Several years back, I wrote about the history of what’s now called Ayd Mill Road and the efforts to turn it into a linear park. Ayd Mill is one of the most studied and debated pieces of roadway in Minnesota history. When the road first opened in 1965, there wasn’t anything to connect it to. At the south end, Interstate 35E wouldn’t open until the mid 1980s and wouldn’t reach downtown until 1990. At the north end, Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and Saint Paul wouldn’t be completed until 1968. So, for 35 years, neither end of Ayd Mill Road was connected to a highway and the road had very little traffic.
When I-35E was completed in 1990, the pressure to connect Ayd Mill Road at both ends started to grow. During the 1990s, MnDOT and the Saint Paul Public Works Department pushed connecting it as a way to reduce traffic on Lexington Avenue and various other city streets. Ironically, it was traffic that MnDOT itself had created with the building of I-35E.
Several community groups opposed any connection and wanted Ayd Mill Road made into a linear park. Former mayor Norm Coleman convened an Ayd Mill Task Force that included representatives from various parts of the city to examine the road and make recommendations on what to do with it. A 4-lane connected highway, a 2-lane connected highway, no connections, and a linear park were among the options considered. After much deliberation, the committee chose a linear park as its preferred alternative. But Coleman and the Saint Paul Planning Commission ignored the Task Force recommendation and initiated the drafting of a flawed Environmental Impact Statement (E.I.S.) that was entirely based on traffic counts. It recommended a 4-lane highway, connected to interstates at both ends as its preferred alternative. This angered park proponents and many of the people who’d participated in the Task Force and its associated public process. Partly in response, the Saint Paul City Council passed a resolution in 2000 supporting a 2-lane connection, which some viewed as a “compromise.” The Council reaffirmed this resolution in 2009. Unfortunately, under the subsequent mayor, Randy Kelly (2002-2006), the flawed E.I.S. was completed and Kelly unilaterally connected the south end of Ayd Mill Road to I-35E in October, 2002. It was ostensibly a “test”, but the test became permanent in 2003. Kelly also attempted to ram through a 4-lane highway off the north end to connect to I-94, but this attempt failed due to public opposition and a lack of funding.
The road sat, as is, for 17 years, connected at the south end but unconnected at the north. Its concrete, now over 50 years old, has gradually deteriorated, requiring increasing amounts of annual maintenance.
Mayor Carter’s Proposal
In the beginning of this year, the Saint Paul Public Works Department proposed to spend $3.5 million to repave Ayd Mill Road. Various groups including the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition asked the city to consider using this opportunity to convert part of the road to a bicycle and pedestrian trail. The city listened. In his annual budget address in August, Mayor Melvin Carter proposed converting the eastern two lanes of Ayd Mill Road into a bicycle and pedestrian trail and using just the western two lanes for motor vehicles. The proposal would essentially make Ayd Mill into a 2-lane road on the west side with an adjacent linear park on the east. The mayor budgeted an extra $1.7 million to study how to implement the proposal. Most of the extra money would come from funds already dedicated for bikeways.
The proposal was framed partly as a cost cutting measure. The city of Saint Paul spends $250,000 per year to plow, fix potholes and otherwise maintain Ayd Mill Road. Reducing the road to two motor vehicle lanes would save the city money because bicycle and pedestrian trails get much less wear than motor vehicle roadways.
While it’s used by some local residents, the bulk of Ayd Mill Road’s traffic comes during rush hours and consists of drivers who are trying to cut through Saint Paul between the southeastern suburbs and Minneapolis. As such, Saint Paul taxpayers are paying for a road that largely benefits Minneapolis or suburban residents who use it to cut through our city. The mayor’s proposal was the first time (in my memory) that someone in city government actually acknowledged this and questioned it.
A third of Saint Paul’s property is either government-owned or belongs to non-profits and thus pays no property taxes. Since the Minnesota Supreme Court struck down the city’s special assessments of non-profits, the city is now over $20 million in the hole with deferred street maintenance that exceeds $22 million per year. So any street or road lane that can be removed from city maintenance rolls is a good thing.
