It’s with no joy that I write yet another column about Ayd Mill Road, Saint Paul’s crumbling concrete albatross. I’ve been at this for years, and you are not familiar with this long saga, here’s a quick primer:
- A quick, legal timeline of AMR decisions from 1999 – 2010 (Neighborhoods First!)
- A longer, illustrated timeline of AMR from the 1940s to the present
- A vision of AMR as a linear park (Andy Singer, 2014)
- AMR’s cost in context of Saint Paul’s dearth of street funding (2018)
- The case against re-paving AMR as a four-lane road (2019)
- How the city is using dedicated bicycle money to pay for AMR repaving (2019)
- A case for using part of AMR as a bike/ped trail (Andy Singer, 2019)
- My statement supporting the recent, original two-lane AMR plan (2019)
The latest news remains vague, but the relevant info is that the redesign will be much more expensive, and much less extensive, than originally planned. This from this week’s Star Tribune article (the most recent):
The overhaul of the crumbling corridor, which accounts for a third of the pothole work done citywide, would reconfigure one of four lanes for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, leaving the other three lanes for motor vehicles.
The proposed cost is higher than the $5.2 million requested in Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed 2020 budget, because of an underground spring that has undermined the pavement and other complications, according to city public works officials.
For someone who has long wanted to see meaningful changes on Ayd Mill Road, this is a depressing turn. The common-sense two-lane compromise is being watered down, and the whole thing is becoming an expensive boondoggle.
One frustrating thing about this story is that it’s continually being framed as a bicycle project.
Sure, the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition supports the project, and there would be a bike trail here, and maybe someday if some magic happens over in Hennepin County, there might be a Greenway connection over the river from Minneapolis into Saint Paul. Should that day ever come, this connection in Ayd Mill Road could be genuinely useful.
But the huge price-tag for Ayd Mill Road is 90% a car problem, and only 10% a bike/walk trail. By itself, a bike/pedestrian in the Ayd Mill Road trench would be relatively cheap to build. My half-informed guess is that it might be around $500,000 total for the project, since there are so few intersections. (A basic bike path costs something like $250K per mile, at least in many other parts of the country. Not to mention the fact that a bike trail here would be worthy project for regional Federal dollars; so the city might pay only 20% of the total cost.)
Once again, the real issue here is cars. This two-mile suburban short-cut costs a ton because of cars. And in 2020, facing huge challenges, the simple truth is that Saint Paul can’t afford to throw money into this pit any longer.
Allow me to explain…
Problem #1: Taxing the Poor to Underfund Streets
You cannot understand the Ayd Mill Road impasse without looking at two stark trends. The first is Saint Paul’s road funding dilemma. Some months ago, I sat through a presentation by city engineer who laid out, bleakly, how desperate the public works budget has become.
The problem is that the city’s street maintenance budget has long been underfunded. It was even bad before six years ago, when then-Mayor Chris Coleman declared that the city would fix the “Terrible Twenty”, a list of particularly pothole’d arterial streets. That decision exacerbated the overall picture because it diverted funding from residential street reconstruction (a long-term fix) into arterial mill-and-overlay repaving (a short term fix).
(Fun fact: doing a mill-and-overlay repaving on Hamline Avenue seven years ago did not really fix the fundamental problem. Go look at Hamline today; the street is almost as bad as it was before. )
Saint Paul’s situation got even worse after the non-profit lawsuit pulled another $32 million out of the street maintenance budget. That left a huge hole, and according to my notes from the meeting with Public Works, the city needs another $20 to $24 million dollars annually to keep the Pavement Condition Index around 65-70 (aka., an acceptable level) in the long term.
The result is that our city streets are poised on the edge of a fiscal maintenance cliff because streets don’t age in a linear way. Because of where our city streets are in their “lifecycle”, it’s very difficult for the city to perform cost-efficient maintenance. Saint Paul public works is forced instead to do expensive and inefficient quick fixes instead of long-term reconstructions. It’s similar to paying a debt when the interest rate keeps going up, so that eventually you’re not even reducing the principal. The charts that I saw during that meeting showed how quickly city streets will deteriorate over the next five years if more money cannot be found somewhere.
That’s why the city is lobbying for state permission to raise a regressive sales tax. Sales taxes are bad because they impact the poor much more than the rich, because poor people spend a far higher percentage of their income on basic necessities. And yet, policy makers are stuck between a regressive rock and the hard place of ever-rising property taxes. The bad solution is apparently better, it seems, than raising property taxes even higher.
