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.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.