Things are happening in St. Paul! And it’s not all snowplowing and garbage can controversies either. On February 1, the St. Paul Department of Parks and Recreation published the 90% edition of the Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan. You can find news coverage of the trail in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune, but here we’re going to meander outside the realm of the objective and into the real meat: How did all that fighting pan out?
What Does the Plan Say?
The plan is 90% designed, which means that the big decisions about design, placement and priorities have been decided upon. The plan has settled on curb-protected, one-way bike facilities the entire length of Summit, from its downtown intersection with Kellogg Boulevard all the way west to the Mississippi River.
The plan calls for the bike lanes to fall within the current curb lines of Summit Avenue, which should minimize impacts to green space and largely maintain the current layout of Summit. Where changes do happen within the current curb line, the curbs themselves will move, with the bike lanes at sidewalk level and only the driving and parking lanes falling between the new curb lines. This means that some places will have more green space and less pavement, considering that the bike lanes will have a green buffer rather than a paved and painted buffer.
That said, design can differ from engineering, which will include all the details, such as the placement of storm drains, utility lines and other infrastructure. It wouldn’t make sense to engineer the project until the city is closer to building it.
But let’s get to what you’re reading for: How does the plan address the controversies?
The City of Saint Paul has included parking studies in the plan, almost certainly in order to insert facts into what often becomes a panic-driven discussion of even modest changes to private storage in the public right of way. The plan states a goal of preserving parking where feasible, and follows through on that. For 2.5 miles on Summit Avenue west of Lexington, the right of way is wider, allowing room for driving, biking, walking and greenspace while having minimal impact on street parking. The portion of Summit east of Lexington would have more substantial impacts, in order to maintain the greenspace while fitting in all the rest. It would still have parking on one side of the street; “location varies,” says the plan on page 130.
Per the city’s parking studies, this may be less of a problem than some perceive it to be: The parking utilization corridor-wide was beneath 50% of all available spaces, according to a study conducted in 2019 and supplemented in 2022. This means that less than half of available spots in the corridor were getting used at any given moment. Considering that the plan won’t affect parking on half of the corridor, concerns about parking are likely based more on panic than fact.
The parking study did note where parking demand was greater, including at the intersection of Summit and Dale Street and at the University of St. Thomas campus, between Cleveland and Cretin. But local solutions could be created to deal with these areas. Ultimately, safe cycling infrastructure has the opportunity to allow folks who are able to cycle to take up less parking space, saving it for people who have fewer choices.
A Minor Controversy: the Demographics
Much of the controversy around Summit has been presented in false dichotomies. You see it in Save Our Street’s spurious framing of Green Transportation vs. Green Trees. You hear it in the melodramatic grumbling about old-fashioned St. Paul values vs. the inconveniences of living (and driving) in Minneapolis. You also hear it in stereotypes of entitled white, male cyclists vs. family-oriented mansion owners. (As a young person who, unlike many of my peers, plans to have children someday, I’d never consider raising a child in a neighborhood without protected bike infrastructure.)
The Summit Avenue Regional Trail plan makes many mentions of demographics, but largely presents safety as an across-the-board improvement for any group. But the planners do make a point about a growing car-free demographic: “Adults over the age of 65 are a fast growing percentage of the population. Ramsey County is projected to experience a 48% increase in residents 65 and older between 2015 and 2030. Nationally, this age cohort is also the only group with a growing number of car-free households. Separated facilities are much safer for seniors and generally those with slower riding speeds and lower visual acuity¹.” (Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, page 111)
Which is a polite way to offer that the assumption that driving is a lifelong choice is fatally flawed.
The Big Controversy: the Trees
If you have heard anything about this process, you’ve heard about the trees. Chances are, you’ve heard misinformation about the trees. Namely the story is that the trees are being torn down — or will be irreparably damaged — in the process of implementing the bikeway. The plan mentions that this is not really the case.
“Considering many sections of the Summit Avenue roadway have not been reconstructed in over 90 years, maintenance and repairs of utilities and infrastructure that will be necessary to maintain a safe roadway could have an adverse affect on the tree canopy, regardless of the implementation of a trail facility.” (Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, page 116)
To reiterate this point: Summit Avenue is in poor condition due to structural issues beneath the surface of the road. These issues have gradually been getting worse since the last time the road was overhauled, which was nearly 100 years ago. Also beneath the road is infrastructure — water, sewer — that will be replaced or relocated at the same time that the road is fixed for the next generations. However, trees do not know where the road is, or what the utility lines are. Roots could be beneath the road, or wrapped around pipes and utility lines. If you did nothing to Summit, the road would get worse and worse, faster and faster, and every time you fixed the surface, the surface would (and will) last a shorter time. That process would be expensive, too.
And it’s conceivable that outdated utilities could start causing problems. Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis have been replaced in the past decade after infrastructure failures caused disruptive flooding. Trees could be in the way of any serious attempt to fix the underlying issues along Summit. The bike lane is being included as part of the process in which everything is getting fixed or replaced. It’s an add-on that does not fundamentally change what’s going on.
“Feedback from community members highlighted the importance of maintaining parking in these segments. For this reason, total removal of parking is not the preferred alignment and would only be considered to accommodate emergency service vehicles, or to preserve high value, significant trees.” (Summit Avenue Regional Trail Plan, page 131)
Controversy: Things May Have (Bin) Tame Up Till Now
The controversy around the Summit Avenue plan is somewhat baffling considering that the plan keeps the footprint of pavement in the corridor exactly within the existing curb lines — which seems like the most effective strategy to minimize the effects on existing greenspace. However, as Twin Cities residents know, this controversy pales in comparison to St. Paul’s defining struggle of the 21st century: municipal trash collection. Which is why I knew things could get ugly when, on page 151, the plan mentioned trash collection.
