A Few Streets St. Paul Would Be Better Off Without

New streets are being built every day, mostly in the exurbs, where forests and farmland continue to give way to new subdivisions. Here in Saint Paul we pretty much stopped building new roads half a century ago. The problem is, there seems to be a law of nature that once those roads are built, they can never be unbuilt, even if they no longer serve any useful purpose.

Maintaining a useless road is not without cost. For starters, the city must plow 1,874 miles of road lanes every time it snows. And all those miles of road also require pothole repair, street sweeping, policing, and lighting. With climate change and limited funds making some of these tasks less manageable, it’s time to consider closing some of the city’s streets with the lowest return on investment.

My suggestions here may be all wrong, but I think we should begin a thoughtful discussion about paring back our expensive network of urban streets. Who knows? Once we get used to the idea of decommissioning streets, we might even get carried away and create neighborhoods like Milwaukee Ave in Minneapolis, where the street was beautifully transformed into a pedestrian mall.

The most controversial example, of course, is Ayd Mill Road, which the city just committed over $3.5 million to temporarily repair. AMR has been covered extensively here, but I would add one observation: unlike almost every other street in the city, AMR serves no businesses or residences and generates no property tax revenue. What’s more, all the money we spend on AMR will not create any additional tax revenue for the city. We can argue about the convenience of AMR or its affect on traffic on other city streets, but we can’t escape the fact that it’s a big ol’ drag on the city’s bottom line.

But let’s not argue about Ayd Mill Road, shall we? How about some other city streets that done’t earn their keep? Here’s some low hanging fruit:

 

Water Street West of Harriet Island

Img 0897

The swing bridge viaduct across Water Street. In early July, 2019, the street was still closed due to spring flooding.

Following along the west bank of the Mississippi from Harriet Island to 35e, Water Street is just a few feet above river level and is often flooded. This year, it’s been closed since March 14th. The first wave of spring floods left the street covered with fallen trees and sand banks. As soon as those were cleared, June rains flooded it again.

It’s a beautiful route, but with climate change apparently making floods more likely, it’s probably time end car traffic on Water Street. It should be kept as a recreational trail for bikers and hikers, who have continued to use it throughout most of its closure.

Besides, there’s nothing down there to drive to. Unless you’re taking a swampy drive to see the place where Keanu Reeves ineffectively buried Cameron Diaz in leaves in Feeling Minnesota, there’s really no good reason to drive on Water Street.

 

Hidden Falls Lower Entrance

Img 0939

The lower entrance to Hidden Falls Park is being reclaimed by the Mississipi

Another repeated victim of spring flooding, all of Crosby Farm and Hidden Falls park is truly messed up this year. Boardwalks and docks are destroyed, trails are washed away or buried in sand, and parking lots are ponds. It’s clear that the Mississippi wants this land back.

Of the three entrances to the park system, the lower Hidden Falls entrance at Prior Avenue seems to have been hit the hardest. As of July 6, the parking lot is a shallow pond, downed trees block the road, and the pavement is buried under little baby maple trees growing in banks of mud.

The Crosby Farm entrance serves the Watergate Marina and the Upper Hidden Falls entrance serves picnic shelters and a boat launch. But the lower entrance just has a parking lot–not a very useful purpose. Given that cleaning up these parks yet again this year is going to be pretty expensive, let’s cut our losses and abandon the Lower Hidden Falls entrance.

 

Port Douglas Road Entrance to Battle Creek Park

Img 0942

The remains of a car fire on Port Douglas Road

One of the most oddly overbuilt streets in St. Paul, Port Douglas Road has scant traffic and, at its best, serves just a few houses. It should be a narrow two lane country road but it’s actually a full five lanes wide. North of Lower Afton Road, its serves only as an entrance to Battle Creek Park, yet it remains nearly wide enough for a semi truck to do a U-turn.

The road into the park is so underused that it’s absurdly marked as no parking, probably because there’s no good reason to park there. The remains of burnt out car, it’s radial tires melted to the pavement, serve as a karmic warning against violating the parking prohibition.

