Sensible vs Indefensible

The Sensible Stillwater Bridge Partnership probably has the best name of any advocacy group anywhere.  This Pioneer Press graphic shows why:

Which bridge is sensible?

The article from which that image was stolen also contains what may be the most outrageous statement of the year, from someone whom MnDOT pays to lie for them:

MnDOT’s Adam Josephson said the main problem with the plan is its location. Placing the bridge among “so many natural and cultural resources would have a significant environmental impact,” he said.

“It’s got other problems, but its location is the main problem,” he said. “The problem is that it has more environmental impacts (than MnDOT’s proposed location). That’s the reason why we located the bridge where we did. We have to avoid, as much as possible, impacts to protected resources.”

The Sensible Partners for Sensibility have come up with this excellent graphic, showing exactly how massively gigantic MnDOT’s bridge is (it’s worth clicking through for the entire graphic):

Big, bigger, fucking outrageous

The notion that a half-mile long bridge that’s 40 to 110 feet above the waterline would have greater impact than a one-mile bridge that’s 110 to 220 feet above the waterline is so preposterous that it’s insulting.  Let me say it again:  MnDOT expects us to believe that the bridge that’s half as long and half as tall has the greater environment impact.

On top of that whopper, MnDOT is using its own system of overpriced and politicized consultancies to pretend the much smaller bridge won’t save as much money:

If the [Sensible Bridge] plan were adopted, MnDOT would have to go back and do further environmental review, Josephson said.

“That could take four to six years…to get back to the point we are at today,” he said. “That could delay the project to 2019 or later.”

[The Sensible Bridge] plan would cost about $394 million – $300 million less than the one being considered by Congress. The $111 million increase in their cost estimate reflected several changes near the Minnesota approach to the bridge, partnership officials said.

The St. Croix River Crossing proposed by MnDOT and supported by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., is expected to cost $574 million to $690 million.

But Josephson said the partnership proposal would cost about the same as MnDOT’s [Bloated Bridge] plan because of the extra costs due to additional environmental impacts and construction delay.

Three years ago, I gave a few bucks to a certain comedian who’s now a Senator officially if halfheartedly supporting the Bloated Bridge.   That money bought my freedom from six years of spotlight on a weasel who used to run St Paul, but it also made me subject to a barrage of emails from a corrupt gang of incompetent lushes whose only notable accomplishment has been to kill the one successful grassroots political movement that ever existed in this state.*

Anyway, one of their recent emails, besides begging for my cash to use on vague and dubious projects, rightfully decried the condition of local government finances.  Of course, the situation was blamed on their rival political gang, and no mention was made of the two gangs’ collusion on projects like the Bloated Bridge.

One of many things that Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum agree on is that we need to continue to throw money at our ridiculously overbuilt automotive infrastructure.  As Strong Towns has pointed out, Stillwater’s Bloated Bridge is an acceleration of the decades-long process of self-bankruptcy driven by our broken political system.  If only MnDOT could remember that its job is not to just build stuff, but to ensure the safety and functionality of our transportation system.  Maybe the latter will require building a bridge in Stillwater, but no sensible interpretation of MnDOT’s mission would require the bridge to be built big, fast and now.

Untrammeled beauty, or: Just another jam on the St Croix

*I exaggerate slightly here for the sake of cantankerousness

Diverging minds


Engineering a way to make SPUIs look good

Dr Marohn over at Strong Towns has diagnosed an epidemic of insanity sweeping through the engineering profession.  Known as Diamantia, when stricken the victim will believe that down is up, black is white, and most commonly, that left is right.

Dr Marohn gives us a case study of the first known patient, in Springfield, Missouri, where the poor victim is so delusional that he thinks a narrow, dirty culvert as friendly for pedestrians.  Wikipedia lists 9 known cases in the US, with hot spots in Utah and near the source in Missouri.

Putting aside the over-the-top metaphor, diverging diamond interchanges really are insane – would a sane engineer design a street that encourages people to drive on the wrong side of the road?  Personally, I tend to favor seemingly-insane solutions, in part because I smoked too much weed in high school, but in part because I get the sense that motorists are more attentive when placed in unfamiliar situations.  If the diverging diamond really is safer than the traditional diamond (this is the claim; not sure if there’s evidence) then I’m in favor of giving it a shot.

