The Saint Paul Public Works “five-year plan” (PW 5-Year Plan) received a not-so-subtle edit this year, moving $3.569,917 dollars slotted for the mill and overlay of Ayd Mill Road in 2021 up to this year, re-paving the city’s most controversial four-lane third rail. To me, the decision runs counter to Saint Paul’s stated transportation, environmental, and equity goals, and represents literally entrenched, out-of-date thinking, a sunk cost sinking farther, good money thrown after bad.
In case you hadn’t heard, Ayd Mill Road is Saint Paul’s most controversial piece of pavement. The aborted freeway has a long pockmarked history of being an infrastructural albatross, bête noir, whipping boy, straw man, and rhetorical cudgel. For generations, the road has put holes into the city’s maintenance budget, divided the neighborhood literally and figuratively, all while funneling lots of suburban traffic onto and off of neighborhood streets. The “short line” freeway has been litigated, railroaded, debated, and studied through fifty years of Saint Paul history, and I have personally chronicled its saga many times, spending countless hours thinking and arguing about it. Feel free to read as much of that history as interests you.
That long impasse is probably the reason that here in 2019, just like the “test connection” of the road back in 2002, the decision to spend $3.5 million to pave the 1.5-mile-long trench was made quickly with almost no public discussion. Maintaining the road is expensive — $250K last year — and the city claims that the city bonds for street maintenance money could not have been spent in any other way. In other words, without this paving item, “the money would just not be spent,” as Council President Brendmoen stated during the 20-minute conversation at the City Council last week.
I’m personally skeptical that, given the poor state of the city’s local and arterial streets, Public Works could not find any other projects that would have better served the people of Saint Paul. But the decision has been made, the vote was 5-2, and there’s not much to do now but beat the dead concrete horse by talking about exactly why spending this money in this way is missed opportunity for Saint Paul.
With that in mind, buckle up and prepare for a bumpy long-read. Here are five reasons why spending millions re-paving Ayd Mill Road is a mistake.
Happy Earth Day.
1. It’s a short-term fix
The mill and overlay is not a long-term solution to keeping Ayd Mill Road in good condition. I’m not a freeway engineer, but I’ve sure read a lot about the topic of urban roads. From what I understand, the lifespan and effectiveness of a mill and overlay depends an a few factors. In the best-case scenario, a mill and overlay might add 15 years to the life of a street. In the worst case, the lifespan of the new asphalt might be closer to eight years.
That range depends chiefly on the condition of the surface below the asphalt roadway, where the older or less stable the foundation, the shorter the life of the asphalt. The problem is that, like many streets throughout the city of Saint Paul, Ayd Mill Road is fundamentally old; in this case, the foundation is 1962 concrete built atop an existing creekbed. That’s hardly encouraging.
I’d love to know more about the exact condition of the road’s foundation, to better guess what the life expectancy of the new pavement would be. Apparently the city contracted out an engineering study of the road structure (though I have not seen it), but my rough guess is that ten years from now Saint Paul will be right back where we are today, forced to make a decision.
Spending $3,569,917 for pavement that lasts a decade averages out to $350K per year, which is still a significant expense. The life expectancy poses the question: Why not make a decision about the road’s future today, and use the money either for a long-term fix or a better alternative?
Here’s the pothole we hit in St Paul that blew out our front tire, plus the bill for new tire. pic.twitter.com/ZYJMbKR79x
— Patrick Kessler (@PatKessler) March 23, 2018
2. It Erodes the Fundamental Infrastructure Budget
I’ve been bicycling around Saint Paul a lot lately, and the obstacle course required to avoid potholes has been steadily increasing in difficulty. Pockmarked and disintegrating streets are everywhere, in every neighborhood, on routes big and small. Last night I got a flat tire (again!) after hitting an especially sharp chasm between concrete road segments on Cliff Road. Anyone who bikes or drives in Saint Paul knows the streets are in rough shape.
Yet maintaining old roads in bad condition is significantly more expensive than maintaining newer roads in fair condition, and because Saint Paul is strapped for street maintenance cash, each year we’re falling farther behind on upkeep. There are lots of reasons for the slip in funding, including the city’s high percentage of non-taxable land, the recent loss of the street fee lawsuit, and aging infrastructure in general. But another reason is that we’ve been poaching from the reconstruction budget over the years.