Further south, part of Port Douglas Road is only a bike trail, which calms the rest of the street. Replacing the road to Battle Creek Park with trails would open up more of the park for recreation and eliminate almost half a mile of useless, underused roadway.

 

Concordia Avenue

Concordia & Pascal

Zoom zoom! Cars driving past the freeway entrance ramp at Concordia & Pascal

For some reason, St. Paul maintains a pair of wide frontage roads along I-94: St Anthony and Concordia Avenues. They function as speedways, especially during rush hour when commuters use them as alternate routes to the freeway.

Of the two, Concordia seems the most dangerous and problematic. Stretching uninterrupted from near Fairview all the way to Kellogg Boulevard, nearly 6,000 cars a day speed by at speeds often topping 45mph. Following the former routes of Rondo, Roblyn, and Carroll avenues, Concordia was reconstructed as a frontage road in the 1960s. It crosses paths with five pedestrian bridges, two colleges, two city parks, a high school, a post office, and an elementary school. Accidents are inevitable. Last summer, a driver critically injured a bicyclist as she was exiting the Griggs pedestrian bridge.

There is no logical reason Concordia should be a throughway for such a long distance. That’s what I-94 is for. If we stopped it from crossing Snelling, Hamline, Lexington, and Dale, for example, there would be no real decrease in access for local residents and businesses but a real reduction in speeding traffic volume. The city could do this today at limited expense.

 

Fourth Street East and Commercial Street
The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is a wonderful and hidden urban gem. Located below Indian Mounds Park and underneath Kellogg Bridge, the sanctuary is full of history, wildlife, and intrigue. Just a stone’s throw from downtown Saint Paul, it’s a welcome contrast to the sea of parking lots that dominate eastern Lowertown.

If you’re visiting by car, there’s a small parking lot off of East 7th and Payne. But there’s no real reason to drive up 4th street (euphemistically dubbed “Positively Fourth Street”).  If you do wander through 4th’s Victorian viaduct with its epic potholes and an open sewer that looks like a setting in Alan Moore’s From Hell, your only option will be to keep driving onto Commercial Street, going up the bluff and ending up just to the east of where you would have been if you’d stayed on Kellogg. You’ll quickly realize there’s no reason whatsoever to be driving through there. Neither street serves any useful purpose at all.

Why do Positively Fourth Street and Commercial Street even exist? Why is that viaduct so dark at night? Why is there a vast sea of parking lots next to downtown instead of housing or an even bigger nature sanctuary?

Like many aspects of St. Paul, this whole area is a hodgepodge of railroads, streets, and bridges that once made sense, serving a brewery and and a rail yard that are now just crumbling foundations. Before that, the railroad and commercial developments destroyed sacred Native American sites along the bluff.

Screenshot 2019 07 09 At 11.52.18 Am

You are here: A tangle of Saint Paul’s best trails

And yet this area screams opportunity. Although it’s not obvious to the casual visitor, this area is a nexus of St. Paul’s best bike trails. The Sam Morgan Trail along Shepard Road, the Bruce Vento Trail through Swede Hollow, the Indian Mounds Trail, and the Lafayette Bridge trail to the Westside all converge here in a tangle of mostly unmarked paths.

The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary could be St. Paul’s version of Gold Medal Park, bridging its present with its distant past. Taking out a couple of unneeded streets and adding some proper trail wayfinding would make a world of difference.

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One positively damp & dark viaduct

 

 

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57 Responses to A Few Streets St. Paul Would Be Better Off Without

  1. karen Nelson July 17, 2019 at 12:16 pm #

    Thanks, this is great list.

  2. Bob Roscoe July 17, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

    As a Minneapolis citizen, be careful none of my fellow citizens reads this. If all those roads are useless, maybe the city itself ……I’ll stop here.

  3. Maria Wardoku July 17, 2019 at 12:45 pm #

    Yes! We absolutely need to start thinking about shrinking our urban roadways. Do this for Minneapolis, too!