Except that the majority of diverging diamond designs I’ve seen are truly terrible for pedestrians.  Chuck Marohn aptly analogizes the culvert into which pedestrians are herded in the Springfield interchange as resembling the grotesque bowels of the Death Star.  Worse, the design simultaneously

  • increases the time and distance required to traverse the interchange for pedestrians  (by requiring that they cross to the center of the road and back and by twisting and turning the sidewalk to accommodate turn ramps for cars); and
  • increases the dangers faced by pedestrians  (by requiring them to cross against the main stream of motor traffic, which is heavier and likely traveling faster than the cross streams, and by designing the turn ramps to maximize speed for motorized traffic).

This leads me to conclude that the diverging diamond is a symptom of something far more insidious than insanity.  It seems to be a systematic attempt to marginalize pedestrians.  Take a look at the 9 cases identified by wikipedia.  I’ve listed them along with the location of the pedestrian facilities, if they exist*:

Springfield, MO (I-44 and MO-13): Center

Springfield, MO (US-60 & National Ave): Center

St Louis Co., MO (I-270 and Dorsett Road): Side

American Fork, UT (Main & I-15): Side

Alcoa, TN (US 129 Bypass / Bessemer St / Middlesettlements Rd): None

Lexington, KY (Herrodsburg Rd & New Circle Rd): Side

Lehi, UT (Timpanogos Highway & Interstate 15): None

Salt Lake City, UT (UT-154 & UT-201): None

Pine Island, MN (US-52 & New Sprawl Rd): Center

Probably the best diverging diamond for pedestrians

The fact that a third of them allow the pedestrians to continue on the outside of the interchange shows that the center culvert is not a crucial design feature.  But the fact that a third of the diverging diamonds have no pedestrian facilities whatsoever indicates that the engineers that propose these things are not concerned with pedestrians.

MnDOT has adopted the Springfield design pretty much wholesale for a proposed interchange in St Cloud – included are the same crossings at obtuse angles to speeding motor vehicles, the same forced detours across the heavy main stream of through traffic, and the same creepy center culvert.  The two interchanges have a similar context: big box stores and ultra low-density housing with no effort on anyone’s part to accommodate pedestrians or cyclists (there is a bus stop about a block north of the Springfield interchange, but nowhere for the passengers to walk after disembarking).

Does a diverging diamond have to be so despotic and demeaning (Marohn’s words) to pedestrians?  I don’t think so, not if pedestrians are kept in mind in the project goals (as they should be when the interchange lies between a residential neighborhood and a hospital, as it does in St Cloud).  Simply add to the goals, somewhere between 1. getting as many cars through as quickly as possible and 4. saving money:

2. minimize pedestrian detours (no serpentine sidewalks or diversion to a center culvert)

3. maintain right angles at pedestrian crossings

Using only Visio and some chewing gum, I’ve redesigned the proposed St Cloud diverging diamond to keep these principles in mind.  Imagine what could be done if you were a Professional Engineer with whatever software Professional Engineers have.  The through or turn lanes are shown in a beige similar to the original (Warning!  The original layout is 32 mb and has crashed my browser more than once.) but I changed the sidewalks from pink to a more masculine dark blue.

Zig zag leg

This design maintains basically straight sidewalks on either side of the intersection and manages to achieve right angles at nearly every pedestrian crossing (the safety advantage of right angles, besides requiring the motorist to maintain awareness of his or her surroundings before mindlessly accelerating, is that neither stream of traffic is required to turn their head terribly far – if it’s more comfortable to look, people will take the time to see what’s coming).  I kind of cheated at the leg detailed at right, which might have to end up fairly oblique.

“What about the trucks?” you may ask.  “How can they turn on so tyrannical an angle?”  We don’t have to banish semis from the roads in order to make a walkable interchange (though maybe we should consider it).  Professional Engineers can use their knowledge of turning radii to design a softer angle ahead of the crossing, although that might result in the awful twists that sidewalks tend to go into around interchanges.  Alternately, the ornate stamped concrete islands that are always built on these things (because grass can’t survive in such hostile environments) could have a mountable curb, effectively softening the radius for that most American of occupations, the trucker.

Of course, putting sidewalks on the, um, side makes for a wider bridge, which is probably why the three diverging diamonds that are (sort of) walkable all are underpasses.  But I don’t see why the wide center median is needed – couldn’t you fit side sidewalks on the same width of bridge if you just shrink the culvert? Anyway, a right angle ramp design will save some money since it fits into a tighter footprint.

