I heard you groan: “Why are we still talking about Ayd Mill Road, especially amidst a global pandemic?!?”
Well, my friend, we’re talking about it because our Public Works Department and highway departments around America are continuing to pave things.
Like a Cyborg Terminator Coronavirus, highway departments will keep paving until the day civilization ends or until we finally cut off their money supply— whichever comes first. Paving is what they do! Despite our current pandemic lock-down, the Saint Paul Public Works Department is moving ahead with the Ayd Mill public process, online, in the hopes of bidding out the job in June. So we have no choice but to discuss it.
Some weeks back, Bill Lindeke wrote an excellent piece about the current Ayd Mill Road debate in which he urged the city to close the road to cars entirely and abandon it. In an ideal world, I agree with Bill’s piece one hundred percent … but we don’t live in an ideal world. So I’ll make the case for why we should all support the current proposal.
How Did We Get Here
I’m not going to rehash ancient history too deeply because so much has been written about it, including two pieces by me in 2019 and 2017. But, to summarize, since 1960, the Ayd Mill Valley has been in a political tug-of-war between car people who want it to become a four-lane connector freeway between I-35E and I-94, and folks like me, who’d like it to become a linear park with no road at all or something similar to Mississippi River Boulevard or Johnson Parkway.
Last spring, a scheduled repaving project on Woodlawn Avenue in Saint Paul was rejected by neighborhood residents. This freed up approximately $3.5 million of paving money. In an effort to be flexible and wanting to plug holes in the city’s leaking road maintenance budget, former Public Works Director Kathy Lantry proposed using this money to repave Ayd Mill Road. The city hasn’t repaved it since 2003, the road’s in horrible shape, and the city is currently spending a third of its entire pothole budget every year to patch it.
When bicycle, pedestrian and linear park advocates heard about this repaving proposal, they said: “If you’re going to repave the road, we demand you use some of it for bicycle and pedestrian access.” A multi-use trail along the corridor is part of city and county plans and was promised as far back as 1997. The mayor’s office responded with a $5.2 million proposal to reduce the roadway to two lanes on the west side and convert part of the eastern two lanes into a bike and pedestrian trail. $3.5 million of the cost would be paid for by the leftover Woodlawn Avenue money. An additional $1.7 million would come from a half-million-dollar pot of annual dedicated bike funding that the mayor set aside in 2018. It would be bonded and spread out over 10 years so that it would only be about a third of the annual bike fund budget. The money would pay for the trail, additional lighting, and paths at each of the entrance/exits to access Selby, Hamline, Grand, St Clair and Jefferson Avenues, as well as new signals with walk signs and crosswalks at St Clair, Grand and Hamline. The mayor’s proposal was in line with 2000 and 2009 City Council resolutions supporting a two-lane Ayd Mill road and was an excellent compromise that could have ended the long tug-of-war over the road’s future.
Last fall, when it looked like there might be enough political support to pass the proposal, the city hired an engineering consultant to more carefully analyze the road and draw up plans. When they looked at it more carefully, they made two unfortunate discoveries. The first was that a spring near Grand Avenue and drainage problems on the road were leaving large amounts of standing water on it. Without fixing these drainage issues, any repaving would last a couple of years at best. The cost for doing the drainage work was around $2.3 million. The second discovery was that, in order to make a two-lane Ayd Mill Road work, they needed to add left turn lanes in the northbound direction at St Clair, Grand and Hamline Avenues. Otherwise, queuing cars waiting to exit at these spots would back up rush hour traffic all the way to I-35E. To add these three left turn lanes to the west side would require bumping the road out into the median at these three locations …and there was nothing under the median but dirt. So new concrete road bed would have to be constructed at the three areas and this would add an additional $2.3 million to the price tag. Suddenly the original $5.2 million proposal was $9.8 million. Given the city’s budget issues and conflicts over spending on police, recreation centers and affordable housing, the City Council balked at the new price tag.