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 17, 2019 at 5:21 pm #

      Er…Maybe Mpls should give up on East River Road near the U?

  4. Jeb Rach
    Jeb Rach July 17, 2019 at 12:47 pm #

    The biggest problem with forcing traffic to divert at each major intersection is that there’s no particularly easy/obvious way to do so. In order to divert that traffic onto I-94, they need access to the on-ramps, which are on the far side of each intersection. Putting a barrier there would likely cause issues with left-turning traffic wanting to use that road (or continue from the off-ramp into the neighborhood, which is on the near side.)

    There might be a way to calm the road more (maybe intentionally one-laneing it and using the excess space for a bike trail,) but there’s no easy way to divert traffic currently.

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 17, 2019 at 1:55 pm #

      These frontage roads don’t exist at Cretin/Vandalia which works fine. The rest of the interchanges could be configured the same way. Separate the ramps from the street and close the street to through traffic.

      • Melanated rich July 18, 2019 at 10:18 pm #

        Leave Concordia road out of this…..and let st.paul have its mythical roads……ever climbed from the bottom of mounds to the top???

  5. John Gaylord July 17, 2019 at 2:26 pm #

    I feel the same way about the city’s plan to build 327 miles of sidewalks. The suggestion is that sidewalks promotes walking – isn’t it better for the environment if we just walk on the grass?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller July 17, 2019 at 2:53 pm #

      Well, first of all, sure, if you assume the same amount of walking will happen with or without the sidewalks, then maybe you don’t need sidewalks. But that sounds like a faulty assumption.

      It also leaves out anyone who can’t easily walk in the grass, i.e., people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices, and assumes that the grass will be passable when there is snow on the ground.

      But it’s a city. If I lived there, I’d at minimum be a little bashful about how it was ever built without sidewalks in the first place.

      • Monte Castleman July 17, 2019 at 3:38 pm #

        It’s kind of the same arguments the people opposed to paving the river bottoms trail use:

        “We don’t need a paved trail, people can just walk or ride bike on the dirt (or more often the case there, the mud).

        “Putting down asphalt would be bad for the environment”

        “No one is going to come use it if it were paved that isn’t using it already”. (apparently they haven’t compared usage on say the Big River Regional Trail to the current River Bottoms trails.

        “We have enough paved trails” (nevermind that you have to take your bicycle in a car to get to one from most of Bloomington)

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller July 18, 2019 at 9:22 am #

          Or against any new bike facility…

        • Melanated rich July 18, 2019 at 10:22 pm #

          Not true without paving sone ppl think its illegal….keep it unpaved tho pedestrians. Vs hikers

      • John Gaylord July 17, 2019 at 3:50 pm #

        Why would it be a “faulty assumption”? Do sidewalks cause walking?

        The city is not “without sidewalks” – there are a very few places without sidewalks.

        Given the alarm over the climate, why is building (and it is quite a construction project) 327 miles of sidewalk a good idea?

        • J July 17, 2019 at 5:02 pm #

          Sidewalks enable and encourage more walking, just as adding lanes to a freeway enable and encourage more commuters (induced demand).

          The resulting increase in pedestrian traffic vs auto use might not immediately offset the carbon footprint of the sidewalk creation, but over time addressing these gaps contributes towards making the city more walkable and easier to live in without a car.

          It’s one of those situations where the whole is (hopefully) greater than the sum of its parts.

          I haven’t carefully studied these 300+ miles closely, so I can’t say for sure if the new paths enabled will become well traveled, but that’s the theory.

        • Dan Marshall
          Dan Marshall July 17, 2019 at 5:04 pm #

          As Adam mentioned, people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices require sidewalks. Sidewalks do in fact improve mobility for a great many people. Protecting “the environment” by not completing the many gaps in the city’s sidewalk network is a straw argument. Sidewalks should absolutely be a non-negotiable design standard throughout the city.

          Yes, the city is massive overbuilt with concrete and asphalt. Too many over-wide roads are the problem, not sidewalks.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller July 18, 2019 at 9:23 am #

          Because of course sidewalks cause walking. And facilitate not driving.

