East Sixth Street in Dayton’s Bluff has an identity crisis. Is it a residential street? Is it a minor arterial street? Is it a street to just get to and from interstate 94? In its current state I would say that depends on your perception of the street, how a person uses it and what one thinks would be its and the community’s best use. If you’re not familiar with the street here is a map showing how it meets I-94 right at Metro State University’s campus.
As you can see, the entrance and exit ramp onto I-94 links up directly with East Sixth Street. If we look back in time Metro State University previously used to be St. John’s Hospital and having a street connect directly with an interstate would make logical sense for emergencies and care. The hospital moved out in 1987 and Metro State moved into the space in 1992 and has been growing and expanding ever since. A freeway ramp directly flowing through the heart of the university is a double edged sword. It makes it convenient to access the university parking ramp which has entrances to it on Maria and Bates Ave, but it also creates a HUGE conflict zone with foot traffic and bicycles having to watch out for cars zooming onto or off the freeway.
Another unique situation with East Sixth is that the street is almost entirely residential. Between Mounds Blvd and Maria which is the 1st block coming on/off the freeway contains Metro State University, an insurance agency, Yoerg Saloon (which is on the corner but faces Maria) and Sacred Heart Church 6 blocks up which has been at its current location since 1881.
Aside from these 4 commercial structures the entire length of the street (excluding one other business about 8 blocks up on 6th) is residential. The street is classified as minor arterial, but this is curious considering there is a 4 lane highway one block over; East 7th Street. Why do we need one high traffic street located one block parallel to another? 7th Street is Dayton’s Bluff commercial corridor. Why are we directing most of the traffic onto a residential street versus our main business district one block parallel?
So what are the problems and what has been done already? Let’s look at the issues from a residential perspective since these folks spend arguably the most time on/observing and living with the behaviors of the street. The street has had quite an increase in cars over the years. In 2005 the Average Daily Traffic (ADT) was around 5700 cars a day. A more recent study in October 2018 showed that the ADT now sits at about 9700. That’s around a 70% increase in daily traffic in 13 years. When I speak of these numbers I am not addressing the whole of East Sixth Street, because the street itself runs around 20 blocks long and ends in a T intersection at East View Playground. These numbers I’m quoting are only including a 6 block stretch from Mounds Blvd to Arcade Street.
9700 cars days is A LOT on a residential street, it might not sound excessive, but imagine living with nearly 10,000 cars or trucks a day passing in front of your house. Imagine a healthy number of 18 wheeler semi trucks, tow trucks, dump trucks, construction trucks and other large commercial vehicles traveling on a residential street just feet from your front door daily. You’re going to not only hear it; you’re going to feel it. Now imagine having your windows open and the sheer road noise and pollution being created and pumped into your home by nearly 10,000 cars a day.
Many of these 9700 cars a day are also behaving like they are still on a freeway off ramp. While 85th percentile speeds have improved over the years the latest data still shows it is around 31-35 MPH. This might not seem unusual, but it is indicative of driver perception of the street. I think many aren’t as concerned about the 85th percentile speeds themselves, but concerned with the drivers that go way up and beyond these speeds. We have had a significant history of damage to vehicles, signs, buildings and people for a long time. When we look at the data we can see that the city is spending a significant amount of time and money repairing and replacing signs on the street due to drivers hitting them. In fact the city spends around $400 a month on these sign replacements/repairs for a 6 block stretch of street. The community has planted the 5 islands in the street and had beautiful cast iron urns in these islands. All 5 islands have been hit so many times that all the urns have been destroyed and damage to them is a regular issue. A regular number of parked vehicles hit by cars occur yearly and cars have also flipped over in the street and boulevards and hit and damaged buildings over the years. Most recently in 2017 a car stuck a pedestrian and in 2016 a car struck a bicyclist; both with injuries. Sadly we have also had one resident killed crossing the street in front of her home.
Aside from these safety concerns to foot traffic, vehicles and residents I think it’s important to mention other quality of life issues 9700 cars a day has on a community. I have myself seen people throwing large amounts of trash out of their vehicles or dumping illegally, cars that lack mufflers and cars with stereos (in my opinion) way too loud. These may be “normal” behaviors of some drivers, but when it is amplified to dozens of vehicles doing these behaviors on a daily basis it really becomes a quality of life problem. I also have to only wonder how much pollution and carbon dioxide is created on this street when 9700 cars a day pass in front of the structure that you have your windows open, eat, sleep and breathe in.