The money that’ll be used to re-pave Ayd Mill Road is a good example of the problem. Here the city is taking dollars slated for full street reconstructions (a long-term investment) and using them for a surface mill and overlay (a short-term fix). This shift has been happening for years. For example, when Mayor Coleman declared an emergency back in 2014 about the so-called “Terrible Twenty”, it shifted the city’s street maintenance budget away from the Residential Street Vitality Program (RSVP) that systematically reconstructs city streets. The headline-grabbing trade-off moved money away from long-term solutions and toward short-term fixes. It’s like making the minimum payment on a credit card, instead of paying off the debt.
We’re doing it again here with Ayd Mill Road. At the Council Meeting, it was stated that this was the only possible way to spend the bonded dollars, because any other reconstructions or other mill and overlays would have required public notification, design decisions, or unavailable city staff time.
To me, these claims are not very convincing, but regardless, the lack of alternatives suggests either a shortage of preparation or creativity. Without public discussion, it’s difficult to know more. For example, during the Council Meeting, Council Member Noecker asked a question about whether the city was studying design alternatives. Director Lantry’s answer was confusing, suggesting that there are four alternative design proposals being studied, some of which involve pedestrian and bicycle access. (As an aside, this seems expensive and unlikely to me, and I would bet solid money that no changes to the four-lane freeway’s cross-section will be made.)
At any rate, the seeming lack of alternative uses for the city’s street bonds is an unfortunate sign for the future, because Saint Paul’s maintenance needs are only growing. We’re not spending enough to keep the city streets in the affordable part of the maintenance cycle. Without more money put toward reconstructions, the city budget will fall further into a rut of expensive repairs as we superficially repave streets laid atop crumbling foundations full of streetcar rails and century-old bricks. This leads to a maintenance spiral of increasing costs and worsening roads that is hard to escape.
3. Induced Demand is a Thing
The most common argument in favor of keeping Ayd Mill Road is that “it takes traffic off Lexington and Snelling.” It’s a sentiment expressed succinctly by Council Member Tolbert in the Pioneer Press, where he said that “everyone who is now on Ayd Mill was cutting through Lexington.” I’ve heard this a lot over the years.
Yet traffic does not work in this simplistic way. There’s not a “fixed” amount of cars that will travel along the Ayd Mill Road corridor, so that if you close it, they simply move to the next closest street. Drivers are constantly shifting their choices in space and time. We behave a lot like Google Maps, and when faced with congestion or detours, we search for alternatives, create new travel patterns, and weigh the need for the trip. It’s called “induced demand,” and there’s a lot of research that shows how marginal, malleable, and flexible our driving behavior can be.
(Furthermore, Lexington, Snelling, and Randolph are all county roads paid for with regional county-level funding, while Highways 5, 62, and 55 are state roads paid for with state-level dollars. The one Ayd Mill Road claim that everyone agrees on is that is a regional road should not be funded from the city budget. So why not move traffic to regionally-funded streets?)
Finally, changing or closing Ayd Mill Road would not mean turning Lexington back into a dangerous four-lane arterial. The problem with Lexington in the 1990s was its dangerous design, not that it was full of traffic. Today the street is safer, and though Lexington backs up for blocks every day during rush hour, the safety or quality of life difference with a little more traffic would be marginal.
Meanwhile, Ramsey County has begun to prioritize safety over regional traffic speeds on many of its roads, changing deadly four-lane designs roads to safer more walkable streets. They’ve even done it in places like Maryland Avenue, with higher traffic volumes than Lexington would ever see.
As Alex says, “road safety comes from good road design.” In other words, you design the street you want, and traffic predictions should not dictate your project. We’ve made a lot of progress since the 1960s, or so I thought…
4. Climate Change Demands Action
Saint Paul has had a goal of taking meaningful action on climate change for what seems like forever. Our street budget should reflect that goal, and it’s clear that spending lots of money to maintain an urban freeway encourages more driving, catalyzes suburban sprawl, and incentivizes single-occupant commuting. Heck, even back in the 1990s, people studying Ayd Mill Road floated the idea that if we “connected” the road to I-35E, it should be for carpool drivers only. Weirdly, this is an example where Saint Paul is less progressive on climate action today then we were 30 years ago.
Maintaining the status quo on Ayd Mill Road takes us farther from our stated goals. Page through the draft Climate Action & Resilience Plan just released this spring and it states repeatedly that we should reduce the city’s per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 2.5% per year. Doing so, the plan states, is going to require “a concerted set of actions.”
If we delayed this project for even one year, maybe we could have a real discussion about its future with the Climate Action Plan in place.
Ten years from now, what will our global CO2 levels be?
430 parts per million? 450?