    • Quinn Haberl July 17, 2019 at 7:00 pm #

      That doesn’t work very well for someone with a disability. People with disabilities, especially those who rely on wheelchairs, walkers, and even white canes, need sidewalks.

      • Cathe July 18, 2019 at 4:12 pm #

        And people who are elderly need their cars to drive places…like the doctors office. They need to park near where they are going because it is difficult for many to bus, bike, or use public transit, because we should all know you have to walk to get to public transit. Its not like hopping in your car from door to door.

        • Julie Kosbab July 18, 2019 at 8:28 pm #

          A lot of the elderly are exactly the very people who shouldn’t be driving.

          • Monte Castleman July 18, 2019 at 9:29 pm #

            True, but many of them it’s fine that they drive, and self-driving cars are coming for those that shouldn’t be driving.

          • Laura Amanda Allen July 18, 2019 at 9:54 pm #

            Let’s see if you still think so when you are 70….

    • Rosa July 26, 2019 at 8:12 pm #

      just take away one car lane on every street (parking or driving) and paint lines for pedestrians. No new pavement, very low cost, and pedestrians get plowing like drivers do!

  6. Eric Saathoff
    Eric Saathoff July 17, 2019 at 4:59 pm #

    They are planning to build the Wakan Tipi interpretive center in the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. While I’m not totally opposed to closing Commercial or Positively 4th to cars I think they would want to keep one or the other so visitors would be able to get close to the building if not on bike.

    There’s also some kind of electrical stuff going on that would need access from one of those two streets: https://www.google.com/maps/@44.9539604,-93.0757472,131m/data=!3m1!1e3

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 17, 2019 at 5:16 pm #

      I’m all for drawing more visitors to the Sanctuary! It’s a special place. Commercial street would be fine, but I think we need to stop pretending that 4th street is ok. 😉

  7. Alex July 17, 2019 at 7:58 pm #

    It’s “Point Douglas,” not “Port Douglas.” Various roads along Highway 10/61 from Mounds Park all the way down to the Prescott bridge have this name and they refer to the ghost town of Point Douglas that used to exist on the opposite side of the St Croix from Prescott. I assume the one in question in this article used to carry the mainline of Highways 10/61 before becoming the current freeway, hence the width of the former road. Further south it’s mostly freeway frontage roads, etc.

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 17, 2019 at 8:29 pm #

      Whoa, so it is! I swear I read signs and maps like 100 times and always read it as “Port”. Apologies for rendering it pointless.

    • Monte Castleman July 17, 2019 at 9:22 pm #

      Also, where is it five lanes wide? I”m not familiar with the road, but in the picture and on Google Maps it looks like two traffic lanes plus bicycle lanes on each side, hence the no parking. Isn’t bicycle lanes on the road to a major park something we want? Google Earth suggests that it’s about 40 feet wide near entrance to Battle Creek Park, which is a little generous for two travel lanes and two bicycle lanes, but it’s not “five lanes wide” there unless a lane is considered 8 feet.

      • Dan Marshall
        Dan Marshall July 17, 2019 at 10:57 pm #

        Two traffic lanes painted onto a road five lanes wide. Go and see. The road is way out of scale for its traffic volumes. Both at the park entrance and further south where it just serves a few homes on the east side of the street.

        Sure, bike lanes are great but here they’re pretty irrelevant, The road should be abandoned all together.

        • Monte Castleman July 19, 2019 at 8:34 am #

          So a “lane” is 8 feet wide, (and a 50 foot semi can turn around on a 40 foot wide road?)

          Isn’t enabling motorists and bicyclists access to a park a good purpose for a road?

          • Melissa Anne Wenzel August 5, 2019 at 5:42 pm #

            I don’t exactly know where it’s 5 lanes wide, but near Lower Afton and Point Douglas, auto drivers park on the street just outside the Park-and-Ride, so it must be at least 4 lanes wide.

