Reviewing (and Grading) Saint Paul’s New Smith Avenue/High Bridge Design

Fb Cover235

The Mississippi River with the High Bridge under construction in the background.

High Bridge Cover

Illustration of the High Bridge from an 1970s downtown weekly.

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 Good:

  • 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.)

 

Stp High Bridge 1970s

The original High Bridge sidewalks were uneven and scary. This photo is from the 1970s.

High Bridge Leafblower

From 1986 to 2017, this was the High Bridge design.

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.

High Bridge 2

The new High Bridge sidewalk. (Note the small brown blob on sidewalk in photo.)

High Bridge 3

Entrance to the new High Bridge sidewalk from the West Side of the river.

  • 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.

High Bridge Memorial 3

The old bridge fence, with a memorial for a person who died on the bridge.

High Bridge 4

The new 8-foot fence. Note how the fence goes all the way down to the bridge deck.

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 Bad:

  • 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.

High Bridge 8

The narrower bike lane. Note ice in some of it.

High Bridge Speed Sign

A speed sign from the old High Bridge. Reducing the High Bridge / 149 design speed should have been the #1 priority for the engineers.

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.)

The OK:

  • 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.

Sidewalkclosed106

Smith Avenue sidewalks under construction.

Smith Avenue High Bridge

The final reconstructed street, hardly traffic-calmed from its previous design. Note also the lack of “historic” lighting.

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.

High Bridge 1

Design semantics for the pedestrian crossing at Cliff Street, the east side of the High Bridge.

High Bridge 7

Looking up at the bridge from the West End / Uppertown neighborhood.

High Bridge Crossing 12

A person crossing Smith Avenue at the top side of the bridge before reconstruction. (This crossing was left largely unchanged.)

 

Conclusion

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.

 

High Bridge 6

The view from the top, with the fence in the foreground. (I was unwilling this time to hold my phone over the river.)

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26 Responses to Reviewing (and Grading) Saint Paul’s New Smith Avenue/High Bridge Design

  1. bob roscoe January 14, 2019 at 9:31 am #

    Thank you for your helpful analysis. I ask you to check out the recently revised Franklin Av Bridge in Minneapolis. Many shortcomings you pointed out were successfully addressed by engineers who know the future of traffic, meaning more pedestrians and bicycles, which have a shared 18 -20 foot path. The vehicular lanes widen a bit at both ends and narrow enough to slow down drivers.

    And the bridge has a sense of aesthetics.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 14, 2019 at 10:21 am #

      I love that bridge design. I wish MnDOT would have done something more like that here.

    • Ken Paulman January 14, 2019 at 10:23 am #

      Franklin Ave bridge is 66 feet wide. High Bridge is 54 feet wide.

      An extra 12 feet would have made a world of difference in the final outcome for the latter.

      • Monte Castleman January 14, 2019 at 10:43 am #

        Yes. In a way it’s unfortunate the High Bridge wasn’t built with four lanes of traffic back then so that we’d have more space to work with now, similar to the Franklin Bridge. Right now it’s very much a zero sum game between people in cars, various classes of people on bicycles, and people on foot.

        I’m too afraid to use an unprotected bicycle lane anywhere so obviously I’m not going to start here. If I were designing it I’d do something like cycletracks or MUPS on the protected side of the barriers, but if we did that we’d probably have the “strong and fearless” types complaining about not having on-street lanes.

        The net result is that we made it about equal for motorists, noticeably worse for the strong and fearless type of bicyclists, a lot better for pedestrians, and it’s still totally unusable for the “interested but concerned” bicyclists

        • Ken Paulman January 14, 2019 at 10:50 am #

          The intent was for cyclists to use the protected sidewalks if they don’t want to use the lanes.

          I’m a frequent user of the bridge, on the old design I would usually take the sidewalk in winter.

          Part of the problem we faced was also having to accommodate cyclists bombing the bridge at 30+ mph. Obviously they can’t be mixed with pedestrian traffic.

  2. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig January 14, 2019 at 9:59 am #

    Were you around back in the mid-80s when the current bridge was built?

  3. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele January 14, 2019 at 11:07 am #

    I totally agree about the bike lanes and wish they were on the pedestrian side of the jersey barrier (at least uphill). A few years ago when designing a Hennepin County street, the engineers and I were able to adjust the striping layout based on the grade so that uphill segment would have a bike lane even when the downhill segment got a (sorry) sharrow due to local business parking politics.

    Another topic- why do we so frequently light up these bridge decks with ridiculous globe/lantern fixtures? St. Paul bridges do this even more than Mpls bridges such as Lowry, Hennepin, etc. Why not do full-cutoff “dark sky” fixtures that also produce less glare and increase motorist visibility of pedestrians/bicyclists? A bridge deck seems like it should be *particularly easy* to light up with precision and without glare, yet we spend so much on these globe fixtures that send the majority of their light into the sky and off of the bridge deck.

    You can see from the two night photos in the article that the long series of these glare-producing globes would often reduce, rather than enhance, visibility of bicyclists on the shoulder or pedestrians on the crosswalks at the end of the bridge.

