MnDOT’s New Traffic Signs on Snelling Avenue Highlight Same Old Problems

Snelling Avenue in St. Paul received over 300 new traffic signs this past fall, stretching from West Seventh Street to Larpenteur Avenue, though you can be forgiven for not noticing. Signs are ordinary parts of the road, barely seen in passing (when they aren’t ignored completely). And these new signs don’t really change anything about how the street is used.

But there is something odd about these new signs: They are notably bigger than the previous versions, and many are on much taller posts (up to 14 feet now vs. a max of 11 feet previously), with most corners getting two new signposts where there had been just one. Many intersection medians now have new Do Not Enter signs. And of the more than 300 new signs, none of them improves pedestrian crossings.  

What is going on? Well, the simple answer is that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) controls Snelling Avenue (State Highway 51), and when the agency decided to update the traffic signs they essentially treated all of Snelling by the same Federal Highway Administration standards that they use for all highways in Minnesota.

Sadly, the result is all too familiar when you treat a city street like a highway:

  • Updates fit auto-oriented standards.
  • Many sections of Snelling remain wide, paved surfaces that prioritize speedy auto traffic over the safety and comfort of people living in these neighborhoods
  • Seemingly ignored are those who want to walk or bike across this street — or shop and dine at the businesses adjacent to this road. 

To be fair, Snelling Avenue south of Summit Avenue — in the Macalester-Groveland and Highland neighborhoods — has seen a few major pedestrian improvements, with more to come in 2024 (see details below). But that progress just highlights how much MnDOT ignores pedestrian concerns on the rest of Snelling — the most notable example being the half-mile-long freeway viaduct (between the State Fairgrounds and Hamline University) where 45-plus mph vehicles zoom past narrow, out-of-date sidewalks, dumping speeding traffic into neighborhoods and creating a danger zone for people who bike and walk.

Bigger Cars Mean Bigger Signs

While this new sign project is relatively straightforward and small compared to most transportation projects, MnDOT’s engineering choices seem strange for a 30 mph arterial road in St. Paul. According to MnDOT Communications Coordinator Kent Barnard, the $425,000 project replaced around 200 signs that were “past their useful life” (more than 15 years old) and added about 80 Do Not Enter signs at intersections where Snelling has a median. A handful of other road signs were replaced as well, though city signs about parking were not changed, and the street name signs appear to have been reused and put on new, taller posts. 

The Stop signs and One Way signs are much larger than previous signs and are on new square posts that have a new ground base attachment. Bigger signs are on taller posts, so signs that previously were 10 to 11 feet high are now 13 to 14 feet in the air, which is almost the height of a second story window — and now several of these signs are obscured by nearby tree branches. 

Changes at the intersection of Snelling and Van Buren avenues show signage before, during and after, with old combined signposts 11 feet tall, and new street-name signposts 14 feet tall. (photos by author, fall 2023)

MNDOT’s Barnard explained the agency’s reasoning in an email: “In some locations the signs were placed on taller posts to improve sight distances for taller vehicles and to adhere to new specifications/standards based on speed of road and sightlines, to adhere to crashworthiness standards for sign structures, and to meet federal sign mounting height requirements for vehicles and pedestrians.” 

By citing the “standards,” MnDOT suggests that all of these sign placements are reasonable and inevitable, but a review of this explanation makes clear the department’s auto-focused priorities: “taller vehicles,” “speed of road,” “height requirements for vehicles.” And the crashworthiness reasoning comes into question when you look closely at the many intersections that now have two signposts.

Crashworthiness refers to new “breakaway” post design that snaps off at the base if a vehicle hits it, thus causing less damage to a vehicle and easier sign replacement after the crash. Previously, all intersection signs were on one round post held in place by a concrete footing in the ground. But the new tall Stop signposts are square with the new “breakaway” post base — and it seems likely the old street-name signs (reused) from the old round posts don’t fit well on the new square posts. Thus MnDOT still needed a round post for the street-name signs, but the post had to be much taller to allow the street names to be visible above the tall Stop signs.

When I asked MnDOT staff about the two signposts at intersections, they said transportation engineers made intentional decisions about their placement, which was not done “on the fly” by the installation crew. Whatever the reasoning, it seems clear that two posts at intersections — one old style and one new “breakaway” style — are not a crashworthiness improvement over the previous one-post layout. Moreover, it is just plain odd that a one-post solution couldn’t be managed — as is done on just about every other street corner in the city.

What’s the Cost of ‘Sign Clutter’?

You may ask: What’s the harm in placing 80 new Do Not Enter signs along busy Snelling Avenue? Aren’t they correct? Won’t they be worth the cost if they prevent even one crash by a wrong-way driver?

Fair enough, though a look at other major divided arterial roads in St. Paul (Larpenteur, Lexington, University) strongly suggests that these Do Not Enter signs are unnecessary, and that One Way signs and regular traffic flow are more than adequate to remind drivers of road direction on 30 mph city arterial roads.

It is also notable that MnDOT added 80 new auto-oriented signs, but didn’t add any signs to help pedestrians cross Snelling Avenue.

Snelling Avenue at the Charles Avenue Bikeway looking west: Do Not Enter sign placed to the left, minimal bikeway crossing signs in middle, and new taller signs on right obscured by tree. (photo by author)

The many big new signs have another problem. They undermine an earlier excuse MnDOT used when it refused to make pedestrian improvements in the corridor: “sign clutter” — the theory that more signs along the roadway make any individual signs less effective. According to longtime local bicycle and pedestrian advocate Andy Singer (and others who have been involved in past efforts to make Snelling Avenue more multimodal friendly), MnDOT staff have previously resisted more clear signage for pedestrian crossings because of this sign clutter excuse. It seems that 80 new Do Not Enter signs does not constitute sign clutter, or sign clutter is no longer an agency concern. 

