Extra! Extra! Money Wasted on Extravagant Highway Project!

I don’t make it to Roseville often – it takes the patience of the Buddha to take the bus to even the western edge of the first-ring suburb, and Roseville ain’t nirvana, trust me – so I don’t try to keep up on current events in that part of the metro.  Luckily we have the internet, which makes it possible to learn about things you couldn’t possibly otherwise care about thanks to forums like minnescraper.com.

That’s where a couple weeks ago forum user mattaudio posted an item about the design for the new interchange at Rice St and Hwy 36.  “Fascinating interchange design,” he said.  Unfortunately my ADD reared up and I got hooked on this issue for a couple weeks.

Apparently some suburbanites don’t like waiting at stoplights, so they’re building two extra overpasses at this exit – at only $5m a pop.  If that’s not enough, humble 3-lane Rice St gets tripled in width – and they call it “pedestrian friendly!”  Read on, as I explain each outrageous detail:

Traffic Projections

Don’t tell MnDOT, but the USA has likely achieved peak motorization.  Strangely enough, MnDOT seems equally unconcerned with the reality of peak oil.  If either of those factors were considered, they wouldn’t have projected a 30% increase in cars on Rice St, from 20k/day today to 27k/day in 2030.  Nope, they just mindlessly assumed a massive increase, ignoring even past experience, as this chart of area traffic levels shows:

Rice St Cty Rd B
Year B2 to 36 36 to B B to McCarron W of Rice E of Rice
1999 23000 17000 16000 7000 4900
2003 23000 17500 no data no data 4600
2005 20200 17000 16000 5400 4850
2007 20100 17000 no data no data 4750
2009 18800 no data 14800 4950 no data

Go ahead, rub your eyes – traffic has decreased on every segment!  (On one segment it remained the same,)  On Rice St north of 36, it decreased 20%; on Cty Rd B west of Rice, there was nearly half the traffic in 2009 as a decade earlier.  So why use a 30% increase?  My hope is that this area is targeted for high-density development of the sort that is actually illegal in Roseville, but the truth is that the traffic engineering profession was embarrassed in the 60s when their projections for the interstates proved too low, so now 50 years later they just blindly assume a one-third increase in traffic for every project (see a recent piece on this issue from thoughtful local blogger Mike on Traffic).  Curious to know if that assumption also applies to pedestrian, bicycle and transit traffic.

I ran the population/employment numbers to see if this area was defying its first-ring neighbors by growing.  Obviously this data is from a decade earlier than the traffic projections, but it is interesting nonetheless:

TAZ # Pop1990 Pop2000 % change Emp1990 Emp2000 % change
941 417 349 -16% 739 1113 51%
949 3358 3299 -2% 679 555 -18%
950 2351 2600 11% 836 1217 46%
975 2704 2624 -3% 884 1039 18%
Total 8830 8872 0% 3138 3924 25%

These Transportation Analysis Zones correspond with the four quadrants created by the intersection of Rice and 36 – 950 is the NW quadrant, 975 is NE, 949 is SW, 941 is SE.  As you can see, population was generally stagnant, while employment generally increased, though not tremendously and from a pretty small base.  Notably, the two northern TAZs, which showed the greatest increases, are where traffic levels actually decreased in the last decade.  MnDOT’s traffic projections are based on smoke and mirrors.


The Rice St interchange with Highway 36 is just a couple hundred feet north of County Road B.  The close proximity of two major intersections (get out your grain of salt; note above that not even 5k vehicles a day travel the great County Road B) makes traffic engineers uncomfortable; never mind that similar conditions are common in cities throughout the world, the citizens of which honk their horns, pay $5 for coffee or much more for a colonic and get over it; these conditions in the suburbs are intolerable.

They also remind me of a suburb of Denver that I traveled in this summer, where the situation was dealt with by bringing together the two intersections into a sort of turbo roundabout.  After I posted the link on the forum, another user mentioned that a similar roundabout exists in Minnesota, in Cottage Grove, where they are pretty psyched about it.

Strange then, that a similar configuration was considered on Rice St.  It was rejected entirely because it couldn’t deal with the projected traffic (which, as I noted above, exists only on paper).  Meanwhile, Cottage Grove is very happy with their roundabout, which operates under similar traffic levels to Rice St.

If you look closely you can see a roundabout

The image above is from a MnDOT traffic volume map drawn in 2009; strange then that the division of MnDOT overseeing the design of the Rice St – Hwy 36 roundabout was apparently unaware of this roundabout, or at least they thought other Minnesotans would be.  The project engineers devised another roundabout, much more awkward than the first but able to handle the fictional traffic projections, but the second roundabout was rejected due to “concerns with the driver expectancy/ understanding.”  The engineers are idealistic enough to believe that a shriveling suburb will see a tremendous increase in vehicular activity, but simultaneously so cynical that they can’t believe that Minnesotans will be able to navigate an intersection design that millions of motorists around the world glide through with ease.

Pedestrian Friendliness

Beth Engum, Project Engineer for consultants Kimley-Horn, took a moment from her busy day to send me the following document:

This page decided the fate of Rice St & Highway 36.

