a family with young children use a separated bikeway

St. Paul Sales Tax: What Comes Next?

Last November, St. Paul voters resoundingly approved a 1% local sales tax to raise money for the Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments. When the city announced the proposed sales tax in December 2022, it estimated that over a 20-year period the tax would raise $738 million for “rebuilding and improving” roads and another $246 million for investing in the city’s award-winning parks system, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation — one place ahead of Minneapolis — by the Trust for Public Land.

As I shared with Public Works Director Sean Kershaw the first time I met him, I believe his department has more direct, daily impact than any other department on the lives of everyone in the city. While many of the current issues with our degraded and often crumbling infrastructure aren’t the fault of current staff and leadership, that team has the opportunity to fix them and put us all on a stronger, more resilient path.

So, what comes next and how do we ensure that new revenue for use by Public Works is best invested in St. Paul’s future? Although I voted for the tax, I know through conversations with others that I was not alone in doing so despite an eroded and frayed trust in Public Works and its partner agencies. While I do see promising signs of progress — including excellent additions to the Saint Paul Grand Round along Como and Wheelock and repurposing car space for segments of the Capital City Bikeway — the improvements are too inconsistent. Even so, I want Public Works to have the resources it needs to achieve both its own stated mission and city policy goals.

With that in mind, the suggestions below describe how I believe Public Works should prioritize investments and decrease liabilities, with the tacit acknowledgement that the department does much of this work is collaboration with partner agencies such as Ramsey County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which often suffer from the same issues.

Repurpose Excess Car Space

More than one-third of our land area in St. Paul is devoted to the movement and storage of private automobiles (Planning Commission report, Table 1). Aggressively repurposing this space away from the most expensive, destructive and unhealthy form of transportation should be the most important priority of all future projects.

We have far more paved surface for private cars than we can afford to maintain, even with the new sales tax revenue. We should repurpose space and install separated bike infrastructure in what’s currently parking or excess traffic lanes to enable the 20% to 30% more people who would prefer to bike to make that choice.

Thankfully, the city’s proposed updates to its 2015 bike plan include a lot of this already. However, we need budget prioritization that matches plans. Many of our traffic lanes should also be no wider than 9 or 10 feet, a design that would save both lives and money. Some recent projects have narrowed space for cars, but too many others have missed once-in-a-century opportunities.

Don’t Expand a Single Street

This idea is so important, let’s say it again a little differently. No more Lexington Avenue extensions, Gold Line roadway expansion, Kellogg Bridge plans bringing back four lanes to a bridge that almost never has backups with the current three. All of these and more include some element of a roadway/paved surface expansion, even if some of them are theoretically for transit or other purposes.

Any project that rightfully looks to improve biking, walking and transit infrastructure should repurpose the needed space from cars wherever possible (as is being done on Lake Street for the B Line BRT project). Beyond the streets themselves, stop paving places that don’t need it. The recent Prior Avenue reconstruction significantly expanded the concrete surface under the train tracks near St. Anthony Avenue instead of seeking some kind of permeable option that would have allowed greenery and enabled water to be absorbed instead of just running off and burdening our storm water systems.

an oversized, empty bridge is shown
The Kellogg/Third bridge is set for a costly, oversized replacement based on traffic estimates higher than actual recent MnDOT counts, which would still not justify four lanes. The bridge has been narrowed to three lanes for years without issue. Photo by author.

Be Humble

Listen to critics, especially those who say you aren’t going far enough, because many decisions are still being made by those in relatively conservative professions based on standards that are decades out of date. You might not like what people are saying, or even how they say it. (I get it; criticism, constructive or not, can be hard to hear.) But that doesn’t make them or their perspectives wrong. Be professional and find the truth in their message.

I’ve heard from too many people who effectively feel blacklisted because they’ve been critical of poor outcomes. Yes, community members should always strive to reach out in a respectful and empathetic manner. However, when you regularly feel threatened when using dangerously designed or poorly maintained infrastructure — and year after year, simple maintenance issues like replacing flexposts or re-striping faded crosswalks don’t get addressed — frustration can be inevitable. And understandable. Ultimately, all city staff and officials should follow the first and most important part of the Strong Towns approach for community investment: Humbly observe where people in the community are struggling.

Prioritize Safety Projects

The Transportation Safety Action Plan (TSAP) is in reality just an analysis. We must make concrete plans to bring it to fruition. The dangerous spots it identified should be addressed ASAP, not in 20-plus years when the street is next up for reconstruction or once someone (else) dies.

