John Boehner’s recent transportation reauthorization bill was quickly shrouded in a toxic vapor of controversy around elements such as eliminating dedicated transit funding, killing experiments in merit-based funding, and (not) paying for all of it with expanded oil drilling. One of the first explosions of hate against this bill, though, came from its proposed elimination of Transportation Enhancements funding, which united bike/ped advocates with archaeologists and preservationists in a sort of hurricane of people with cool majors.
Transportation Enhancements (TE) has all sorts of cool effects, from bike lanes and crosswalks to billboard removal and railroad museums. But like any good drug, it can be abused. So it is with sadness that I must report on the use and abuse of TE funding in Bloomington, where the the funds meant for “Provision of facilities for bicycles and pedestrians” are being used for features labeled as Pedestrian Barriers.
The Barriers are part of a project to build an enclosed pedestrian bridge across Killebrew Dr on the southern perimeter of the Mall of America. $1m of the $3.6m project cost is being funded by federal Transportation Enhancements funds. The renderings show a classy-looking skyway-like bridge that connects on one side to the new Radisson being constructed on a former mall parking ramp. Regardless of how you feel about skyways downtown, this mall-oriented neighborhood cut through by massive six-lane divided roads seems like a pretty good spot to spend a big chunk of dough to allow pedestrians to cross over all the at-grade traffic. Ok, but what if I don’t wanna?
The secret evil hidden in the skyway project is around 1000 feet of concrete walls referred to as Pedestrian Barriers that will close the two existing at-grade crossings of Killebrew and force pedestrians to go out of their way to use the skyway. This means that the net effect of the project is to decrease mobility – instead of two options for crossing, pedestrians will only have one. Applying the simple mathematical principle that one is less than two, we find that this project will require most pedestrians to walk further.
Aw who cares? No one walks in the suburbs anyway right? I won’t disagree with you, but I would think that Bloomington would care, considering it’s trying to develop an area around the mall as a neighborhood they call South Loop. Plans call for the neighborhood to “transform… from suburban to urban” with “mixed land use that supports additional streets to enhance circulation; higher densities of jobs and homes close to four light rail stations; and sustainable development practices that save money and support growth.” Mostly missing from the copious planning documents for the area are walkability goals or attention to pedestrian travel, although the South Loop’s primary residential development, Bloomington Central Station, places some emphasis on walking. Still, considering the plan’s frequent use of the word sustainability and desire to become urban or even a “third downtown,” the implication is that people will walk there.
Even Bloomington’s official definition of sustainability avoids mentioning sustainable transportation, but the city is engaged in encouraging “active living choices” for its residents through a Blue Cross Blue Shield-sponsored program called do.town, featured prominently on the municipal website. Ironically, the do.town page features a quote from Edina Mayor Jim Hovland, who notes that “barriers to healthy living are everywhere.” I fumbled my way through an attempt to ask do.town staff whether the Public Works dept consults them before erecting Pedestrian Barriers or making other plans that would have an impact on the ability of Bloomingtonians to live actively, but I did get a nice thorough description of the benefits to pedestrians of the skyway project from engineer Julie Long:
Benefits of pedestrian bridge include a reduction in pedestrian exposure to vehicles while providing for uninterrupted flow of pedestrians across the roadway. Currently about 110 pedestrians cross the six to eight lanes of Killebrew Drive during the Saturday p.m. peak hour. On numerous weekends, during the holiday shopping season and during special events the Bloomington Police Department staffs the intersection of 20th and 22nd Avenues with Killebrew Drive to ensure that vehicles and pedestrians can move through the area safely. The Bloomington Comprehensive Plan shows growth in the South Loop District which will correspond to an increase in both motorist and pedestrian traffic. It is expected that as the traffic grows in the area this would need to be a more frequent occurrence to facilitate safe passage in the area.
Concern also exists with illegal mid block crossings observed because they violate what the motorist is expecting and increase the risk to the pedestrian. This is especially a concern given many drivers in the area are not as familiar with the road system since they may be from out of town and can be focused on trying to see where to go instead of watching for pedestrians. Also, motorists using the exit ramps have just left the freeway environment where they were traveling faster and may not have fully adjusted to driving slower and looking for pedestrians. The pedestrian bridge provides for separation of these conflicting movements.
The project also includes the installation of a pedestrian barricade to help reduce the number of illegal mid block crossings and encourage use of legal crossings at 24th Avenue and the pedestrian bridge. The pedestrian bridge will be a covered walk way that protects people from the elements. The bridge will also moderate the temperature outside by approximately 10-20 degrees so that it will be a little warmer in the winter to cross and a little cooler in the summer to cross, but it will not be a fully heated/cooled space like a skyway would be. The City has also heard from a handicapped user that he believes this facility will help him more safely cross Killebrew since it is fully ADA compliant. In his wheelchair he is lower than a pedestrian that is standing so sometimes motorists do not see him as he is crossing. Another component of the project includes additional signage to not only direct pedestrians to the new pedestrian bridge, but also to facilities like the Mall of America Transit Center which is located in the east parking ramp of the mall.
Sure, all of those things are benefits, but the only one contingent on closing the grade crossings is the savings of staff time for traffic control. I don’t disagree that there are benefits to a skyway for pedestrians in wheelchairs, but most pedestrians will see little or no benefit to crossing above the street, and if instead of building a skyway they had used the $3.6m to make Killebrew more pleasant to cross, many more users would have seen a benefit. Killebrew Dr is an enormous road with three lanes in each direction and several turn lanes at each intersection, so this project is basically turning a quasi-freeway into a de facto freeway. But there are also intersections around every 500 feet – comparable to a long block in Minneapolis – so it’s never going to be a “easy” drive. Despite the extreme congestion described in Julie’s comments, Killebrew only handles around 20k cars a day, but less than half of that continues past the mall. It seems like $3.6m would have bought a lot of medians to distinguish turn lanes and to refuge pedestrians, as well as contextualizing features (i.e. colored pavement at crosswalks or possibly street parking with bump outs) that would help drivers adjust to the fact that they’re no longer on a freeway.
The pedestrian-removal Transportation Enhancement skyway project is actually Bloomington’s second strike in the area. Last year the state gave them $15m for Phase 1 of the Lindau Lane Complete Street project. Sounds nice except Phase 1 is actually the construction of a quasi-freeway of Lindau Lane on the north side of the Mall of America, which means that Phase 2, the version of Lindau Lane to the northeast of the mall, will never work. Think about it – if a car is going 50 mph west of 24th Ave, how included will bicyclists and pedestrians feel sharing the portion of Lindau east of 24th with that car? If the eastern portion of Lindau is ever funded it will be a perversion of the concept of complete streets and evidence A for the case that complete streets are greenwashing.
But Bloomington will have to figure it out sooner or later. Right now the Mall of America is the only land use intensive enough to generate enough pedestrian traffic to justify spending big bucks to remove them from the roadway. But Bloomington has big plans to become the third downtown mentioned above, so their pedestrian problem is only going to get worse. The Senate just passed a transportation bill with Transportation Enhancements intact, giving the program a good chance of survival, but there is only so much money in the pot for pedestrian barriers. The South Loop is a great candidate for a third downtown – it’s relatively central and has a spectacular location on the bluffs of the Minnesota – but so far Bloomington is headed more for Downtown Disney than any real downtown.