This situation means that Saint Paul should be entering a triage mode when it comes to its streets. The city needs to think carefully about where it spends its scarce resources, and that goes double if regressive sales taxes are funding the street system.
Problem #2: The Need for Climate Action
Of course, the second big trend is climate change. My favorite depressing primer is Davis Wallace-Wells’ recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth, which I highly recommend for those with stout stomachs. (See also this article from last week in The Guardian.)
I don’t need to browbeat anyone with the enormity of the problem, or the desperate need for cities like Saint Paul to become regional leaders in reducing CO2 emissions. It suffices to point at the recently-passed Saint Paul Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which put on the books ambitious transportation goals, including reducing driving in the city by 10% by 2030. Taking climate change seriously, and treating our goals as worth more than paper, means making tough choices about where and how to subsidize automobile driving.
The Ayd Mill Road Impasse
These two stark trends collide with this week’s Ayd Mill Road dilemma. Generations of city leaders have kicked the can down this crumbling road in the past. This week, the city is faced with a real choice about what to do.
Keep in mind that spending $7,000,000 or $8,000,000 or $9,000,000 million dollars to “fix” Ayd Mill Road with a coat of asphalt won’t even solve the underlying problem, which is that the structural concrete and foundational road bed is falling apart. Rather, this heavy expenditure is a fraction of the total cost that will come due in another ten years, a sum of city money that will easily be eight-figures, if not nine.
That’s why its frustrating that nobody is talking about the best choice available to the City of Saint Paul. The city has a unique opportunity where doing nothing, not spending money, can solve two of Saint Paul’s most urgent problems.
The courageous and necessary thing to do about Ayd Mill Road is to stop throwing good money after bad, and simply shut it down. We can’t afford to spend precious millions on a short-term fix for a piece of infrastructure that’s destroying the atmosphere.
My plan for the Ayd Mill valley is simple:
Kill the road, and talk it out.
What if we closed the road and had an honest, community conversation about the real cost of this two-mile shortcut? What if the city laid out, in black-and-white, what the trade-offs look like for the city’s street maintenance budget? What if we came up with an estimate of the long-term, reconstruction cost of Ayd Mill Road? Why not ask people all over the city how they want the space used, and how they want their very precious tax dollars spent?
If you want my opinion, spending $8 (short-term) to $80 million (long-term) on a highway shortcut in the year 2020 is a terrible decision, and we could easily lay other options on the table. Once we closed Ayd Mill Road and took the long term liability off the books, Saint Paul residents and taxpayers could have a much more interesting discussion about what to do. In this scenario, building a biking and walking path would be an affordable (ideally, grant funded) no-brainer. Meanwhile, the rest of the land could be used in countless ways: for community gardens, people parks, dog parks, playgrounds, housing, a day-lit creek, or a dozen things I can’t even imagine.
Why not offer to use part of the $8M as a “Ayd Mill park improvement fund” and ask neighbors what to do with it? Why not dedicate some of the money to traffic safety mitigation on nearby streets? Why not use some of the millions we’d be spending on asphalt, and offer it to people in neighborhoods all over the city? I’m sure every Council Member could find a $500K project they would champion.
Last July, Mayor Carter made a strong statement and decision when he cancelled the (not-very-impressive-in-the-first-place) annual fireworks. At the time, he said:
“As I’ve considered the budgetary priorities we manage across our city in the first year of my administration, I’ve decided I can’t in good conscience support spending tax dollars on a fireworks display in St. Paul this year. The fact of the matter is that we just don’t have $100,000 to spend blowing up rockets over our city.”
That was the right idea, even if some people complained. And if spending $100,000 on a ephemeral fireworks show is not a good use of city dollars, spending $8,000,000 on an 10-year fix for a freeway shortcut to Dakota County is much worse.
I am not sure how many of the current decision makers will be around ten years from now when the bill for the roadbed will come due, and the city will have to argue all over again what to do with this road and who will pay the exorbitant cost. The only thing I’m certain about is that, by then, our fiscal and environmental choices will be far worse than they are today.
In an era when Saint Paul is so desperate for street maintenance dollars that it’s turning to a regressive sales tax to fix streets, we can no longer afford to coddle suburban commuters with huge expenditures from the city’s tax base. Instead of doubling-down on a sunk-cost 1950s freeway that will make the city’s climate goals all the more impossible to achieve, Saint Paul leaders should make a win-win decision: simply close the road, let the cars fall where they may, and let’s have a straightforward conversation about Saint Paul’s priorities.