The intersection of Smith Avenue and Dodd Road in West St. Paul may not seem remarkable, but it’s a bit of a local landmark.
It’s the location of what is believed to be the smallest dedicated park in the U.S. Across the street, a small boulder in a strip mall parking lot is infamous on social media for high-centering the occasional careless driver. Across the road, a makeshift memorial stood for several years marking the spot where Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick was shot during a traffic stop in 2014.
It’s an intersection that’s also notoriously perilous to get across on foot. Long, angled crosswalks along with short walk signals and fast-moving turning traffic make Smith and Dodd a challenge for any law-abiding pedestrian. Many people simply opt to wait for an opening in traffic and jaywalk. Businesses and neighbors have been asking for years for safer and more walkable streets, as captured in a 2010 comprehensive plan.
Last year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation began a project to repave the entire Highway 149 corridor, which Smith and Dodd is a part of. Along with new asphalt, old curbs and pedestrian ramps were torn out and re-poured … in pretty much the exact same place they were before.
This missed opportunity was probably not apparent to anyone who wasn’t following closely. But in February, record snowfall revealed what could have happened if the city had pushed for something better.
‘Think long and hard about what this road is used for’
“Sneckdown” is a term used by urbanists to describe how remnants of snowfall reveal how much of our roadway space isn’t actually used by cars. And with more than 30 inches of snow in February, there were sneckdowns appearing all over the city.
The one that formed on the southwest corner of Smith and Dodd, however, was fairly spectacular. By early March, the snow extended far enough into the intersection that the crosswalks were shortened by roughly 10-12 feet — which would provide a dual benefit of allowing people to cross more quickly as well as encouraging turning drivers to slow down. The pile didn’t seem to disrupt car traffic at all — few people make right turns at that corner, and those that do managed to navigate it just fine.
The changes resemble improvements MnDOT made to several intersections in St. Paul, including just two blocks to the north at Smith and Annapolis, which also gained a pedestrian-priority traffic signal.
Responding to an email inquiry, City Manager Ryan Schroeder said he wasn’t aware of any issues with vehicles having difficulty navigating Smith and Dodd as a result of nature’s improvised design.
Schroeder also doesn’t recall any conversations within the city about taking advantage of the MnDOT project for pedestrian improvements, which would have come at little, if any, cost to the city.
It was a chance that won’t come back around for many years.
“My usual thoughts when dealing with small cities, or project managers who are going into urban settings: Remind them that based on MnDOT’s current financial situation, MnDOT may not be back for a long time to reconstruct or repave this roadway, so think long and hard about what this road is used for,” said Derek Leuer, a MnDOT traffic engineer and member of West St. Paul’s planning commission, via email.
Leuer was not involved in this particular project, but notes that “There is no requirement to put back the exact road that is there. There are options to help reduce speeds, improve operations, and/or make the road safer for all users. Sometimes cities don’t want these things, sometimes they do but can’t afford to pay, sometimes they will be your best advocate for a better project.”
Across the border in St. Paul, city officials did advocate for a better project, and Dale Gade, a MnDOT engineer who worked on the Highway 149 project, confirmed that corner bumpouts in St. Paul were constructed at no additional cost to the city. Cities pay for part of the cost of traffic signal replacement, but Gade did not recall any additional cost to St. Paul for the pedestrian-priority timing.
The changes are in line with recommendations made in 2010 by a community task force that spent nearly a year studying the Smith Avenue corridor — a plan that was adopted by both St. Paul and West St. Paul (disclosure, I was on this task force, along with the two advisory committees mentioned later in the piece).
So why didn’t West St. Paul take advantage of this opportunity for essentially free pedestrian upgrades?
That’s where things get a little complicated.
The Chicken and the Egg
West St. Paul does have a solution for the Smith/Dodd intersection, which in this case is also part of the problem.
While MnDOT was in the final stages of construction planning in 2017, West St. Paul had convened an advisory committee for a proposed realignment of the Smith/Dodd intersection. The resulting plan dramatically transforms the intersection to square off the corners and open more parcels for development.
In large part because West St. Paul was developing its own plan, MnDOT did not consider changes to the intersection. While a MnDOT committee was walking the street with engineers to flag trouble spots and brainstorm solutions. Smith/Dodd was ignored — the city, we were told, was planning for bigger and greater things.
Meanwhile, on the Smith/Dodd committee, calls for something — anything — to be done in the interim while MnDOT was rebuilding the road were set aside.
And while the city’s plan would be a substantial leap forward in pedestrian safety, there is no timeline to build it, no plan to finance it, and no guarantee that a future city council won’t simply disregard its recommendations entirely.
The city’s recent politics and current financial picture make it unlikely the project will see the light of day anytime soon.
West St. Paul has looming debt from the overhaul of Robert Street, a state highway that the city was largely left on the hook for. Tax-averse conservatives have long seen the project, which includes a landscaped median, decorative streetlights and modest improvements for pedestrians, as a boondoggle, and even succeeded in ousting former Mayor John Zanmiller in 2014 over the project.
The city council now has a progressive majority, and although the Robert Street overhaul appears to be boosting the city’s economic prospects and reducing crashes as planned, it will still be politically difficult to pursue anything that might be perceived as “extra.”
That political difficulty, however, didn’t prevent the city from spending weeks in 2016 deliberating how to create a private on-street parking zone for two homeowners who didn’t feel like using their garages. Nor did it stop plans to expand the parking lot at city hall (which, notably, still doesn’t have a pedestrian access or a bike rack) in 2018.
And to be fair, plans are moving forward for a more pedestrian-friendly West St. Paul — the city is cooperating with Dakota County on plans for a new trail tunnel beneath Robert Street (paid for largely with state funds) as well as the addition of sidewalks along busy Wentworth Avenue. The newly elected city council — with two members who campaigned on walkability as a key priority — is exploring ways to lessen the burden of sidewalk construction on property owners, who presently have to pay 100 percent of the cost.
But as the snow recedes, the intersection of Smith and Dodd will again return to its old dysfunctional self, a reminder that the lowest hanging fruit is sometimes the easiest to overlook.