The City of Minneapolis controls around 22 percent of land as part of the public right of way. This includes the sidewalks, bikeways, transitways and roadways. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this area “streets.” It is space that we all use to move around for leisure or for purpose, to reach our jobs, schools, and entertainment. This space is critical for our economy — for workers to provide services and goods to be delivered. Streets provide vital places for connection: for street festivals, chance sidewalk encounters, family bike rides. This space, more than one-fifth of city land, belongs to all of us.
Who should have a say as to how streets work? Typically, when cities reconstruct streets, city councils vote to approve new street design layouts. In Minneapolis, the City Council’s authority to approve new street layouts has for decades included managing parking and dedicating lanes to bikes and transit.
That authority is now being challenged with the Hennepin Avenue South reconstruction project. Currently, a majority of councilmembers want 24/7 bus lanes. The city attorney’s office (CAO) and Public Works director say the council lacks the authority to designate such lanes in the layout, as they are part of “operations.”
Here is a brief background of relevant events on the issue:
- December 3, 2021: “Strong Mayor” amendment takes effect. The community-approved referendum to the city charter gives executive powers to the mayor.
- December 7, 2021: Public Works staff recommend full-time dedicated bus lanes as part of the new Hennepin Ave. design layout.
- February 2022: A new Public Works director, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a veteran politician and good friend of Councilmember Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), is installed.
- February 24, 2022: The City Council approves the layout, including bike lanes, of the 37th Avenue Northeast reconstruction project.
- April 2022: The City Council approves parking restrictions on Dowling Avenue North.
- May 19, 2022: Public Works brings its recommended layout for Hennepin Avenue to the City Council, without the full-time bus lane dedication, claiming that the hours in which the lanes are dedicated to buses is in the purview of “operations.” Instead, they suggest the lanes will be “dynamic” — part-time bus lanes and part-time parking lanes.
This series of events brings to mind four important questions.
- Q. What changed between December 2021 and May 2022 that would cause Public Works to change its Hennepin layout recommendation?
A. It’s important to start with Public Works’ typical three-phase street reconstruction engagement process. The first phase begins with a number of diverse layout options, on which the department collects public feedback. Public Works uses public feedback to narrow down to a couple of layout options for phase two. Public feedback is collected from those two to three layout options to inform a final layout recommendation for phase three. In this third phase, feedback is collected and given to the City Council along with the final layout recommendation. It has historically been up to the council to consider that final feedback along with the final layout recommendation from Public Works staff.
After consulting a number of former and current City Hall staff and officials, I can say it appears there has never been an alteration to the Public Works layout recommendation based on phase three public comments, until now. This is a break of city precedent. The only clear change between December 2021 and May 2022 is the Public Works director. What motivations and influence has she had in this situation?
- Q. If City Council approval was sought for “operational” lane use issues on Dowling Avenue North and 37th Avenue Northeast in a post-strong mayor world, wouldn’t City Council approval for bus or “dynamic” lane use be needed on Hennepin Avenue?
A. Process precedent would rationally suggest that council approval for bike lanes and parking restrictions would be similar for bus or “dynamic” lanes. In fact, council approval has been sought and given for transit lanes 12 times before:
City of Minneapolis History of Dedicating Street ROW to Transit
Street Segment (Lanes)
Start of Service
|Original Nicollet Mall [eight blocks] (two lanes)||multiple bus routes||November 1967|
|Marquette & 2nd Avenues from Washington to 12th Street (Single contraflow lanes on each street)||multiple bus routes||Sept. 29, 1974|
|Extended Nicollet Mall [twelve blocks] (two lanes)||multiple bus routes||Finalized in 1990|
|4th Avenue from (Hennepin Avenue?) to Chicago Avenue, (Single contraflow lane)||multiple bus routes (discontinued after #16 and #50 were effectively replaced by Green Line LRT)||?|
|5th Avenue from Park Avenue to 1st Avenue N (two lanes)||Blue Line (Hiawatha) LRT||June 26, 2004|
|5th Avenue from 1st Avenue N to Target Field Station (two lanes)||Blue Line (Hiawatha) LRT extension to Northstar Rail||Nov. 14, 2009|
|Marquette & 2nd Avenues [MARQ2] from Washington to 12th Street (Dual contraflow lanes on each street, to allow passing)||multiple commuter bus routes||Dec. 31, 2009|
|Washington Avenue from West Bank (Cedar Avenue) to Huron Avenue (two lanes)**||Green Line (Central) LRT**||June 14, 2014|
|University Avenue from 29th Avenue SE to St Paul border [and continuing to Downtown St Paul] (two lanes)||Green Line (Central) LRT||June 14, 2014|
|Chicago Avenue from East 28th Street to the Chicago/Lake Transit Center (1 lane)||#5 Bus and Future D Line||2019|
|7th Street from Chicago Ave to 1st Avenue N, (one lane)||multiple bus routes||October 2021|
|12th Avenue from Marquette & 2nd Avenues [MARQ2] to 35W (Single contraflow lane)||Orange Line BRT and multiple commuter bus routes||Dec. 4, 2021|
** For a smaller portion of this segment from Pleasant to Walnut streets through the East Bank Campus of the University, the city not only dedicated two lanes but eliminated private auto traffic entirely.
Post strong mayor amendment enactment, the technical or legal difference between Dowling/37th and Hennepin is not abundantly clear. The only difference seems to be the administration’s favorability. Dowling and 37th projects were uncontentious, while that is not the case for Hennepin. Given that the mayor now directs Public Works, he directs how department recommendations are presented to the City Council.
- Q. Is the City Council precluded from weighing in on operations?
A. I am not a lawyer. However, to this layperson it seems as though the burden should be on the administration to explain the departure from precedent. It would also seem that section 427.20 of the Minneapolis Municipal Code titled, “City council to control streets,” is of major import. Its first sentence states, “The city council shall have the care, supervision and control of all highways, streets, alleys, public squares and grounds within the limits of the city.”
- Q. What could it mean for the mayor to have full control of street “operations?”
A. This is truly unchartered territory. No one has clearly defined for the public what is in and out of scope of street “operations.” As the City Attorney’s office and Public Works director presented their argument on May 19, the mayor has full authority regarding the running of 24/7 bus lanes on Hennepin Avenue. If he can add buses, could he also bar them? Would this mean he can unilaterally remove the full-time buses on Marquette and Second avenues? Could he declare that motorcycles are allowed on the new bike lanes on 37th Avenue Northeast?
The Hennepin Avenue South reconstruction project started as any other. Events in the past few months surrounding the project, however, show breaks in precedent, contradictions in process and entry into unchartered territory of street control between the mayor and City Council. Following the City Attorney and Public Works director’s logic, the mayor has sole authority over “operations.” If that were the case, mayoral decisions would not require any public transparency. The mayor may have meetings without public knowledge, and there is no required view of decision-making processes. Council decisions, on the other hand, are public, televised and often open to public hearings.
The fight for equity, accessibility and sustainability with 24/7 bus lanes on Hennepin Avenue has become a fight for democratic control of streets. How do you think more than one-fifth of Minneapolis land should be governed?
Stand up for 24/7 Bus Lanes on Hennepin and for Democratic Control of Minneapolis Streets
Thursday, May 26 following the 9:30 a.m. Council Meeting
Friday, May 27 at 9 a.m.
More ways to help:
Contact your City Councilmember and Mayor Frey; tell them why you support Hennepin Avenue.