Making diverging diamonds walkable may seem like treating the symptom, not the disease.  But the insane part really isn’t forcing traffic to proceed on the left, it is the fact that people can design these things and think that it’s ok to send the pedestrians into a narrow concrete strip between two streams of speeding cars.  That shows a lack of contact with reality that is frightening, but all too common.  Good thing there are good doctors like Chuck Marohn to spread the diagnosis.


*Tennessee finished their walk-less interchange, connecting a residential neighborhood to a commercial strip, just 12 days before their complete streets policy went into effect.  Apparently they’re planning another diverging diamond now, but I can’t tell if it will accommodate pedestrians.

The Case of the Disappearing Diamond

He rode a rusty cruiser in a fixed-gear kinda town

The cold case heated up fast, like spare ribs in a dirty microwave.  Sgt Lindeke pressed Full Power on this one, his twitter feed tossing out pithy clues at a mile a minute, just daring you to keep up.

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.

It didn’t make sense – Diamond didn’t carry much traffic, and less every day.  She was relatively pedestrian friendly, and best of all for these troubled times, she was a real workhorse.  The papers ignored the story at the time, it was just another shady murder, stinking of corruption and hopeless junkies.  But who was behind it?

I’d always suspected St. Jude.  He put on a holy show, but I could always smell the greed just under his scrubbed-clean skin.  Now Lindeke pulled back the antiseptic curtain, linking to an article in the local rag about the new park-and-ride the bus company’s building next to Diamond’s old haunt:

Metro Transit wanted to put a lot at the busy interchange five years ago, but Little Canada, Maplewood, Roseville and Ramsey County Public Works denied the request, citing concern from St. Jude’s, Little Canada’s largest employer, that such a lot would compound traffic problems. Now, with a reconfigured interchange and better traffic flow, they’re on board.

These cities hold a thousand stories.  And even worse, they hold a thousand governmental bodies, all overlapping each other and rubbing shoulders and sharing drinks and sometimes exchanging words, and you know it’s only a matter of time before they’re exchanging blows.  It’s all too easy for a medical device company to worm their way in and play city against county against state, feeding their auto-addiction and pushing bikes, peds and transit to the floor.  Poor Diamond never had a chance.

St. Jude's prevented the construction of this $2m park-and-ride until the state first built a $35m interchange. Meanwhile, the sidewalk still ends 200 feet away from nearby Harambee Elementary School.

Untangling Spaghetti Junction

Lady looks intimidated

I capped my last post with an image of the insanely overbuilt Spaghetti Junction in Louisville, but we have our own Spaghetti Junction here, and while it may not be as monstrous, it is still quite the tangled bowl of noodles.  A while back, I color-coded it for ease of understanding where all those wacky ramps are going:

Thatza spicey meat-a ball!

This effort grew out of my plan for a pedestrian-friendly West Bank, one of the centerpieces of which was the conversion of Cedar Ave to a transit mall.  Unfortunately the Minnesota Highway Department – oh, excuse me, MnDOT – thinks of this pedestrian-scaled neighborhood as nothing more than an over-metered access ramp between 35W and 94.  So I tried to think of a way to connect the highways and make the poor, marginalized motorists happy.  It didn’t really work:

L'étoile du Défaite

I called my effort Hermann Circle, after Hermann Olson, longtime mad City Planning Engineer for Minneapolis whose initial sketches for Hwy 62 included roundabouts at intersections (or at least one did).  Although there is a lot of space in Spaghetti Junction (enough for at least a 400′ diameter roundabout) the alignment of the highways make for some very tight entrances.  Also there’s the probably that the amount of traffic going through all these ramps would gridlock the circle as soon as the clock turned 7:01 am, although I’d think that could be solved with signals metering entrances – if almighty convenience can be sacrificed for mobility.

You’ll notice that I didn’t try to make the connection from southbound 35W to eastbound 94.  That’s because a route exists that actually provides a better alternative than Cedar Ave (the closure of which is my purpose for this whole exercise) – the existing route through congested and, by all rights, pedestrian-owned Cedar is about .7 miles.  A route that follows Washington Ave to 11th Ave S to 6th St S and its long, winding ramp to eastbound 94 is only .6 miles on local streets and has 6 fewer stoplights to interfere with your God-given automotive freedom.