Other Arguments in Favor
Aside from the financial arguments mentioned by the mayor, the city had plans for a multi-use trail along Ayd Mill Road going back to the early 2000s. The trail was envisioned as part of a Midtown Greenway Extension, across the river from Minneapolis and down the Canadian Pacific rail line to Jefferson Avenue where it would connect to the I-35E “Little Bohemia” trail into Downtown, Shepard Road, the Mississippi River Trail, and parts of the West 7th neighborhood. Along the way, it would also provide much needed connections to the Midway neighborhood and Allianz Field (via St Anthony Avenue) and several other city bikeways on Pelham, Cleveland, Prior, Marshall and Summit Avenues. Such a trail was part of the city’s 2008 Comprehensive Plan and it is now part of the Saint Paul Bicycle Plan, Ramsey County’s Bike and Pedestrian Plan, and numerous District Council and area plans. Extending the Midtown Greenway into Saint Paul is one of the most popular ideas among city cyclists. When I table at bicycle events for the Bike Coalition, the number one question I get is: “When are you going to extend the Greenway into Saint Paul?”
In the last two years, a large partnership of groups that include the Midtown Greenway Coalition and the Sierra Club are trying to revive talks around extending the Greenway. Together, they crowd-funded an engineering study of the Short Line Bridge across the Mississippi River, a linchpin for making an extension, and they’ve been pitching the proposed extension to county commissioners and elected officials on both sides of the river. Making a bike and pedestrian trail along Ayd Mill would be a down payment on a Greenway Extension and would show Hennepin County and other parties that the city of Saint Paul is serious about wanting a trail and implementing its stated plans.
Even by itself, an Ayd Mill trail would provide an important recreational path in an area of the city that lacks continuous non-motorized pathways. This is particularly true given all the new apartment buildings going up around the north end of the road at Selby and Snelling Avenues. Hemmed in by Snelling Avenue, I-94 and the CP Rail line, new residents here have nowhere to run, walk dogs or ride bikes. Some currently run or walk along the railway line even though it is dangerous and probably illegal.
A few critics of the mayor’s proposal say we could put a trail on the railroad’s land but the city tried to negotiate this for almost a decade and failed. Then it tried to take some railroad land in 2009 via eminent domain, only to have the taking dismissed on a motion to a federal statute that bars cities, counties and states from such takings. So the only option for building an Ayd Mill trail is to put it on city property– a.k.a. the existing road.
If Ayd Mill Road was made more “street-like” with lower speeds and a multi use path and plantings along side it, it would be a more pleasant place and the city might be able to add some residential housing or retail development in places along the west side of the road, particularly near Summit, Grand and Saint Clair Avenues. Such development would generate sale revenues for the city and annual property tax revenue. The corridor could become a revenue generator for the city instead of an expenditure that largely benefits suburbanites.
From a climate change and environmental perspective, the original plan to convert Ayd Mill to a major connector highway is completely unsustainable. As I discussed in a previous post, we cannot keep adding highway lanes and increasing vehicle miles traveled and hope to reduce our state or national carbon emissions. At some point we have to say “no more roads” …and that time is now.
In 2004, when former mayor Randy Kelly was unsuccessful at connecting the north end of Ayd Mill to I-94, MnDOT commissioned a report from University of Minnesota researchers entitled “Increasing the Value of Public Involvement in Transportation Project Planning”. A more accurate and descriptive title for the report would have been “Why We Didn’t Get the Highway We Wanted, and How to Better Manipulate Public Opinion in the Future.” The report is a case study of Ayd Mill Road, comparing it to a more “successful” MnDOT project. It reads like an old 1950s planning treatise where highway planners know what’s best for the community and just need to do a better job of managing the public process to get what they want.
As part of its recent proposal to widen Interstate 94, the MET Council and MnDOT also completed a “Phase 1” study that, among other things, proposes connecting the north end of Ayd Mill Road to I-94. Following the recommendations of the earlier 2004 UMN report, MnDOT kept public meetings and feedback to a minimum. They had just one poorly publicized pop-up meeting in a parking lot on the corner of Marshall and Snelling Avenues and one open house. Even then, half the respondents opposed any connection to I-94.
Do MnDOT and some engineers at the MET Council oppose Mayor Carter’s Ayd Mill Proposal? At least one e-mail I obtained from a data practices request suggests they do. Are they lobbying against it? The agency and its contractors spend money lobbying for or against particular projects. If nothing else, the 2004 report and current “Rethinking I-94 Phase 1” report show that MnDOT and some at the MET Council are paying attention to Ayd Mill Road and want it to become a major, 4-lane connector highway. To what degree they are acting on that desire is hard to say.