So with all these issues what has been done to try to improve the conditions for everyone? The community and the city have been trying to improve the conditions for over 20 years. Interestingly we have sources dating back to the 1950s noting people having to take their lives into their hands to cross the busy street. While working on improving the street we are on at least the 2nd or 3rd generation of residents striving for change and in the past decade some good improvements have been made. Residents have worked with Public Works and they have also dedicated a lot of time and energy to improving conditions. Stop signs have been installed replacing traffic lights and 2 way stops, the street was narrowed to its current width of 38 feet, bump-outs were added, islands were added at controlled intersections, a speed indicator sign and lantern style street lights have also been installed. All these improvements have been implemented along with attempts to get traffic enforcement out on a regular basis, but many feel (including myself) that it still hasn’t improved conditions enough. After every other effort has tried and failed is when the community took the ongoing issue to Council Member Jane Prince to discuss what else could be attempted. With a petition and support from the Dayton’s Bluff District Council a study was conducted in October 2018 to see what would happen if a 1 block section at Mounds Boulevard was closed. Let’s look at the date from this test below. The results of the study can be found at https://www.stpaul.gov/6thtest
The study was to attempt a one block closure of 6th Street between Mounds Blvd and Maria Ave. This location was selected to stop the conflict of the interstate on/off ramp and a residential street. This would force those coming off 94 East onto Mounds Blvd would have to turn rather than continue straight. Looking at the data chart above we see that of traffic coming off at the exit; 42% of it is going onto 6th vs. 28% turning onto a 4 lane highway and the commercial corridor and 29% turns to go to 3rd street. We can see that the majority of traffic is going up 6th from the exit. It’s also challenging and a disincentive for cars to turn at this intersection. It’s made and encouraged to get vehicles on and off the ramp as quickly as possible and heaven help anyone that wants to turn against this excessive flow of traffic. It’s really made to funnel cars on and off. But what would happen if this one block was closed and traffic had to find a new way?
During the closure we can see the changes above. I figured in the percentages above of the changes. We can see that 2/3 of the traffic went over to 7th Street which is the ideal location, 1/3 went to 3rd street, but interestingly when we look at the data it seems that around 2800 cars a day stopped using this exit all together and found another route. I think that it’s also important to note that roughly 30% of vehicles that were on 6th street before the closure, stayed on 6th street indicating that these 2000 ADT had a specific purpose staying on the street and the rest of the traffic found other ways to get to their destination. It’s also interesting to see how most adjacent streets decreased in their ADT too. The only oddity I find on the study is that a 1 block stretch of Maria at the university increased quite a bit. Some of this traffic is probably university traffic and some of it is probably cut through traffic. We also significantly decrease the conflict of traffic coming and going off the ramp vs. cars that are trying to turn against this flow. The study details in the link above will show more information.
Along with the study data an online survey was conducted in conjunction and was also released. The survey was only open for comment during the 4 weeks of the closure. The responses were mixed; some people complain about having to go one block over or a small increase in their commute time. Others were concerned with the traffic that was added to 7th Street and 3rd Street. Asking property owners and residents on 6th Street and adjacent streets where traffic decreased were highly favorable and positive. The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council has supported a permanent closure and currently Metro State University has remained neutral on their opinion of the closure.
So what does the neighborhood gain by all this? My thoughts as a resident are that we get a lot. We get a huge quality of life increase and we get a street that isn’t scary to cross or to bicycle on. We get a neighborhood again rather than a cut through street of people in a rush to get onto the freeway. We get a street where pedestrians and bicyclists can travel and cross without trying to dodge freeway exit driver behavior. We get increased visibility on our commercial corridor and businesses can be easily found rather than going a back way trying to find it. To my eye it seems so illogical to have a freeway ramp dump traffic onto a residential street when we have a 4 lane state highway one block over. It seems logical to me to put vehicles traveling a greater distance on the highway and keep the traffic that has a specific local destination on the residential street. I think the study accomplished this. The data shows that it worked closing this one block segment and that with a few small implementations it seems to me that we have a lot more to gain by doing this closure rather than not doing it. I could go on and on of other examples of where a similar closure implementation have worked and been successful throughout the country and more locally we could look to Minneapolis at the now removed Washington Ave freeway ramp that dumped cars into the heart of the University of Minnesota. After my 13 years of working on improving conditions on the street and others providing 20+ years of work doing the same, we haven’t come to this step easy. We have tried so many other methods that haven’t been successful and this is the absolute last resort to dramatically improve conditions and quality of life for hundreds if not thousands of people. My neighbor that was killed crossing the street in front of her house was a big proponent to improve the conditions on the street and sadly her life was lost because of the conditions. I think we owe this to our neighborhood and community and whether I remain a resident of this area all my life or another few years I fight for this because I intrinsically feel this is the right and logical thing to do for everyone who lives and visits Dayton’s Bluff. I think we have so little to lose and so much to gain.