The circle didn’t work, but luckily there’s an easier way.  My proposal for the West Bank trench would allow a much simpler connection for westbound 94 to northbound 35W.  A ramp could simply branch off the existing ramp from westbound 94 to 5th St S, slope downward and join the existing ramp from northbound 35W to the Washington Trench and environs:

The new ramp is in red

It looks tight, and it is, but the space between these ramps is 55 feet at the narrowest, and the 1-lane ramp would be 25 feet, tops.  The trickiest part is the angle at which the new ramp would meet the existing ramp, which might require a new bridge for the ramp from westbound 94 to 5th St S.  Here is a view of the new ramp in my Spaghetti Junction diagram, which may or may not make things clearer:

Somewhere you'll find a connection is made

I’m not aware of anyone else having proposed this ramp, and for a good reason – it couldn’t exist as the Washington Trench is currently configured since the ramp from 35W northbound (to which I would join the new ramp from 94) currently splits into 3 lanes and, more important, does not reconnect to 35W.  My proposal is predicated on my idea to build a two-way ramp between the Trench and the normal Washington, from which traffic could then proceed to northbound 35W.  In addition my Trench idea would remove the flyover ramps and instead funnel all traffic to an intersection at the Trench, clearing up space for a ramp from 94 to join in.  I haven’t crammed enough crappy Visio diagrams into this post, so here’s one of my Trench proposal:

Greater connectivity, but at-grade.

In 2007, MnDOT released their Downtown Minneapolis Freeway Study, which can possibly be considered a textbook case of cluelessness (page 1 of the Executive Summary: “the [35w Mississippi River] bridge is in good condition and could remain in place with regular maintenance until 2020 or later.”).  The mission was to look at the feasibility of expanding the downtown freeway capacity to the degree that it could achieve a level of service D/E in 2030.  Assuming the costs of Milwaukee’s tunnel-less Marquette Interchange ($25m/lane-mile), the study estimated that it would cost from $1.1 billion to more than $2 billion to complete an upgrade that would include nearly doubling the width of the Lowry Tunnel:

Really? Less than $2 billion?

MnDOT’s “vision” for Downtown freeways also included direct connections between 35W and 94 somehow.  I haven’t been able to find the details, and the closest thing to an image I’ve seen is a modification by Froggie.  I hope he doesn’t mind me copping it:

Froggie's mods

Keep working, Lady

So there are lots of ways to untangle Spaghetti Junction, but most are very expensive and some are just not feasible.  Seems like Minnesotans are just going to have to keep driving through it and Lady will just have to keep slurping.

One gate open, another closed

The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck was invented by Thomas Lowry to prevent people from walking between the densest and the second-densest neighborhoods in the city, forcing them to ride his streetcars between Downtown and Uptown.

This charming billboard was located approximately where the gaping maw of I-94 is today.

Ok that’s not true.  The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck sorta just happened, either as a planning mistake, or a product of topography or geography, or maybe due to ideas of transportation efficiencies that were revised as newer, deadlier means of transport were popularized.

Our ancestors seemed to view the Bottleneck as something as a town square, lining it with elegant apartments, important churches, art museums and monuments.  But nothing is so important to Americans as automobility, so the freeway builders didn’t spare the area (although the Lowry Hill Tunnel may be the only gesture they made to the cities they were cutting through, or maybe it was just cheaper than an aerial alignment), more than doubling the paved area and making it nearly nontraversable without a vehicle.

So today the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck is a giant unwieldy mess, which of course means that I have a giant unwieldy plan to fix it.  Unfortunately the giant- and unwieldiness of the plan means it is literally half-baked at this point, so I’m just going to comment on the City’s recent efforts to clean up the mess a bit.

Loring Park Gateway open

'proposed' is now existing, sorry for the confusion

This corner wasn’t bad before, by Bottleneck standards anyway.  But it was awkward, routing cyclists on a sharp turn around a bus bench,  and apparently didn’t accommodate some movements, as indicated by the desire path from this corner over to where the sidewalk continues north up Hennepin.

