I Was Wrong about Ayd Mill Road

Firstly, I am here to apologize for being wrong when, early last year, I suggested scrapping the expensive compromise bike lane and road reduction and repaving proposal that was on the table for Ayd Mill Road. (If you’re unfamiliar with the whole Ayd Mill Road saga, blessings on you, my friend. Feel free to read all about it if you’re curious.)

Second, in classic fashion, I would like to apologize in a half-hearted way where I don’t admit any real wrongdoing. In other words, when I wrote, “If you want my opinion, spending $8 million (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,” I was wrong, though not entirely wrong. Bike lanes and street design are almost always about compromise. Any project can be subjective, and in this case, perhaps the perfect was the enemy of the good. But then again, another world is possible and desperately needed, now more than ever. You know, for kids.

Ayd Mill bike/walk trail when it was brand spanking new last year.

Finally, now that it’s open and I’ve actually ridden on it, the Ayd Mill Road bike/walk trail (and slightly-downsized stub highway that still occupies most of the valley) turned out better than I had thought. I’m glad the city funded it, even if it was expensive. Mostly, I’m beyond relieved the city didn’t re-pave the status quo, keeping the four-lane “freeway” in place for another generation. Instead of doubling down on a literal sunk cost for a terrible piece of infrastructure, St. Paul leaders — led by Mayor Melvin Carter’s office — finally changed this generational boondoggle after a 60-year impasse. 

This last point is worth repeating: Ayd Mill Road, a frustrating limited-access ditch spur, was a place where all dreams died, those of bicyclists, park advocates and limited-access freeway fans alike. This road sucked in hopes. They disappeared into its vacuum as if it were a super-dense black pothole that malignantly lingered in the heart of St. Paul. This went on for generation after generation.

The old Ayd Mill Road, with two lanes in each direction; commuters into St. Paul now get one.

Today, instead of the abyss, a different kind of space is sitting in this small valley. That’s right, there is a victory. Anyone who lives near the valley, or bikes or walks around central St. Paul, owes the mayor’s Office and four members of the St. Paul City Council gratitude for their courage in supporting this pricey compromise.

As for the bike path itself, it’s a better experience than I thought it would be. At the time, I was pretty down on the proposition, writing that “I find it hard to believe that the bike lane would be very pleasant or useful in the short term, but it’s better than nothing.”

On that note, I am happy to be proven wrong. The bike/walk trail is separated enough from the car traffic to be pleasant and comfortable for people of nearly any age, once you get on it, that is. And the road for cars is likewise improved where, particularly on the north-bound side, traffic travels more slowly. I haven’t taken my speedometer out there yet, but where cars used to travel over 60 miles per hour, today my guess would be around 40 mph, on average (the posted speed limit is 35). The other nice detail of the trail design is the lack of steep grade at the south end by Jefferson Avenue. As you ride south, the street has a long, gradual slope, and the path diverts quite a bit from the road. It’s pretty nice!

A few caveats remain. For one thing, the bike trail is not that useful. I think it will serve mostly as an end-to-end shortcut through the city. Perhaps it’s a good access point for Grand Avenue, especially the Kowalski’s store, but because the trail is grade separated, it remains generally difficult to access. The north-end connection, in particular, is a treacherous crosswalk-and-merge situation not for the faint of heart. (Protip: My preferred way onto the Ayd Mill trail is to wade through the weeds and hop the little-used short line train tracks from the east. Obviously, most people will not do this.) Because of its design, the connection likely will not be all that useful for most bike trips around the city. I’ll likely be bicycling near, but not on, the Ayd Mill path a great many times, opting for surface-level streets, simply because it’s faster and easier.

But all that is beside the point, because the best thing about the Ayd Mill trail is its future potential. Someday, and god willing very soon, there’s a very good chance (!) that this will be a segment of an amazing, A-plus game changer piece of infrastructure connecting to the Greenway in Minneapolis. After all, the Minneapolis Midtown Greenway was built in segments. I still recall the days where it ended at 5th Avenue South, only partially completed. 

