a small discussion about whether bumpouts actually make pedestrians safer.
“Well actually, bumpouts are not necessarily safer for pedestrians,” I remember the person stating.
I was dumbfounded, and the exchange still irks me today. Bumpouts slow traffic, reducing risk, while increasing visibility for anyone on foot. That the agency would still have mixed feelings about them in a walkable neighborhood like the West Side still disturbs me.
Another weird omission in the new design is historic-style street lamps. The new Smith Avenue retains the existing globe-style lamps between about Baker Street and the bridge, but south of that point is only MnDOT high-arc, highway-style lighting. I had thought that historic street lamps would have been automatically added during reconstruction of an historic commercial street like Smith. (Note that MnDOT does not pay for lighting beyond highway standards; cities themselves do. So this lapse is likely the fault of the City of Saint Paul.)
- traffic calming at either end of the bridge
The final important details have to do with the pedestrian access and designs at both ends of the bridge. Bridges, like freeway onramps, have a problem where traffic has to shift from speeding on an uninterrupted straightaway to quickly transitioning into a slow-speed complex walkable street grid. This has long been a problem at the south/west end of the bridge, where Cherokee Avenue and recreational trails encounter speeding traffic coming up the bridge and around a slight curve.
The new design features no major changes from the previous, similarly dangerous situation. I guess I should be grateful that MnDOT did not build a wall here, forcing people to walk blocks out of their way to cross Smith Avenue at the stoplight in the name of safety. But you can still watch people walking their dogs, waiting interminably to dash across the south end of the High Bridge. The new design is not an improvement.
The new design is better than the old, however, on the north end of the bridge, in the West End neighborhood. The curb radii where traffic comes into Cliff Road has been tightened up, and the new crosswalks and bumpouts reduce crossing distance. The result is still a bit hair-raising, as cars plummet down the bridge and into a dense neighborhood, but at least the new design is trying to reduce speeds here.
I’m grateful the bridge is re-opened — and particularly for pedestrians, the new design is a big step forward. It also pretty much stops the suicide problem, which is a big plus for the community. That said, the on-street bike lanes were sacrificed for the greater good, and particularly on the south (Smith Avenue) side of the project, MnDOT could have done more to improve the street for small businesses and people on foot.
If I were grading the project, I would give it a solid “B.” For an agency with an auto-centric design legacy like MnDOT’s, that’s not bad. After all, the last time the agency wanted to redesign this bridge, they aimed to make into a four-lane death road.