The addition of bike lanes to 15th St (or whatever it’s called there) was an excuse to spruce up the corner and rationalize the placement of the various elements (it seems that the pesky bus bench has been rationalized out of existence, although there is still a shelter at the stop).  That’s because the city wanted to use this intersection to test out what they call the European Left Turn, which sounds a bit like Wisconsin Yoga but is more like a New Jersey Jughandle for bikes.  It’s good to see more separated bike facilities, but this seems to be another case of the City encouraging sidewalk riding.  I like the connection to the Poem bridge, but that also reminds me of the Loring Bikeway bridge, where the City spends a bunch of money creating a circuitous bypass that everyone ignores in favor of the old, direct route.  Why couldn’t they just have striped a bike lane in place of the left turn/through lane?  Is it really important to retain that queuing space for four or five cars?

The other problem with the European Left Turn is that it presumably will add bikes to an already-crowded corner.  The queue at the corner is often five-deep, and while the realignment of the various paths has better separated bikes from peds, the new curb cut placement has led to a new issue:

A few more creeps*

Luckily the city is well aware that the average American motorist is a creep; that is, she has a tendency to creep past the stop line and into the crosswalk.  So the plan is to not only widen the crosswalk to incorporate the new curb cut position, but to install green colored pavement to delineate it.  The project page implies that the colored pavement has been demoted to paint.  Considering the snow will start to fly in a month or two, that means the demotion may have been extended to the crosswalk itself (like most crosswalks in town).  As the photo above shows, something needs to happen here or the new curb cut will be unusable.

All this realigning, paving and striping did not manage to fix the biggest problem with this intersection: signal programming.  Bikes and peds get the hand when the southbound traffic is stopped for the left turn phase for northbound traffic.  So they have to waste time waiting for the man to let them cross again, even though they don’t conflict with left turning northbound traffic.  This situation is all too common in Minneapolis (see almost every stoplight on Hennepin Ave) but because some lights do keep the man lit up when not conflicting with left turns (see the lights at 5th and 7th on Hennepin), I can only blame it on ineptitude or apathy (some would suggest disdain) for pedestrians on the part of traffic engineers.  In the spirit of Organization before Electronics before Concrete, this change in signal programming should probably have been made before planting the pretty flowers, and should be made before installing the new green pavement or plastic or whatever.

The Wedge Gateway closed

Another change a bit further south down the Bottleneck has somehow made the area even less usable for cyclists.  The sidepath abruptly ends at the ramp to I-94 from Lyndale Ave, and apparently the City was concerned that cyclists would continue on to where ever they are going despite the fact that the City had not made provisions for them to do so.  The solution was to make it more obvious what cyclists are not supposed to do:

Poof! And it's gone

See for yourself how well it’s working:

2 cyclists ignore the new stripes

So here’s an idea.  If people want to bike here, maybe a facility should be built that allows them to do so.  The sidepath could be continued down to Lyndale at the expense of no more than 10 often-unused parking spaces. As part of the same project, raised crossings could be built at all of the intersections, magically transforming the sidepath into a two-way cycle track.

Alternately, the City could continue building overpasses and restriping to prevent people from taking the paths they want.  Bloomington took this route on Lindau Lane, where pedestrians ignored their pointless, capricious, impeding crossing bans.  Bloomington responded by spending $50m to grade-separate the roadway (they blew Orwell right out of his syphilitic grave by calling the project the Lindau Lane Complete Streets and Safety Enhancement project), because everyone knows the best pedestrian environments are created by driving a wide, roaring freeway through the heart of a neighborhood.  Here’s an idea of what the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck may look like, if a Lindau Lane-style complete street strategy is pursued:

The Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck will feature easy auto access to the Riverfront

*I actually fudged this photo- the supposed creeps have the green light.  But I’ve encountered the crosswalk blocked by creeps several times so far, I just haven’t gotten a picture.

Greenfields and trenches

A couple doozies in the agenda for the 9/27 Transportation & Public Works committee:

1. is the first waft of a new greenfield housing development in Bryn Mawr.  It seems that someone long ago went through a great deal of trouble to plat a few blocks south of Chestnut Ave and west of Upton, but then only built houses on maybe half the land.  Now someone else has decided that now (or relatively soon) is the time to finish building the blocks and to line them with single-family homes.  Here are the blocks in question:

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

This map produced by Mpls Public Works shows the parcels owned by the developer in grey