In other words, having an actual Ayd Mill bike/walk trail existing, on the ground, along these railroad tracks makes it far easier to imagine a Greenway connection to Minneapolis. That, in turn, makes it far easier to lobby for funding or political support for this amazing project. If and when that happens, and the Mississippi River bridge is opened to bicycles and the connection is completed through the chokepoints near Merriam Park, the trail will become the nation’s finest urban bike connection. It will be a seamless link from West 7th Street and the Mississippi River all the way to Lake Minnetonka and beyond. That would immediately catapult St. Paul into legendary, A-plus bike city status. 

(The other big win is that I’ll never have to write about Ayd Mill Road again.)

Granted, I still think St. Paul would have been better off if we had simply closed Ayd Mill Road and turned it into a bike/walk trail through a park. Somewhat tragically-ironically, I also think the COVID pandemic would have provided ideal timing for a demonstration of the linear park, with the commuting and traffic slowdown coinciding with the need for recreational outdoor space. After all, even a tailpipe addict like Joe Soucheray wrote that “I personally don’t know anybody who has been inconvenienced by its absence [during construction].” Not taking the chance to mothball a bad freeway was a missed opportunity and shows that St. Paul is not “there” yet when it comes to thinking big about its climate and budget priorities.

Anyway, that’s just sour grapes. The point is, I was wrong about the present-day and future benefits of the more expensive compromise. Now that it’s here, I’m sure glad that St. Paul leaders made the right decision when the rubber met the crappy road.

25 thoughts on “I Was Wrong about Ayd Mill Road

  1. David F.

    Nice article.

    Some east-side-of-the-trail bike ramps up to the cross-streets would be nice. Especially to Summit. Or perhaps one of those bike-friendly staircases like they have on both sides of the Fort Snelling bridge? Anything to avoid crossing Ayd Mill Road on a bike. I know there’s also railroad tracks on that side, so the connection would have be to the middle of an overpass bridge. I don’t know if that’s allowed from a civil engineering standpoint, but it would be nice.

    1. Kevin Samds

      At the NB end traffic drives up way too quickly. When walking it’s unnerving to see traffic heading straight at you, with skid marks on the sidewalk and and bent traffic signs. (That poor HUGE left arrow sign at Selby has been hit hard at least 3 times by my count). Sadly needs guardrails there & flashy “Slow Down!” signs.

    1. Kevin Sands

      Agreed! Just needlessly big – which encourages going too fast – which makes entering traffic tricky etc etc. I drove SB this week and it would be safer to have the right lane made into some kind of merge lane.

      1. Dan G Cross

        Bill
        I appreciate your courage in publishing this article. I too felt like the plan was a big compromise. I always fight for what is right but I have learned that almost always the best political solution is a compromise. Where there are winners there are losers but It almost goes without saying that, in a compromise everyone wins something and everyone loses something. In the end, that’s victory.
        I supported the Ayd Mill Road changes because of what I knew it meant to the momentum for extending the Greenway to Saint Paul. The Greenway Coalition has provided the inspiration, vision and leadership to extend the Greenway across the river via the Short Line railroad bridge. Now it’s time for everyone to get on board. Our engineering study from 2 years ago showed how that was technically feasible and now our soon to be released economic report will show how this is a a no-brainer choice as the extension will quickly pay for itself. I would have said that what we need now is a courageous leader or two to step forward and be a champion for this cause, but in reality it takes no courage at all to promote something that makes perfect sense.
        Dan Cross – Midtown Greenway Coalition Treasure

        1. Trademark

          If only compromises could be made to allow a 2 track light rail in the Greenway trench instead of a single track streetcar that could never serve the demand that this potential line would have.