    The good thing is that these are “hanging globe” fixtures, so it should be relatively cost effective for the City of St. Paul to convert these to safer, more efficient full-cutoff fixtures.

  4. Brian January 14, 2019 at 11:50 am #

    Is the speed limit higher on the bridge than the streets on either end? The author comments about drivers coming off the bridge at too high a speed.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 14, 2019 at 12:56 pm #

      I have found that people do not pay much attention to speed limits on urban bridges.

      • commissar January 15, 2019 at 12:11 am #

        as a driver, i would tend t5o agree. im guilty of it myself. probably because im more cognizant of the potential for inattentive pedestrians wandering into the streets, coupled with the lack of intersections.

      • Brian January 15, 2019 at 11:41 am #

        I like to drive pretty close to the speed limit on urban bridges like 3rd Ave in Minneapolis. If I drive just above 30 MPH I practically get run over by other drivers who want to go faster.

        I don’t have to worry about this so much anymore now that I take the bus to work every day.

  5. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary January 14, 2019 at 11:59 am #

    Excellent review, Bill. I also (in theory) have mixed feelings about the railing, but I will need to check it out in person. Honestly, I have never walked across the bridge, but have biked across it many times.

    I am really surprised Smith Avenue south of the bridge doesn’t have pedestrian post lighting. The picture you posted toward the end appears to be in City of St Paul (based on street name sign style), not WSP. Of all cities, St. Paul seems the most consistent with getting those on all new streets — even much less significant community streets than Smith Avenue.

    There definitely aren’t more concrete bases to get additional lights in the spring?

    (If that is the case, I would like the mix of high and low lights for a busy street, and particularly like the high lights for intersections. The high lights at intersections on 66th and Portland in Richfield make crossing pedestrians much more visible.)

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 14, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

      There definitely are not. I informed my Council Member.

  6. Carolyn Swiszcz
    Carolyn January 14, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

    Excellent article – good review!

  7. karen January 14, 2019 at 4:56 pm #

    I didn’t pay attention much to the approached before and after re-do, so don’t know if anything has changed, but since the re-do, I have twice been nearly rear-ended in my car when I have taken a right turn onto the bridge from Cherokee.

    I’m usually pretty conservative about waiting for gaps in traffic when turning, as I’ve noticed friends annoyed I don’t go when they would have, and yet I’ve pulled onto road and had car and a truck barreling down on me way quicker than I expected, and when I checked my speed, I was nearly at 30 when they had to brake behind me.

    How fast are these people going as the approach the bridge from the south?!?

  8. karen January 14, 2019 at 4:58 pm #

    What was the reason for not putting the bike lane on same side of concrete barrier as sidewalk?

    On the Franklin bridge (I know its wider) the concrete barriers are far closer to car lanes than on High Bridge, not really feeling why concrete couldn’t have been closer in this case – it would have been traffic calming.

    • Ken Paulman January 15, 2019 at 6:50 am #

      Several reasons, but mainly because it couldn’t be done while still leaving room for inspection trucks. The bike/ped area can’t be made wide enough to accommodate the truck, and if the barriers were moved farther in, the boom wouldn’t be able to reach out and over the taller railings.

      The other issue is that northbound cyclists are typically traveling at a high rate of speed because of the slope, so they can’t really mix with pedestrians. The intent is the bike lanes are there for those who want to use them (I’ve ridden them multiple times and don’t fine them any worse than Wabasha bridge), and the sidewalk is an option for cyclists who prefer slower speeds and a protective barrier.

  9. Monte Castleman January 14, 2019 at 8:33 pm #

    I have to point out those are city of St. Paul street lights, not Mn/DOT (who does not use that style of pole on new installations nor that style of luminaire). Generally for surface streets such as this, Mn/DOT will pay for half the cost of installation of a standard lighting system, which will then be owned, maintained, and energized by the city. Since St. Paul is going to own and maintain if going forward they likely elected to use their own pole and streetlight standards.

  10. Frank Phelan January 16, 2019 at 8:36 pm #

    Wouldn’t it be possible to have openings in the railings that would allow for photo taking? They could be at a few different heights. An opening a little larger than a business sized envelope would work well.

    I was surprised the current bridge needed such a major overhaul after whet seems like a short period of time.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary January 16, 2019 at 11:00 pm #

      I thought this as well. 30 years seems short to replace the entire bridge deck?

      But maybe that is common for river bridges. Fort Road Bridge (Hwy 5) was redecked in 1986 and again in 2016.

      The Intercity Bridge (carries Ford Pkwy) was redecked in 1972, and again in 2004. And the Cappelen Bridge (Franklin Ave) was redone in the 1970s and again in 2017.

      • Monte Castleman January 17, 2019 at 10:23 am #

        Add to that the I-35W Minnesota River bridge. It was completely re-decked in the early 1980s and one of the reasons for rebuilding it now is it would soon need it again. Given the age of the rest of the structure and inability to widen the existing structure for auxiliary lanes it was decided just to start over this time rather than redeck it

    • Commissar January 17, 2019 at 10:16 am #

      Salt. That takes a major toll on the deck. Be nice to have an anti icing system on it though

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