This page contains the really confusing part about the planning process for this project:  The roundabout option was rejected for reasons of “pedestrian friendliness.”*  This is particularly strange considering the counterpart roundabout in Cottage Grove specifically touts its “30-40% reduction in pedestrian crashes.”  Of course, friendliness is about more than safety – do the engineers have an opinion about the intelligence of local pedestrians as low as their opinion about the intelligence of local motorists?

But the word friendly is a slippery word indeed.  Certainly the roundabout design doesn’t station clowns making balloon animals at regular intervals.  Could they be saying that the wiggly sidewalks are unfriendly?  If that were the case, don’t you think they could have straightened the sidewalks, separating pedestrians from the cars a bit and routing them through the relatively pleasant scrubland?

The roundabouts that never came about

The Case of the Pedestrian Friendliness just makes no sense to me.  Take a moment compare the image of the proposed roundabout design to the offset single-point design: the one being built actually has fewer crosswalks!  That’s thanks to what is apparently a MnDOT policy to not stripe crosswalks in the direction of off-ramps at freeway interchanges, which was popped up when they built a BRT station at 46th St & 35W.

Finally, if pedestrian friendliness is so important to them, why aren’t they being friendly to pedestrians on County Road B?  I’m not even talking about anything radical, like including sidewalks on both sides of the street.  How about just extending the sidewalk on the south side of Cty Rd B to some logical nearby destination… hmm, how about those two elementary schools?

Dismissing the pedestrian friendly option for being unfriendly to pedestrians, and then failing to provide a tiny fraction of the project budget to extend sidewalks 300 yards to two elementary schools…. it’s enough to make an urbanist curl up in the fetal position, thumb in mouth, eyes closed, retreated into memories of study abroad.

The Money

So pedestrians in Roseville prefer to cross 8 lane bidirectional roads without crosswalks rather than two lane unidirectional roads with wide medians.  So motorists in Roseville are so stupid that they can’t remember if it’s yield to left or yield to right.  And so Roseville will soon be Manhattan on the prairie, with gridlock choking every thoroughfare.  Still, there’s got to be a downside to building an offset single-point interchange here, right?

It turns out there is one downside:  it’s way more expensive.  How much more expensive, we’ll never know.  As the above document shows, they never made more than the most rough estimates of the costs of the various alternatives (considering the stink made at my government job when we change brands of ballpoint pen, I made sure to verify with Beth Engum that they didn’t have to do much more than guess which alternative would cost more).  According to the engineering code of pluses, minuses and zeros, the roundabout option would have cost less than either single-point interchange, and even less than the standard diamond interchange.

It can be difficult to determine exactly how much an engineering project costs, but there was a diamond interchange built recently in a first-ring suburb that cost $12 million.  Considering the cost to rebuild the half-mile or so of Rice St at speedway standards is likely $6-10m, the diamond interchange could have cost $18-25m.  But there’s another reason a roundabout interchange would cost less than any other alternative: it would require almost half the width for the Rice St overpass (4 vehicular traffic lanes vs 7).  So it seems reasonable to me, admittedly half drunk, that a roundabout alternative at Rice St might have cost $15-20 million.

So the interchange being built costs around $10 million more than it needed to…. hmm… where have I seen that number before?  Oh yeah, that was the amount that was going to be cut from Metro Transit in Governor Dayton’s original budget, prompting service cuts and fare increases.  It turns out that this interchange design is fascinating, but not because it makes driving slightly more convenient for suburbanites.  It’s fascinating because it is an exemplary case for how much money we waste on single-occupancy vehicles, while starving all other modes.

In 2006, voters approved spending at least 40% of the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax on transit, and 5 years later only 40% of the revenue derived from that tax goes to transit, even though most Minnesotans have several options for driving between two points while lacking meaningful access to transit.  Until the traffic engineering profession starts showing some restraint on obscure projects like this one, there will be a ready excuse to starve other modes.




*I’m assuming they meant that it was rejected for being unfriendly to pedestrians; there is a truly disturbing possibility that the pedestrian-friendliness of this option was a reason for rejecting it.

14 comments on “Extra! Extra! Money Wasted on Extravagant Highway Project!

  1. Froggie says:

    If they’re so worried about traffic volumes, perhaps they should’ve considered the Diverging Diamond (which so far only exists in Missouri, though MnDOT’s District 3 is planning one on Hwy 15 in St. Cloud). Would be a lot cheaper than a SPUI or the “offset SPUI” (the current plan).

    • Froggie says:

      As an addendum, I don’t see how either of the roundabout options would have worked here, either. The two roundabouts in close proximity at the south end would present operational problems. A “turbo roundabout” wouldn’t work too well here, either, and would be more expensive to engineer (though probably not as expensive as a SPUI)…the main advantage of Cottage Grove’s “turbo roundabout” is that there’s little traffic on the frontage road (much less than on County Rd B), and half as much traffic on Jamaica to the south…neither would be the case here in Roseville.

      • If you have data on the cottage grove frontage road, please share. I’d guess that the traffic level is only 2-3k less than Cty Rd B, and will probably catch up with it soon if our fringe-centric development pattern holds (note that Ramsey was the only metro county to lose population in the last 10 years).

        Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point about the proximity of roundabouts, but there are many roundabouts that close or closer – check out the double roundabout in Brighton, MI. SEMCOG.org has traffic counts I think.

    • mulad says:

      There’s also another one being built for the Elk Run development in Pine Island down near Rochester.

  2. Froggie says:

    Here’s what I got back from MnDOT when I asked whether a Diverging Diamond was considered here:

    A diverging diamond was considered during the concept development phase of the interchange project. However, it was dismissed due to the closely spaced intersections of County Road B and the south ramps. There was not sufficient space to allow full access to County Road B if a diverging diamond was selected. Let me know if you have any further questions.

    • I just alluded to it briefly in my post because there’s no way of knowing, but it seems like the process here was driven by someone who drives through the corridor regularly and hates the lights. Thanks for checking – and for suggesting the diverging diamond.

  3. mulad says:

    As was mentioned at the BURP get-together two weeks ago, a partial excuse for this egregious embiggening is the planned expansion of the St. Jude Medical office complex.

    The area also has some jurisdictional issues, which probably made things a bit complicated — Roseville is on the west side of Rice Street while Little Canada is on the east side (it looks like Roseville Middle School is actually in Little Canada). Southwest of County Road B is a chunk of Maplewood.

    Unfortunately, pedestrian infrastructure is minimal in the area — I see a token sidewalk leading to the school (but missing pieces) and some other attempts at sidewalks along roads coming off Rice Street, mostly on the Roseville side.

    Of course, that estimated extra $10 million could have paved many miles of sidewalks. Unfortunately, the area has a poor layout for walking, with everything divided up into pods. The area is old enough to still have a grid-like layout of roads in many places, but too many are dead-ends or loops. Someone must think sidewalks are the tool of the oppressor — Within the St. Jude parking lot, someone used sidewalks for encircling small trees.

    The massive amount of land dedicated to schools, and the wasted land around offices and apartments gives the impression that there isn’t much more room to develop in the area, but there’s got to be plenty. The distance from Rice Street to the I-35E frontage road along County B2 is 0.8 miles — that’s basically the size of the block that St. Jude is on.

    WalkScore.com gives the middle school a rating of 60 because there are a number of businesses along the Rice Street corridor. It would probably be good for St. Jude to work with their neighbors and build some sidewalk shortcuts to those businesses.

    Anyone know what the school is on the south side of County B2? WalkScore calls it “Wels South”, and says it is a special-ed school with only 37 students.

    • mulad says:

      Er, Maplewood is southeast of County B. I knew I was going to mistype that…

    • Maybe St Jude is the puppetmaster here – we all know that in the USA the government’s function is to serve and provide for corporations. Maybe they pulled the strings on the planning process.

      Still I have a hard time believing St Jude will expand enough to add 7000 cars.

  4. Two Comments:

    1) This is the very project that the guys at Strong Towns (www.strongtowns.org) advocate against. A bridge over Hwy 36 will offer no additional economic benefits (despite what the CBA probably says), nor will it spur any new development. The area is already built-up suburban sprawl style and is unlikely to densify within the next 40 decades.

    2) I’ve often heard comments that roundabouts a) don’t fit the American road model and b) are difficult and confusing to navigate. I don’t know how to combat these comments other than saying “you’re wrong” … I show the numbers and they look at it blankly.

    • If the “Alternatives Evaluation Matrix” for this project is a CBA, then I’m a CPA. More likely someone told them what to build, and they made the matrix to justify it.

      Love your icon, by the way. Mankato is my birthplace.

  5. […] reconstruction of Nicollet Ave between Lake and 40th.  The hosts happened to be my old friends Kimley Horn & Ass. and the facilitating was no less than head honcho Horn, who handled pretty well the sharp twists of […]

  6. […] I’d met the dame in the mushy month of March.  She had a date with the wrecking ball, due to be replaced by a flashy new overpass, all turn lanes and extra bridges.  The dame called herself Diamond, and she wasn’t long for this world. […]

  7. Torin says:

    I just stumbled across this. I’ve grown up crossing MN-36 via Rice Street since I was about 3 years old and my parents moved to the area.

    No bones about it, the old bridge design simply had to go. You might tut-tut about the issues they identified, but there were several sets of stoplights far too close together. Coming down this stretch was a nightmare prior to the reconstructed single-point.

    Due to the old design, cars would get backed up in the stop light hell. Coming off the freeway, there was only a short amount of space between B2 and B, plus lots of traffic trying to cross. Delays were common.

    Just because people wait in other parts of the world honking horns doesn’t mean they SHOULD. Cars that are idling instead of moving are terrible for our environment, contribute to road rage, etc.

    The option with 2 roundabouts so close to each other wouldn’t have worked. The Tight Single-point still featured signals too close together. This design was probably the best possible one, IMO.

    As someone who has crossed this roadway for over 20 years, this was necessary.

    And the old bridge didn’t have any pedestrian access whatsoever. The new one features a wide sidewalk along one side, and I’d say it certainly is pedestrian friendly.

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