  2. Wolfie BrowenderWolfie Browender

    Bill, thanks for your thoughtful review of the updated Ayd Mill bike path and roadway. I’ve yet to get on the path (perhaps supporting your point about its usefulness) so this is great to read. As for your “non-apology apology,” you have a long way to go before you’re at the level of a politician.

    1. Steve Brandt

      Speaking as a politician who hasn’t yet achieved the status of officeholder (crossing my fingers for the Nov. 2 Mpls Board of Estimate election), I’m glad to hear that the revamped valley has exceeded your expectations. If the connection to Midtown happens, it will be a game changer. I remember walking on Grand over this canyon to the Red Owl with my Grandma in the 1950s..

  3. Brian

    Not to make it all about me…but I’m super excited about this because once my work resumes in-person, this thing pretty much takes me most of the way from home to work…so I plan on riding it as much as I possibly can.

    Curious, per the red-dashed line on the map, and your line “Someday, and god willing very soon, there’s a very good chance (!) that this will be a segment of an amazing, A-plus game changer piece of infrastructure connecting to the Greenway in Minneapolis. ”

    Do we have any tangible indication of when that might occur. If/when it does, it will be freaking amazing.

  4. Jay Wilkinson

    There have been too many cars and trucks driving down the walk/bike path. Some in error but I think some are idiots who hate non-car infrastructure. The biggest problem (for bikes) is the very short distance it covers without doing much for commuters or recreational cyclists. But it does make for a nice alternative route for recreational walks
    .

  5. James Kohls

    I agree. The future potential is the best part. As someone who lives in Como, an area with many off-street trails, it is great to see a trail like this in an area devoid of such amenities. Now there is something to connect to. With the revisiting of the St. Paul Bicycle Plan, the potential for expanding this segment is even greater.

  6. Jenny Werness

    I ride the Ayd Mill trail nearly every day, it’s so great! I do wish there were better connections on the north end. Hopefully someday.

  7. Dan

    I’m happy for this compromise. The original traffic projections (I use original liberally, the City made a couple and I’m not gonna go back to my notes now that a 3 generational City boondoggle is finally behind us) noted that removing the road entirely would cause significantly traffic on Lexington. Lexington runs through Rondo. Making the compromise made sure that BIPOC populations and lower income households didn’t fully bear the negative pollution and health impacts of new bike infrastructure. We still have a long way to go, but I’m glad the city didn’t make the linear park desired by many white bike advocates. A nice enough path and a smaller road seems a good compromise.

    1. Sheldon Gitis

      Yea right, “the negative pollution and health impacts of new bike infrastructure.”

      Sure is great, now that Ayd Mill Road has been resurfaced, that Lexington, running over I94 through “Rondo”, is so pleasant and charming.

      Now we just need to connect Pierce Butler to 35E and get another freeway bypass built north of downtown. Won’t the “BIPOC populations and lower income households” have beautiful neighborhoods then?

      Give me a break.

      1. Steve Brandt

        Seems like this makes the elitist assumption that BIPOC and lower-income households don’t use streets and roads. Even if your main mode is the bus, you use roads.

        1. Sheldon Gitis

          Sounds more like road construction industry propaganda than anything I wrote. Who/what “makes the elitist assumption that BIPOC and lower-income households don’t use streets and roads?”

          A large part of the reason why there are so many motor vehicles on the roads is that roads, like Lexington between University and 94, are so inhospitable to pedestrians and bicyclists. No sane person is driving through the multi-lane mess at Lexington-94 or any of the other multi-lane messes at every other metro freeway interchange because they want to or because they find driving through the ugly traffic mess pleasurable. People are driving in the ever-expanding, ugly, dangerous, dirty, noisy mess because they have to. The road construction lobby, with its silly “elitist assumption” garbage, has gobbled up all the land and money and now we’re trapped inside dangerous steel boxes whenever we need to go anywhere.