I shouldn’t sensationalize:  this project has a long way to go before any ramblers or McMansions pop up.  The developer – Frank Stucky is the name in case you know him – asked the city to “open” the unbuilt portions of Vincent and Xerxes.  I’m unclear on whether that means the developer asked the city to build the streets and attendant infrastructure for him or whether he merely asked permission from the city to build them himself.  The tone of the report implies that the city is not interested in building these streets, but would allow the developer to do so.  Most intriguingly, it requires a report on the following:

identification of all applicable permits, processes, ordinances, and standards related to Public Works and Planning & Zoning for single family home development; the estimated cost of maintaining the improved roadways and related utilities; the estimated cost to construct the roadways and related utilities; documentation that confirms that the Owner/Developer is willing to bear the costs of such improvements; the proposed prospect for developing the currently vacant lots; estimated tax revenues to be derived from the developed lots vs. vacant lots; the ability of the roads to bear emergency vehicle access; the wishes of the neighboring landowners with respect to the opening of the roads and the development of the lots [who wants to bet on what the wishes of the neighbors will be? -alex]; identification of relative hardships, if any, caused by not opening the roads vs. relative hardships, if any, caused by opening the roads.

In other words, a micro-scale version of the recent report by Edmonton (thanks Brendon) on the “extent to which new residential neighbourhoods pay for themselves.”  (note- this quote is in Canadian)

I’ve done some rough measurements of the area and length of block face of the parcels in question, and based on the minimum lot area of 6000 sq ft and minimum lot width of 50′ in an R1 district, it looks like the developer could put up no more than 12 houses.  Interestingly, the lots appear to be platted at 5400 sq ft and about 40′ wide (presumably these blocks were platted decades before the zoning code was enacted), meaning they need to be either replatted or rezoned.  If that happens and they only require the more typical lot area of 5000 sq ft and width of 40′, 16 houses could fit.  If this were a more progressive part of a more progressive city (like, say, Chaska), some 22 houses could be placed on these blocks.

We can dream

All that speculation assumes the developer would like to build more houses on the lots, instead of just using them for a few houses on large lots.  It’s hard to tell exactly at this point, but it is likely in the city’s interest that more houses be built.  Because of the required approvals, the city actually has some leverage here – let’s hope they use it.  The committee postponed action for two cycles to wait until the report was ready – at least that sounds like what CM Colvin Roy was saying.

2. is my old nemesis, the proposed 4th St S ramp to Northbound 35W (now with its own project page).  The goal is to make it easier to commute back to your hobby farm in the northern suburbs from your boring job in Downtown Minneapolis by building a new ramp to 35W from CR-122 (aka the Washington Ave Trench), a mere 700 feet south of the existing ramp to 35W from Washington Ave S (the non-trench Washington).  Here is what the new time-saving on-ramp will look like:

Blaine is now two minutes closer

Apparently the news about a little construction project called the Central Corridor hasn’t made it out to Medina, because Hennepin County’s engineers forgot to put the new on-ramp configuration on this layout.  It shouldn’t make a big difference; the new ramp to Cedar is 300 feet from the stoplight proposed as part of this project.  But if we’re reconfiguring the Washington Trench to have a stoplight spacing similar to Lake St, maybe they could have thrown in a sidewalk or two?  Or at least made the new ramp to 35W a bit more perpendicular so as to not encourage as lethal speeding.

To understand why this ramp is superfluous, it helps to consider the history of this trench.  Sometime around the middle of the last century, someone decided that it took too darn long to drive from Downtown to the U of M.  There was just too much dense neighborhood in the way.  The Washington Ave Bridge was due for a replacement anyway, so they just tore down a bunch of the dense neighborhood and built a little mini-freeway to connect to the new bridge.

So while it may look like this project concerns the intersection of three roadways, Washington Avenue and its trenched doppelganger perform essentially the same function, that is to move traffic from west to east and vice versa.  With that understanding, the 8 existing ramps forming the interchange seem sufficient, and adding one seems superfluous.

Ramp map - ramps are numbered (including the proposed ramp in red), directions represent the destinations linked by the interchange

Why get worked up about a $13m project?  For one thing, it likely won’t be long before the whole thing needs to be redone again.  Right now, thanks to Central Corridor, the interchange is a pile of dirt except for a forked viaduct carrying vehicles from nb 35W to 3rd St S and Washington Ave (marked 6 and 4 respectively on the ramp map).  This viaduct will soon turn 50 years old, but is a sibling to a nearby bridge that will not be there to celebrate.  That means that chances are the viaduct will also need to be rebuilt soon, at which point it will be much more logical to make this interchange more diamond-like.  Rather than spend $15m for another flyover ramp, at that point it will make sense to instead build one ramp from nb 35W to the Trench, where a signalized intersection could accommodate all the movements that are currently made using the viaduct, including a connection north to Washington Ave, from which vehicles could access (or re-access, as the case may be) nb 35W.  Alternately, you could fit in a 400′ diameter roundabout, as I mentioned a few months back.