It’s a fact that a significant percentage of the people who drive on Ayd Mill Road are going to or from wealthy Dakota County, either to shop, to work, or to cut through Saint Paul altogether. Ayd Mill Road connects directly to Mendota Heights, where I went to High School, a city that is 90% white with a median household income of $107,000 (all paired with low property taxes). To the south, Eagan (75% white; $84K) is much the same. These are wealthy suburban cities with wealthy school districts where affordable housing is restricted by the zoning code and other policies.
Meanwhile, Dakota County has almost single-handedly undermined the region’s transit planning, making it all but impossible to design a good transit connection from Saint Paul to the south, down Robert Street or elsewhere.
With some preparation or foresight, Saint Paul could have used this city bonding money to reconstruct or repave its city streets in city neighborhoods. With a little work, we might have moved up any number of projects on the five-year-long list (PW 5-Year Plan), including Fairview, Grand, Earl Street, Front Street, Arlington Avenue, or a half dozen others. As I write this, the street in front of my apartment — which was once on the five-year plan, but has since disappeared — currently has 2” holes in the pavement surface. Wabasha Street, down the block, is in terrible shape, and there are a hundred similar streets in the East Side, the North End, Frogtown, or the West Side that badly need the money.
If that’s not an anti-equity decision, I don’t know what is.
I spy an old streetcar track at the bottom of this pothole on Front Ave in St. Paul. pic.twitter.com/vsYXT7W0QH
— Tim Post (@TimPostmanPost) April 27, 2015
Conclusion: There was another way
Read the long history of Ayd Mill Road, you see that time and again task forces, elected officials, and community groups have called for something to be done differently. If it wasn’t for Mayor Randy Kelly, who connected Ayd Mill Road two years before he endorsed George W. Bush, Saint Paul would not have this problem today. I’d bet we’d already have decommissioned or reduced the street by now.
That long history begs the question: Why not implement an anti-Kelly year-long “test closure” and see what happens? Why not delay the expensive re-paving, adopt the Climate Action & Resilience Plan, and figure out how to spend the money? Why not try any of the plans or ideas that have been floated over the decades?
Granted, I wouldn’t wish another Ayd Mill Road Task Force on anyone, but it’s a fun thought experiment.
If the Saint Paul could have found another use for the $3.5M in 2019 street bonding money, and closed Ayd Mill Road for a year, here’s what I think would have happened…
- Joe Soucheray would write a mean column.
- People would complain about traffic, as they always do.
- Miles of other roads in Saint Paul, in neighborhoods that need it, would be repaved or reconstructed.
- 40% of the Ayd Mill Road traffic, primarily the regional trips, would move to other grade-separated alternatives.
- At least 10% of the trips would simply “disappear.” (See also: examples from other cities.)
- Congestion would get worse on nearby streets like Lexington and Randolph. I’d guess it’d be a 10-15% increase, but because these streets were re-designed to be safer than they were in the 1990s, it wouldn’t be a huge deal.
- The city would save a minimum of $250K in annual ongoing maintenance costs.
- Neighborhoods around Ayd Mill Road would be more peaceful and safer, especially at Selby and Snelling, a spot where pedestrian activity is increasing exponentially.
- People would talk and brainstorm about what to do with the land. Maybe some great ideas would arise from the conversation, maybe there would be a lot of shouting. But with a projected $50M price tag attached to a long-term freeway solution (or double that for a I-94 connection), the conversation would be more realistic than it has been in the past.
- Saint Paul would make headlines and gain national attention for living out its climate action and equity values.
Sadly, it’s all just traffic under the freeway bridge now. None of that will happen until 2030, when we’ll be right back where we are now, only with everyone older, the city budget worse off, and with much more CO2 in the atmosphere.
To me, the most frustrating thing about this project is that it was solely a city decision. There are lots of times in my years working on Saint Paul transportation issues where a frustrating compromise is reached. And usually, its someone else’s fault.
“We’d like to change that road,” you say to yourself, “but it’s a county decision, and county folks still have outdated policies.”
Or, when facing another on-ramp turn lane or a lack of bumpouts, you admit, ”well, this is a MnDOT project, and this is the best they can do.”
Or, when approving hundreds of expensive, traffic-inducing parking spaces, you say to yourself “well the developer and the banks demand this, and nothing will happen without it.”
This project is different. There are no other governments, agencies, or actors — it’s strictly Saint Paul officials and staff spending $3.5 million on a short-term-fix for an out-of-date freeway. Each year that goes by, it’ll be more obvious that spending this money was a mistake, another sad chapter in the saga of obsolete concrete.