          Are you suggesting the highways get bulldozed through low-income neighborhoods because poor people want to live in dirty, noisy, dangerous, motorway hellholes?

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

      As a moderator, I’d again ask Mr Gitis to read the comment policy and keep his statements from being needlessly negative.

      As a response to Dan, the part of Lexington Parkway affected by Ayd Mill traffic patterns is south of Summit Avenue, nowhere near the Rondo neighborhood.

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        Again, I’d ask Mr. Lindeke to cite the rule that prohibits sarcasm. Having a negative opinion of something is no more unnecessary than cheer-leading for something. Personally, when referring to the ugly mess on Lexington between the hideous concrete project on University Avenue and the horrendous I94 interchange, I would find any comments praising the highway hellhole far more distasteful than those describing the ugly, dirty, noisy, dangerous mess, as it is.

        It’s ironic that Mr. Lindeke admits being wrong when he was right, and continues claiming he was right when he was wrong. The linear park was and is the preferred alternative, and, the hideous concrete project on University Avenue was not the preferred alternative.

        So now, rather than a rapid transit line running in the corridor that once connected the Great Northern Depot in Minneapolis to the Union Depot in St. Paul, the rail corridor is another highway in the making.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Moderator   Post author

          Rule #2:

          “Be responsible, be respectful, and be aware of your privilege. Avoid sarcasm – it doesn’t translate well to this medium. If you disagree with someone, do so directly. Rather than, “Mark seems to think everything would be perfect if we did it his way,” try, “Mark, I disagree with you because….”

          1. Sheldon Gitis

            “Avoid sarcasm – it doesn’t translate well to this medium.”

            Sounds more like a style preference than a rule. I think the problem is more one of misreading than translation.

            It’s hard to believe any reasonable person would attempt to ban sarcasm on this or any other site where opinions are expressed.

            1. Steve Wilson

              I didn’t see the moderator using the term “ban” in the either policy or his request, and think its completely reasonable to expect people to express opinions without sarcasm. I always appreciate the generally collegial atmosphere of the discussions on this site. In this current thread, sarcasm seems to be causing misreading and mistranslation of (and at least distraction from) what might be a valid point.

              1. Sheldon Gitis

                I agree. Lots of stuff can cause misreading and mistranslation, including sarcasm.

                Apparently, I misread Rule #2. Apparently, if I’m reading you correctly, the Rule does not prohibit sarcasm.

  8. Joe

    I live half a block from the Ashland entrance of Ayd Mill bike path and use it for getting to work a couple times per week. The most useful thing about Ayd Mill bike path might be the bike/ped access to grocery stores – Whole Foods at Selby, Kowalski’s at Grand, and Trader Joe’s at Lexington – for those of us within a few blocks of the path.

    What it did for me and my wife was enable date night on West 7th. The rollercoaster on Jefferson between West 7th and Hamline left us pretty wiped out and soaked with sweat. Granted, we were already home at that point, but having to peel off sweaty date night clothing (there’s a reason they’re called “pants”) and take turns showering was enough of a deterrent that we either took the bus or, more likely during COVID, just never went down there. Ayd Mill bike path cut the perceived and perspired effort in half, opening up access to at least a third of Bill’s Dive Bar list.

    My never-discussed Ayd Mill dream is a pedestrian bridge over Ayd Mill and under the Hamline overpass to connect the southwest and northeast sides of Ayd Mill. Given the money St. Paul has put into our neighborhood with this great bike path, I don’t expect it and acknowledge it would be a small, concentrated benefit with the Summit crossing so close by, but safer and less exposed access to the tot-lot, the neighborhood’s only park, would be great. Or just do with the Short Line Park what should have been done a long time ago…

  9. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I agreed with your earlier thoughts on this and thought I might agree with these so had to check. I crammed and cajoled my opafiets in to my car (I don’t think its ever been for a car ride in its 15 year life) and gave Ayd Mill and environs a ride. I totally agree w/ everything you said.

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