Besides Joe Soucheray who’s spent his life promoting cars and “garage logic”, one of the most vocal local opponents of the mayor’s proposal is a woman named Lisa Raduenz. She’s quoted by the Star Tribune, and Fox 9, and she’s a prolific critic of the proposal on neighborhood chat groups including Facebook and Nextdoor. She’s a professional transportation consultant who runs her own firm, LJR Consulting, and has worked for Iteris, MnDOT, the MET Council and UMN, primarily on bus fleets, transit, park-and-ride and safety of MnDOT road workers. She also worked on the aforementioned 2004 UMN Ayd Mill Report commissioned by MnDOT and is acknowledged in the report on page four. I asked her twice on social media if she’s being paid for her activism on Ayd Mill Road and, if so, by whom. She refused to answer.
In the Fox 9 piece, she criticized the safety of the mayor’s proposal saying “Even if it’s a protected bikeway with a barrier in between, it’s still not safe when traffic is going past it at high speeds.” Yet, in other places she’s discussed exactly how to keep road workers (a.k.a. “pedestrians”) safe using concrete jersey barriers, guardrails and flexible barriers– all of which could easily be employed for an Ayd Mill multi-use trail. Beyond that and random smears of bicyclists and the Mayor’s staff, she and other critics have focused their opposition on traffic counts. They claim that reducing Ayd Mill to two lanes will unbearably increase commuter traffic on Lexington Avenue or other city streets.
Although Ayd Mill Road is currently 2-lanes in each direction, cars are forced to merge down to one lane at both ends– to get onto Selby Avenue and (at the south end) to get onto I-35E. During rush hours, this merging causes backups (see photo below). A 2-lane road would eliminate this merging and might make the road function more efficiently.
Regardless, arguing about traffic counts is based on the false idea that we can build our way out of traffic congestion with more highways and highway lanes. In fact, financially, environmentally and even from 100 years of engineering and road-building history, this is impossible. If critics are really concerned about traffic on Lexington, they could eliminate the I-35E highway exits at Randolph or put in diverters on Randolph or at other places to make it more difficult for commuters to use Lexington or other city streets as a cut-through between I-35E and I-94.
This is what engineers call a “road diet”, where traffic is constrained or reduced at its point of entry to alleviate congestion inside the street grid. None of the critics of the mayor’s proposal even consider this or other options. They just want to build more highways and it’s their very insistence on highway access that enables suburban commuters to flood our streets. University Avenue is just two blocks away from a 6 and 8-lane highway but the highway hasn’t stopped it from being filled with cut-thru traffic during rush hours. More highway lanes don’t fix congestion. They just make it worse.
I find it sad that, in 2019, the only solution that MnDOT or some traffic engineers can propose to reduce traffic congestion on city streets is more highway lanes. I find it even sadder that so many people keep believing these “experts” and regurgitate their failed solutions in the press and on social media.
Mayor Carter’s Ayd Mill Road proposal is a good one and it deserves our support.
- It acknowledges that city taxpayers are subsidizing suburban drivers.
- It offers a way to reduce our infrastructure maintenance costs.
- It delivers on promises of a 2-lane road by the city council in their 2000 and 2009 resolutions.
- It offers at least a partial linear park in the form of a multi-use trail in an area of the city that needs one.
- The proposed trail is in numerous county, city and neighborhood plans and could connect to a Midtown Greenway Extension.
- Through small areas of housing or retail development, it offers the possibility of transforming the Ayd Mill corridor into a revenue generator for the city instead of an expense.
- It is in line with the city’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
The city just began a year-long project to replace the Summit Avenue Bridge over Ayd Mill. This will require closures of two lanes of Ayd Mill Road for extended periods of time and, despite all the hyperbole by critics, the sky won’t cave in. Drivers and residents will adjust.
Some critics, including a couple City Council members claim that we need to study the road more, but this is the most studied road in Minnesota. It’s time to act and deliver on past promises. We can have a debate, study and public process about how to implement the mayor’s proposal but not whether we’re going to implement it. We already have all the facts, council resolutions, studies, plans and data we need. It’s time to act.