Fixing the identified hot spots, making them significantly safer and minimizing their crash risk would easily pay for itself many times over in most places, yet so far the TSAP mostly gives a shoulder shrug to how these changes will be implemented. To quote the TSAP itself, “As there is no dedicated funding stream for the projects identified in this plan, it is difficult to attach a timeline to their implementation.”

This lack of safety prioritization is unacceptable, especially when safety is specifically listed as a primary part of the Public Works mission: “Our dedicated employees are committed to providing great service in a safe and cost-effective manner.”

Make a Bike Network

While we can’t build a network overnight, we can piece together more meaningful segments than we currently do. Almost every project that currently gets done is exclusively limited to that immediate project scope, and sometimes not even the full extent of the project, like the recent Randolph project where new bike lanes end before the Snelling-Randolph intersection.

Because of this, bike routes are added, but in such a piecemeal way that they’ll inevitably fail to enable many more people to choose biking because the routes don’t form enough useful connections. When bigger projects are happening, we should look for nearby opportunities to easily make better connections.

A good example is a recent Hamline Avenue repaving from Randolph to Highland Parkway. Bike lanes were added, but they connect to basically nothing for the time being (though plans are in the works for a trail from Highland to Montreal). For little more than the cost of re-striping, the lanes could have been extended to Montreal, connecting with those bike lanes and enhancing a route to Crosby Farm, Circus Juventus and Highland Park. Similarly, a one-block gap exists between the separated bikeways on Montreal in Highland Bridge and new, buffered lanes on St. Paul Avenue.

The old “weakest link in the chain” metaphor applies to similar gaps all over the city. This kind of low-hanging fruit is left to rot all over the city in project after project because of a lack of commitment to creating a network, instead of isolated projects.

Update, and Follow, Your Own Design Guidelines

On Prior Avenue, Minnesota Street and Jefferson Avenue, recent projects have all included bike facilities that don’t meet what the current St. Paul Street Design Manual specifies, being too narrow or lacking physical separation that the type, speed or frequency of traffic on the street would dictate. The guidelines should first be updated to better reflect current best practices for safety and comfort around the world, and then, they need to actually be followed on future projects.

There should be a simple check box on any project analysis documents that specifically asks this; any shortcomings should require a non-trivial justification for why the project is sacrificing safety and de-prioritizing those walking and rolling, despite existing policies directing those modes to be given highest priority.

a narrow, painted bike gutter along Prior Ave
Bike lanes on a reconstructed section of Prior Avenue in St. Paul are less than 3 feet wide, half the width specified by the Street Design Manual. Photo by author.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Public Works and/or other responsible departments should replace flexposts, daylight intersections, square corners, close slip lanes, create diverters and modal filters, and utilize smart and efficient “tactical urbanism” approaches. These nimble, high-impact projects shouldn’t have to wait for a more extensive project to get done.

Consider creating a pedestrian safety team like Cincinnati’s to help make these changes quickly and economically. While some projects like this have been done, there aren’t nearly enough considering their high benefit-to-cost ratio. Even with the sales tax, we’re still a cash-strapped city, so let’s be smart with our money. These kinds of projects are also a quick, effective way to build community trust for those too used to seeing no response to pleas for safer streets, like my neighbors on Thomas Avenue.

a two-way bikeway with missing delineator flexposts that have been missing from St. Anthony Ave for over two years
Delineator flexposts beyond the last one shown here have been missing from a two-block stretch of the St. Anthony bikeway for at least two years. Despite a promise from Public Works Director Sean Kershaw in July 2023 that they would be replaced that summer, they remain missing as of February 2024. Photo by author.

Use Data

Too many projects and policies coming out of St. Paul Public Works seem to rely on limited data, likely because meaningful data isn’t available in many cases. Relatedly, data rarely gets used to support project proposals, even when it is available. Instead of meaningless statements about how a project “improves” this or that, quantify the differences. This is especially true when it comes to non-motorized projects, where the city has little to no data and often doesn’t seem to use what it does have. For example, volunteers collectively spent thousands of hours recording bike and pedestrian data, which now seems to have been largely jettisoned and forgotten.

Too much seems to rest on the whims of whoever is in charge of the project. This means that sometimes you get good data-driven projects with meaningful safety interventions, while others are huge missed opportunities. Thankfully, other jurisdictions have done thorough studies with data we can use, whether looking to improve safety or increase bike trips. We need to consistently use data-driven approaches to give people safe, comfortable transportation options that build a stronger city. The TSAP mentioned above gives hope for this, but only if it gets supported with budgets that prioritize safety.