In response, engineers drew up the current three-lane proposal. Since left turn lanes already exist on the eastern half of the roadway, they wouldn’t have to construct new concrete road bed. This reduced the price tag to $7.5 million and it was decided that the $2.3 million drainage repair money could be paid for out of the city’s sewer fund. The new proposal kept a twelve-foot, multi-use bike and pedestrian trail with a minimum six-foot, curb separated buffer between the trail and the roadway. All the other amenities– exit/entrance paths, new signals, lighting, etc– remained the same.
To be sure, the new proposal is something of a letdown. The original proposal was much more of a linear park with greater separation between the road and the trail. The new proposal is more like Johnson Parkway or Phalen Blvd. There’s a temptation, voiced in Bill Lindeke’s piece to want to abandon the entire endeavor and demand the city just close the roadway. But based on my experience, this is politically impossible. Any project that reduces or eliminates motor vehicle lanes on Ayd Mill Road needs four votes to pass the City Council. The current proposal, which only eliminates one lane has two solid votes, one tepid vote, one staunch opponent and three undecided votes. I and other advocates have met one-on-one with all the wavering City Council members and listened to the staunch opponent– Dai Thao. Thao is concerned about one thing– traffic congestion. His focus in life is cars, congestion and parking. He’d like a four-lane connected freeway that gave cars more access to the Midway and Allianz Field. The undecided Council Members are also concerned about traffic congestion on neighborhood streets and were unwilling to vote for the proposal without traffic modeling and a mitigation plan (which they got). They would NEVER support a total road closure. Even the mayor’s office, as progressive as it is, probably doesn’t have the political will to propose closing the road entirely. So this is simply not an option. In fact, Dai Thao has promised to try and strip the bicycle and pedestrian trail out of the current proposal when it comes up for a City Council vote in April, in favor of a straight repaving of the roadway (at over $5 million).
So the choice before us today is the current trail proposal (with three lanes of roadway) …or no trail at all, with Ayd Mill remaining as it is– a four-lane highway. I think the current trail proposal is a good thing. Not only would it be part of a Midtown Greenway Extension (if we’re ever able to get this done) but it would be a much-needed north-south bike link in its own right in a region of the city that lacks good north-south bikeways. It would also be a great amenity for dog-walkers, joggers and others who live at Selby and Snelling or wish to travel between this spot and the Grand Avenue business district or the other exits. It connects bikeways on Jefferson Avenue to Summit Avenue (via Grand) and, with a little work, to Marshall Avenue.
On top of that, if it’s designed right, the road could always be reduced to two-lanes sometime in the future if additional money becomes available, or the road could still be abandoned entirely, if city repaving money runs out. In the meantime, it establishes bicycle and pedestrian access in the corridor and adds an additional impediment to building a four-lane connected freeway. To my knowledge, it would be the first removal of a highway lane in the Twin Cities, and possibly in the state of Minnesota. Ultimately, I’d rather have a trail and some highway lane reduction than no trail and no reduction. And that’s the choice we have before us.
Even if you don’t agree with my logic, please look at the photograph above and take pity on me. This is me in 2002 with two hundred other people protesting then mayor Randy Kelly’s unilateral opening of Ayd Mill Road’s south connection to I-35E. I’ve been at this for eighteen years. Many folks have been fighting a four-lane highway a lot longer than me– people like Mike Madden and Debbie Meister at Neighborhoods First. Take pity on our poor souls and go to the city’s Ayd Mill Road page. Then (if you can bear it) watch their video presentation and click the “Comments or Questions” button and leave a comment supporting the current proposal. You can also take the quintessentially Saint Paul “Ayd Mill Road Feedback Survey“. You have until March 31 to do it. Even if you’ve written in the past, take a few moments to do this now.
Then, on April 6, there will be some kind of “public meeting” (it will probably be virtual/online) at which the Public Works Department will present their traffic modeling data and again solicit public feedback. Finally, on April 22, the City Council will vote on the proposal, possibly with an additional virtual or in-person public hearing. Again, we’ll need any of you who support this to e-mail your council members, particularly if you live in Wards 1, 2 or 3.
Civilization may be teetering on the brink of collapse but, if we go down, I still want to be able to ride a bike through the Ayd Mill valley. Please help make this happen!
(The biking part …not the collapse part.)