Currently, 75% of all municipal waste collection on Summit happens in alleys, which the plan would not affect. However, 20% of trash collection currently takes place on Summit itself, and the plan discusses the potential of moving trash collection to alleys, or other special considerations for implementation of the plan. Discussing trash collection in St. Paul is (ahem) a can of worms, and things easily could get ugly again. If they do, Trash War II may be the only thing to eclipse the last Trash War in municipal ridiculousness.
The Unspoken Controversy: St. Paul Is Broke
Summit inspires a lot of strong feelings. Passions are running higher than all of the seven hills combined. There’s enough grievance already to fill servers worth of noxious conversations on Nextdoor. Even if the Summit plan is eligible for regional (perhaps federal?) money, the City of Saint Paul lacks enough money for road repairs or parks. Thus, they’re asking voters to approve more, in the form of a citywide 1% sales tax. State law requires that the sales tax increase be voter approved, have an expiration and be for specific projects. Would you look at that? Summit Avenue reconstruction is one of them.
St. Paul is broke. A historic irresponsibility toward funding street repairs, chronicled by Bill Lindeke in Minnpost, has earned St. Paul a reputation for bad streets. Some of the city’s problems were self-inflicted, in that bad decisions made in the 1990s are creating unsolvable dilemmas for fixing things today — as well as for St. Paulites of the future.
The range of projected costs of the bikeway component alone is placed in the plan at roughly $12 million. The whole project of rebuilding Summit the street from sub-grade to surface would be much higher than that.
One strong argument for a regional trail plan is to enable the trail to be recognized as a regional amenity. Other institutions could then help foot the bill, such as the Metropolitan Council and the federal government. “Strategies for funding a regional trail facility could consider a combination of local, state and federal sources,” says Mary Norton, a landscape architect with the city and the public face of the Summit Avenue project.
Of course, set-in-stone opponents of protected bikeways who believe not one dollar of city money should go toward a bikeway that people already use may ask: what else could that money buy?
Not as much as you may think. For funding sources such as regional solicitation, municipal governments have to put up at least 20% out of local funds. But reconstructions — particularly the reconstructions on which St. Paul has fallen far behind — are expensive. To illustrate a comparison, I dug into the total reconstruction of Edgcumbe Road between St. Paul Avenue and Hampshire Avenue, in the Highland Park area. Through various funding sources, St. Paul is rebuilding the street, sanitary sewers and a water main for $8 million. The length of Edgcumbe Road being replaced is about 2,500 feet, or 750 meters. Twelve million dollars for 5 miles of bike paths looks like a better deal.
It’s an imperfect comparison, and the water main and sanitary sewer replacement are certainly part of the reason for the jaw-dropping price. Like Summit, however, Edgcumbe Road is a residential, landscaped parkway that is being reconstructed. Any subsurface work that turns out to be necessary for Summit could be significantly more expensive than the bike path on the surface. I submit that $12 million buys far less than you think when it comes to St. Paul street reconstruction.
But what that $12 million will buy, in the next 10 to 15 years, is choices. It’s an investment in recreational opportunities along St. Paul’s showcase street. It’s a cohesive transportation option that goes from Shadow Falls to Eagle Parkway. St. Paul is going to have larger potholes and (potentially) higher sales taxes for the foreseeable future, due to poor decision making from before I was born and structural challenges in the regional economy. Protected bike lanes can’t solve those problems, but funding them creates opportunities to bypass St. Paul’s decaying roads and yes, add some vibrancy to its neighborhoods and business.
What Is Still Being Decided?
The one-way bike lanes have been decided on and will be presented to the City Council. The 90% percent plan still has areas where design is being decided, however, and input is necessary.
- Where may it be appropriate to remove cuts for vehicles across the median of the parkway, making the public space in the middle of Summit more continuous?
- Intersection designs along Summit are still in process, which will be critical to safety but don’t seem to have inspired the passions of the Save Our Street crowd.
- Opponents likely will try to rehash the decision regarding one-way, curb-protected sidewalk-level lanes. If you support this plan, it’s important to include that in feedback on the project’s Engage website and in communication with your St. Paul City Councilmember.
According to an engagement and milestone schedule put together by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the plan will likely be submitted for approval to the St. Paul City Council by April 2023. Assuming it passes, that would be the start of the longer, arduous process of funding and implementing the plan. (The passing or failing of the sales tax throws in another variable to gamble on.) Summit Avenue, like many St. Paul streets, is in poor condition. The possibility for resurfacing while waiting to implement the plan is possible — but fixes made now will not last long.
Implementation of the plan will likely be phased. Though the plan does not describe that process, the timeline for full buildout of the regional trail is estimated at 10 to 15 years. It’s a long time to wait, but it will be worth it for a good project that could transform the Capitol City and beyond.
Finally, some disclaimers.
- Andy Singer has been a relentless chronicler and advocate for a better Summit Avenue (and St. Paul). My name is Max Singer. I welcome your incredulity when I insist that we are not related in any way. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him on multiple occasions, but never once at a family reunion.
- Second, I work for the organization Move Minnesota in a non-advocacy position and am a volunteer member of the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee (BAC). This article represents neither organization, and any opinions or jokes are entirely my own.
- Perhaps most controversially, I am from Minneapolis and have the nerve to write about what’s going on in St. Paul. I’m no expert in design, roadwork or repair, and any explanations found here should be understood as an engaged citizen trying to understand and reformat ideas created by people who do this sort of thing professionally. If I’m off on something, I encourage comments and corrections.
Photo at top: Summit Avenue at Lexington, courtesy of City of Saint Paul