Leverage Excellent Recent Policy Changes

St. Paul has recently joined other cities in getting rid of parking minimums and reforming aspects of its outdated, problematic zoning. These are among the most potentially beneficial changes in the city recently, but their effectiveness will be limited without streets that support these policies.

It will seem less feasible and desirable to build new construction without excess parking if the building site is surrounded by hostile streets that make biking, walking or hopping on a bus uncomfortable.

Develop Internal Capacity

We should stop relying so much on contractors. This creates issues where contractors can do bad work that takes forever to get fixed, if at all, with limited accountability mechanisms. This was readily evident on the Wabasha bikeway segment, where utility work cut out a section of pavement that sat for a year before finally getting patched, at which point the quality of the work done was so bad that it needs to be redone.

We are obviously going to be reconstructing streets every year for the foreseeable future and should have the internal capacity to complete these projects without the need to hire costly design and building consultants and contractors.

top image shows poor quality asphalt repaving on the Wabasha bikeway; bottom left shows a rebuilt curb with new pavement forming multiple cracks in the bike lane; the bottom right image shows signs and cones blocking a crosswalk
Examples of poor contractor work on three different projects around St. Paul. Photos by author.

Hire More Planners

Planners should be taking care of planning projects. They should do things such as outreach, evaluating how the project connects to others, determining types of facilities included and more, then hand off the project to engineers to complete the technical design parts such as roadway depths, curb heights and materials used.

Transportation engineers should not be making planning decisions or designing safety-focused urban streets, because they generally aren’t trained in these areas and are too often making decisions based on professional values (speed and car throughput/”level of service”) that are out of touch with community values (safety, choice and cost). While the planning field certainly shares much of the blame for the current car-centric state of too many of our spaces, many in the field have done far more to adapt and reform than the transportation engineering field.

Build Staff Capacity and Expertise

If we insist on continuing to have engineers do things they aren’t trained to do, we owe it to them and ourselves to provide them with that missing training. Most engineers receive next to no training in how to design safe city streets.

The only required transportation course at the University of Minnesota civil engineering program related to transportation is “CEGE 3201: Transportation Engineering,” which is described as, “Applying laws of motion to vehicle performance, determining constraints for highway designs. Traffic flow principles, their relation to capacity and level of service.” Even in a “Transportation Emphasis” graduate program, not a single offered course appears to cover safe street design, according to course titles and available descriptions.

So instead of safe streets, we get dangerous arterials that are designed like rural highways, with all the detriments to safety, comfort, livability and financial productivity that putting such facilities in a populated area inevitably begets. We all need to be willing to concede when we don’t have the knowledge, expertise or training to do something and either get that knowledge or bring in others who have it.

Control Costs

The next phase of reconstruction on Minnesota Street tops $40 million per mile. Two sections of Shepard Road are currently quoted as costing almost $30 million per mile to reconstruct in the five-year work plan. Given that this should theoretically be an easier project than most, with much less residential disruption, this price seems absolutely bonkers. In comparison, Minneapolis completed its innovative, spectacular reconstruction of Bryant Avenue for just over $10 million per mile.

Why are our projects so costly? These high costs extend to other projects and hurt our competitiveness when applying for grants from other sources. A recent application to the GDCI Bloomberg Cycling Cities grant program proposed what was essentially a two-block stretch of separated bikeway, compared with awardee cities whose proposals for the same funds included 180 kilometers of high-quality bikeways or connecting 40 schools with cycling corridors. Compared with these places, it’s easy to see why we were passed over.

These high costs extend to even the design cost of reconstructions, such as the upcoming St. Peter and Kellogg projects, where the design costs alone ($4.2 million per mile and $3.5 million per mile, respectively) are higher than the average reported per-mile project cost for a total street reconstruction. Even doubling the average project cost to account for inflation since 2016 (Exhibit A-6 in the Highway “Investment” Analysis Methodology), these $20 million to $40 million per-mile reconstruction costs seem wildly high and will drastically limit how much change we can achieve.

Analyze Failures and Learn From Them

We must embrace the idea that failure is not a four-letter word. It is important to recognize and honestly evaluate where we’ve failed to meet our goals on projects, reflect on what went wrong and figure out how we can improve.