            Oh, and a couple of weeks ago when biking to work using the newly opened Fish Hatchery Trail (article drafted, uploading it tonight), I actually did see a semi coming towards me as I biked north, toward the Battle Creek entrance/Point Douglas dead end. I’m not used to seeing any traffic in the morning, let alone a semi. Presumably he spent the night on Point Douglas??

  8. Murray July 17, 2019 at 9:15 pm #

    In Mpls, get rid of the east lower road around lake Harriet. There is an upper road in better condition that is a near duplicate. The turtles and other wildlife who have not yet been crunched up by the indifferent drivers on the road would be better off. Put in a gravel water permeable surface and expand gardens. It would be a delight.

    • Monte Castleman July 19, 2019 at 8:36 am #

      I agree with this one. I’d like to see the paths widened or a second trail built for two-way bicycle operation when feasible around the Grand Rounds, and the lower parkway could definately be a counterclockwise trail here.

    • Bill Dooley July 19, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

      The those with houses on the upper road will raise hell, threaten to vote out their Council Member or move to the suburbs.

    • John Holton July 19, 2019 at 5:15 pm #

      This is already part of the parks development plan to close it down and make it two-way for bikes.

  9. D Duccini July 17, 2019 at 11:01 pm #

    AMR is a CRITICAL infrastructure link from Saint Paul’s Midway area, bypassing downtown to get to Eagan et al.

    The daily traffic count numbers speak for themselves — it’s frankly asinine to say that it supports no business or residents — a statement clearly made by someone who does not live or commute to work via this essential route.

    • Steve Nelson July 18, 2019 at 5:21 am #

      AMR is “supposed” to link 94E with 35E south if money can be found. That would be a GREAT use.

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 18, 2019 at 7:00 am #

      You’ve missed my point about AMR. The city of St Paul is funded mostly by property taxes and sales taxes. Unlike streets such as Fairview, Selby, or Minnehaha,there are no properties along AMR which contribute to the city’s revenue. None.

      One could make the argument that AMR is of regional importance like 35E or Highway 52 as you seem to suggest. If this is the case, it should be owned and maintained as a state highway and should not be the responsibility of the city. If you’re a St Paul taxpayer and AMR is important to you, then this is what you should be advocating for. Let’s get AMR off of St Paul’s balance sheet.

      • D Duccini July 18, 2019 at 8:17 am #

        I am a Saint Paul taxpayer of 30 plus years (and a landlord with multiple properties) also have no children but I cheerfully pay those taxes for the benefit of others 😉

        I do agree that it should be reclassified — in part it appears to support a rail corridor…

        • Frank Phelan July 21, 2019 at 6:32 am #

          Oh please, don’t be so smug. Those taxes benefit you as well.

          • D Duccini July 21, 2019 at 9:02 am #

            Smug? There’s nothing smug about the simple recognition that you’re paying taxes that benefit others. I help pay for your kids to go to school, you help pay for the roads I use. Let’s call it even.

            Calibrated to other cities I’ve lived in St. Paul is among the worst ROI. I think they plowed the streets in our neighborhood twice during the entire season. Meanwhile, neighboring Falcon Heights had clear roads before the commute day started.

            • John Danielson July 21, 2019 at 7:24 pm #

              Water Street was the Main Street in old town Lilydale. It served as the main road into St. Paul.

              Lilydale doesn’t know how St. Paul ended up with almost half their city. St. Paul pays no taxes on the land, they manage the land and provide emergency services for that area. Lilydale doesn’t care because they don’t have to cover the expenses.

      • Gary Eittreim July 18, 2019 at 6:10 pm #

        Roads are supposed to be paid for by taxes like you said. However sometimes there are needs for commonsense roads for just easing traffic, like AMR. The gas taxes should cover that, as that is what they were originally ment for.

        • Julie Kosbab July 18, 2019 at 8:27 pm #

          Gas taxes don’t cover that. Not even close.

          In Minnesota, user fees provide most of the money for highways, but not for local roads. AMR is a local road.