Circle gets the square

I admit that my radical side, considering the extreme disparity between transportation spending on cars and all other forms of transportation, is opposed to any new auto-oriented spending.  But I do have a timid, quiet, practical side that realizes that we live in an auto-dominated society (because of that modal disparity in spending) and realizes that there are some auto-oriented projects worthy of construction.  An example is the 35W access project, which proposes to increase the usefulness of a freeway to a neighborhood that it currently cuts through.  That is to say, it adds accessibility.  The 4th St ramp to 35W does not increase accessibility.  It does not increase safety.  It is a small reduction in trip time for some commuters.  The existing exit has working imperfectly for 50 years, so why choose this particularly cash-strapped moment to move forward with this project?

Of course the TPW committee voted in the consent agenda to spend $2m in city money on this nice gift for commuters from Anoka and northern Ramsey counties.

One more item, not from the TPW committee, but rather from the Planning Commission meeting of 9/13, but I haven’t seen anyone else discuss it so I’ll mention it briefly (or as briefly as I am capable of mentioning anything).

Gary Schiff has proposed amending the zoning code to blow the top off of the CUP ceiling for multi-family developments.  As it stands, you need a CUP for any building of more than five units.  Where that rule came from, I have no idea – while fourplexes and duplexes are more common, sixplexes aren’t unheard of and I knew a guy who used to refer to his building as a nineplex.  Anyway, if this passes, no hockey player will again need a CUP for his new sixplex.

The staff report contains some nice quotes:

  • The average fee for a conditional use permit is $750.00.  Between 2005 and 2010 there were 113 conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units submitted. At an average fee of $750.00 per application this amounts to $84,750 dollars that was collected.
  • Between 2006 and 2010, 92 percent of all conditional use permit applications for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units that were reviewed by the City Planning Commission were approved. Of the eight percent that were denied, other applications (i.e., rezoning) were typically required that were not supportable, so therefore the conditional use permits were also denied.
  • In both the City of St. Paul and the City of Bloomington, multiple-family dwellings are a permitted rather than conditional use in the zoning districts where they are allowed. In the City of Richfield, multiple-family dwellings over nine dwelling units in the MR-2 Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit and multiple-family dwellings over 20 dwelling units in the MR-3 High Density Multi-Family Residential District require a conditional use permit.
  • The conditional use permit application for multiple-family residential uses with five or more dwelling units often adds relatively little value to the review process.

Good news as we move into an apartment “boom.”  Don’t get too excited, though – the proposal also would “require City Planning Commission action on site plan review applications for any development of ten or more units…” with an associated application fee.

One of my favorite bridges

By tearing up I-35 in and around Duluth, MnDOT has given us a great reason to travel the Oliver Bridge, one of my favorite bridges.  When you’re heading to the North Shore, as every good Minnesota should do at least annually, simply exit onto State Hwy 23 east after Sandstone, then after 50 miles or so, after you’ve entered one of those weird old railroad suburbs of Duluth, you’ll see a sign for Superior, WI to your right.  Soon after you take it, you’ll see a train flying over an embankment that seems to simultaneously emerge from the river like Venus and travel directly into the path of the winding road.

What's around that bend, my friend?

Oliver is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town, and the bridge is by far the best thing in or around it.  Not only is the setting spectacular – the valley of the St Louis to your right and Spirit Bay’s expanse on your left, giving you the first inkling of the majesty of Lake Superior – but the bridge itself is just fun.  How often do you get to see the belly of a moving train?

Hold your breath, kids

I never should have read the Wikipedia entry for the Oliver bridge.  Apparently the east end of the bridge swings, but was only used for a ferry (!!!) that’s been defunct since the 30s.  On top of that, according to the article the upper deck used to be double tracked, and was somehow built to accommodate a streetcar line from New Duluth to Superior that never came to be.  Worst of all, there was a pedestrian walkway on the upper deck until recently.  Like everything, one of my favorite bridges used to be even cooler.


How to add lanes without really telling anybody

Can you find the number 25,665,000 anywhere in this article?

Lengthy work coming to I-94

Transit advantage?