We need to make intelligent failures that are hypothesis-driven and small enough to learn from and try again. We can readily see all kinds of issues such as missed travel mode share goals, the need for a sales tax bailout in the first place, the copper theft debacle with its years-long warning signs and more. We need to genuinely reflect upon choices that were made (or not considered) and whether they helped achieve our outcomes or not.

As discussed above, this requires data and a clear-eyed, humble analysis of work done and its outcomes. Too often, we hear ubiquitous talk about all the things that were “improved” in a project, when such statements are frankly meaningless, especially when there is little to no reflection on a broader failure to meet desired outcomes and policy goals. For example, the Kellogg/Third Avenue bridge project lists “improved vehicular access” as a reason for the project, but there are no current limitations to access and the only time I’ve ever seen traffic remotely busy on the bridge is during the Union Depot Christmas Market.

Trying to “improve” something that is already fine and is a detriment to actual policy goals such as decreased VMT (vehicle miles traveled) shouldn’t be seen as a positive if we honestly consider the outcomes.

While the copper theft itself is not the fault of city departments, the so-far ineffective response is hard to classify as anything other than a failure. Fresh thinking and, more importantly, a change in infrastructure from theft-prone lighting, are needed. Photo by author.

Bring Back the BAC

St. Paul needs to re-establish some kind of bicycle advisory committee. Much of the work that would currently be done by such a group now falls entirely on external volunteers, who may not have a chance to offer feedback at a meaningful point in project development. Every project containing some kind of bike facility should be reviewed by a committee of officially sanctioned people who actually bike (ideally a mix of those who ride for fun and function, though leaning toward function, as most trips in the city occur for some kind of specific purpose), in addition to those who want to bike more but are forced into driving due to poor existing infrastructure (the “interested but concerned” demographic).

Each project should be held to a clear set of expectations and standards, with strict requirements for proposed safety and policy shortfalls.

Conclusions and Hope

We stand at a potentially historic moment in our city. Along with passing the sales tax, we have just elected a group of City Council members — all women, all under 40, the majority of them BIPOC — about whom many of us, myself included, are very excited. I hope this new council will focus not just on passing good policy that builds on the excellent work by past councils, but will also work to ensure that staff and the budget are backing up great policy with evidence-based practice on every project.

While many projects have achieved true progress and meaningful outcomes, too many others have come up short, left low-hanging fruit unpicked, or are just plain underwhelming and prolong the status quo.

On the Public Works side, aim big. By all indications, this is a council elected by voters who support the need for change, and the council should have your back when you are bold. Candidates who campaigned on keeping things the same lost by a wide margin — your plans and outcomes shouldn’t match those outdated ideas. A large, dedicated group of advocates will be here to support and promote these changes. We are happy to explain and promote why such changes are not just beneficial, but essential to achieving a more prosperous and sustainable future.

Ultimately, the question is what type of future we want for St. Paul. Do we want a future filled with increasing potholes, noise and particulate pollution, unaffordable transportation costs that fall most heavily on those who can least afford them, and streets that are hostile toward people and local businesses? If we want to solve those challenges and have a thriving, vibrant city where people feel safe and comfortable to move as they choose, where they aren’t trapped behind the paywall of car-dependency to participate in daily life, and where our values and outcomes more consistently match, then we need to change how we operate. 

Regardless of intent, ultimately the purpose of a system is what it does. Our current transportation system and built environment fails to achieve many of our most important policy goals and outcomes. Too many of the same inputs have resulted in the same outputs, but we have the opportunity to achieve better things and have shown promising, if sometimes inconsistent signs of moving in the right direction.

We need to fill every underutilized parking lot possible with efficient, abundant housing. We can add parks with more than just mowed, open lawns. Let’s give people shade and animals habitat by making more space for trees instead of cars. We must enrich our city with spaces for people to meet neighbors, be active, fall in love, exchange ideas, do business and find calm.

A car-centric transportation system is out of sync with these goals, because cars crowd out the other options, and instead of sparking joy, they promote conflict and isolation. If we don’t utilize the sales tax revenue in a way that changes the underlying system and all we accomplish is reconstructing a few dozen miles of streets in their current failed form, the money spent will only amount to kicking the proverbial can a bit farther down the crumbling road. With the benefit of hindsight letting us clearly see the huge costs of car-dependency that have gotten us to this point, we should know better. We owe future generations of St. Paul residents a brighter, more prosperous and healthy future.