          Even were it not, the state gas tax provides only 28 percent of highway funding. The rest comes via other user fees, as well as federal and state general funds.

      • Monte Castleman July 19, 2019 at 8:39 am #

        And 7th Street, Smith Ave and Robert Street should be city or county roads, paid for by local taxpayers instead of the state.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller July 18, 2019 at 9:28 am #

      Maybe we don’t want to make it easy to get from the Midway to Eagan?

      • Monte Castleman July 18, 2019 at 9:56 am #

        So the people in Eagan find jobs in Eagan instead of taking their money into the city? Prime just built a nice new headquarters there and they’re hiring.

        • Adam Miller
          Adam Miller July 18, 2019 at 11:11 am #

          There are obviously other considerations, but yes, in general, people should live closer to work and policy should be encouraging that.

      • Tim July 18, 2019 at 10:15 am #

        It’s not significantly more difficult to take other streets instead (and given the condition of Ayd Mill these days, probably a wiser choice). I think it’s the people who live on those streets, though, who would be the most unhappy.

  10. Jeff Street July 17, 2019 at 11:18 pm #

    There are several micro streets in the area between McKnight, I-94, Ruth, & Stillwater Blvd. that could be gotten rid of.

  11. Virginia Jensen July 18, 2019 at 3:20 pm #

    Close Concordia? No impact on businesses? How the heck are we supposed to get on I-94 if they close off Snelling, Hamline, Lexington AND Dale. This is the dumbest idea ever! Put speed bumps or zip strips on it if the traffic is too fast.

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 19, 2019 at 12:21 am #

      You have misread my point. Sure, I-94 needs ramps at Snelling, Lex, and Dale. But there’s no absolutely no reason Concordia needs to continue uninterrupted past those ramps all the way from Fairview to Kellogg.

      • Virginia Jensen July 19, 2019 at 9:23 am #

        And there is very little reason why if shouldn’t. If one motorist injured one pedestrian/cyclist, that is very unfortunate. But obviously a lot of traffic uses that road. Closing it is cutting off your nose to spite your face. (disclaimer: I work on Concordia).

        • Robb Westawker July 19, 2019 at 10:56 am #

          And what about the Post Office and the stadium traffic? IMHO, those frontage roads are critical to smooth functioning between and along University to Marshall corridor. I live in Lex-Ham on Dayton and raise four children here and only commute by pub tran, so I know the nervousness created by using the Griggs ped bridge (the danger from inattentive cars and the outright entitled rudeness of bike commuters – I get run down by middle-age bicyclists far more often then motorists there).

          Way better use of money would be speed bumps AND real traffic control at those ped bridges instead of the cute little “suggestions” they have there now. And thank you for starting a conversation. We need to spend more energy planning out our overall usage for the future.

  12. John Danielson July 19, 2019 at 7:24 am #

    Mr. Marshall
    You are so off point. Streets are also needed for utilities, water run off and emergency responders. Did you look at that when you decided to just pick and choose which street you decided were useless?

    Here’s a question you should be asking yourself when you were down on Water St.

    Why is the City of St. Paul managing park land in the city of Lilydale which is in Dakota County?

    I was once at a city counsel meeting in Lilydale and their own counsel and mayor didn’t even know the answer to that.

    • Dan Marshall
      Dan Marshall July 19, 2019 at 7:40 am #

      So, you’re saying that even Lilydale doesn’t know why Water Street exists? Well then obviously Saint Paul’s version of Area 51 is down there somewhere.

      • John Danielson July 21, 2019 at 7:26 pm #

        Water Street was the Main Street in old town Lilydale. It served as the main road into St. Paul.

        Lilydale doesn’t know how St. Paul ended up with almost half their city. St. Paul pays no taxes on the land, they manage the land and provide emergency services for that area. Lilydale doesn’t care because they don’t have to cover the expenses.

  13. ianrbuck August 6, 2019 at 11:16 am #

    As I learned the hard way while playing Civilization V, it’s super easy to go bankrupt by building way too many roads.

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