MnDOT has made several pedestrian improvements on Snelling south of Summit Avenue. Between Grand and Saint Clair avenues, large planted medians were installed nearly 20 years ago thanks largely to Macalester College’s well-financed High Winds Fund. Another section south of Randolph Avenue, in the Highland Park neighborhood, has several small medians and somewhat better pedestrian access, though far short of the vision many residents in that neighborhood have sought.

And 2024 will bring two more projects to make south Snelling Avenue better for pedestrians:

  1. Narrowing Snelling between Ford Parkway and Montreal Avenue and installing a new path on the side by the Highland Water tower.
  2. Improving mobility access at the medians and at cross streets on Snelling along the Macalester campus.

The High Cost of Hostile Streets

North of University Avenue, MnDOT continues to keep Snelling Avenue a more hostile environment for the residents and business of the Midway neighborhood. Crossing this section of Snelling on foot and by bike has long been a challenge, with changes coming slowly over decades and primarily only when the City of St. Paul takes the lead to find funding, like with the Charles Avenue bikeway crossing and the new stoplight at Englewood Avenue next to Hamline University.  

The half-mile-long freeway viaduct that Snelling Avenue becomes between Hamline University and the Minnesota State Fairgrounds has narrow sidewalks right next to the roadway, plus the speed limit jumps to 45 mph from 30 mph, and vehicles often fly through at 55 mph or more. It is no exaggeration to call the Snelling viaduct the most hostile stretch of sidewalk in the city. But because it’s the only north/south road in the more than two miles between Lexington and Raymond avenues, pedestrians and bicyclists still need to use it. The viaduct funnels speeding traffic southbound into the Midway neighborhood just north of Hamline University, leading many cars and trucks to speed through an area where local students and residents frequently want to cross. 

The Snelling viaduct may also be contributing to a noticeable lack of development north of University Avenue. The Metropolitan Council has studied the development along Metro Transit’s A Line Bus Rapid Transit route from South Minneapolis to Rosedale Mall. Thanks largely to new development, the tax base saw major increases between 2014 and 2022 along almost all of the route except for the section north of University Avenue through Larpenteur, where only small increases have been noted.

Certainly many factors go into development decisions, but the notable lack of new development should raise questions about the out-of-date street infrastructure and environment along this section of Snelling Avenue.

The far right of these images is the area around Rosedale Mall; as you move left, you follow the corridor south along Snelling Avenue. Lower tax base is noted by the shorter data points. The changes between 2014 and 2022 show how the areas around Snelling between County Road B and University Avenue are seeing much less development than the rest of the A Line route.

Images from Metropolitan Council presentation “2023 Development Trends Along Transit” (slides 21 & 22).

MnDOT’s lack of attention to north Snelling Avenue stands out when compared with the many pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly infrastructure projects that Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul have made in recent years. An incomplete list of nearby projects includes:

  • Energy Park Drive has been reduced from four lanes to two (with a wide bike lane).
  • Hamline Avenue, Pierce Butler Route and Fairview Avenue were repaved with bike lanes.
  • Ramsey County has rebuilt large sections of Cleveland Avenue to be more bike/ped friendly.
  • The county will soon resurface North Dale Street with a 4-to-3-lane road diet layout that will include bike lanes.
  • Ramsey County also has a major reconstruction of North Rice Street in the works that will include a separated bike path, among other pedestrian crossing improvements.

Even with all these improvements, the antiquated Snelling Avenue infrastructure leaves the bike/ped network in the northwest quarter of St. Paul critically fractured.

The Past, Present and Future of a Better Snelling Avenue

In 2012 MnDOT brought together dozens of stakeholders and created the Snelling Avenue Multi-Modal Transportation Plan (finalized in January 2013) — but then largely ignored the plan afterwards. Andy Singer wrote for StreetsMN in 2016 about the broken process and MnDOT’s lack of action on this plan. 

In 2014-15 MnDOT held another set of stakeholder meetings to plan for a pathway adjacent to the Snelling Avenue viaduct. A completed engineering design was unveiled in 2017, though by 2018 the project had floundered somewhere in the MnDOT decision-making structure — with advocates told that the functionally obsolete sidewalks on the Snelling viaduct will only be addressed when MnDOT has to rebuild the highway bridges over Pierce Butler Route and Energy Park Drive in 20 to 30 years.

StreetsMN published several articles on that abandoned 2017 project:

Certainly, the $425,000 budget for all of these new traffic signs would not go far in fixing the many faults of the pedestrian environment along Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. But in light of the significant changes to the bike/ped network that the city and county have built and planned — and considering all the work that MnDOT is doing elsewhere — it is time for the state’s Department of Transportation to take on its responsibility for fixing the out-of-date pedestrian environment along Snelling Avenue.

About Kevin Sands

A resident of the Hamline-Midway neighborhood of St. Paul and volunteer with the community council's transportation committee since 2022. Returned to my hometown of St. Paul in 2019 after a decade in NJ outside of Philadelphia, and seven years in Austin, TX. Paying attention to bike/ped/transit issues on/off over the last 25+ years since serving as the volunteer coordinator for the St. Paul Bike Classic in the first two years of that event in the mid-90s, with a stint in fundraising and communications at Transit for Livable Communities in the mid-2000s.