25,665,000 is the number of dollars MnDot is spending on their “I-94 Capacity Relief” project – anyone who’s paying attention knows that “capacity relief” is engineer-speak for road widening.  Funny that it’s not mentioned anywhere in the article that the project costs $25m, and that it’s adding a lane in each direction to I-94.

Of course, the lanes being added in this project are already there – they were striped as temporary “capacity relief” after the unquenchable thirst for more lanes caused the 35W bridge to plummet into the Mississippi.  If you have a chance, you should check out the MnDot site for this project, where they posted the documents they have to create to rationalize their decision to widen roads they get interstate money for (i.e alternatives analyses, environmental impact statements, environmental alternative statements, etc).

Inside you’ll find gems like the following:

The Preferred Alternative [widening the freeway] will add auxiliary lanes that will allow buses to achieve speeds up to the posted speed limit compared to the speeds allowed on bus-only shoulders (not more than 15 mph greater than the speed of general purpose traffic in the adjacent thru lane with a maximum speed of 35 mph).

So they’re spending $25m to add a lane that buses can then use to travel the posted speed limit instead of the 35mph that they’re limited to in the shoulders?  Then why not spend $0 to change the law to allow buses to drive the posted speed limit in shoulders?

And do they really think that the “auxiliary lanes” they’re “adding” won’t be congested?  How exactly is a transit advantage an advantage if the lane is clogged by a Geo trying to merge left?  I guess $26m will buy us the answer.

More posts about bridges and food

Not pictured: thousands of McMansions

In response to an article in the Star Tribune about Al Franken considering whether or not to support a new bridge to sprawl over the St. Croix, I wrote the letter below.  Of course, politicians no longer let you email them directly, so I had to copy this onto 3 different contact form pages, each time filling out my personal info again.  Not a big deal, as I would just have used that time to write more bilious blog posts, but it kind of messed with the form of the letter, and forces me to individually email my state reps.  Ah consumer democracy.


Dear Senators Franken and Klobuchar and Governor Dayton,

I’m writing to urge you not to support a new bridge across the St. Croix River near Stillwater.  A new bridge would hugely encourage sprawl, which damages the environment, requires costly infrastructure such as sewers and roads, and fosters unhealthy automobile-dependent lifestyles.  Furthermore, a new bridge is not necessary, since the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south of Stillwater has a great deal of excess capacity.

I’m sure you all know your American history, and therefore understand that the unprecedented spatial growth of American cities in the post-war era was significantly aided by the construction of automotive infrastructure.

  • Senator Franken, your hometown of St. Louis Park was platted around railways in the late 1900s, but only boomed after the construction in the 30s and 40s of the Lilac Way, which we now know as Highway 100.
  • Senator Klobuchar, you can still see developers such as Lennar Corporation brag about the excellent highway access of your hometown of Plymouth when trying to sell their speculative homes.
  • Governor Dayton, I’m sure you remember the population drain in your hometown of Minneapolis when in the 60s tens of thousands of homes were destroyed to build the interstates, and many of those whose homes were taken resettled along the beltways.

There is no question that the construction of a new bridge across the St Croix will kickstart this process in western Wisconsin; the government will provide developers with a selling point for their sprawling subdivisions, luring residents who would otherwise settle in Minnesota.

Sprawl could be accepted as an unfortunate byproduct if this bridge were otherwise necessary.  There is no reason to construct this bridge, however, except to encourage sprawl.  The 20,000 vehicles a day that use the Lift Bridge could easily be accommodated by the I-94 bridge just 5 miles south, which uses only a tiny fraction of its 6 lanes of capacity.  The simplest way to relieve traffic problems in downtown Stillwater is to close the Lift Bridge.  Washington County politicians know this, but they want the sprawl-inducing effect of the bridge to boost the tax base of the Far East Metro at the expense of older cities like Maplewood, White Bear Lake and St Paul.

Senator Franken, in today’s Star Tribune you are quoted asking, “Are the alternatives that are suggested by [environmental] groups less environmentally damaging?”  As I’ve mentioned, the numbers show that adding 20,000 vehicles a day to the I-94 bridge is entirely feasible.  To answer your question, a mass transit approach to improving mobility in the East Metro would be significantly less environmentally damaging.  The $690m cost of a new bridge across the St Croix would pay for a bus rapid transit system on the Gateway Corridor as well as a light rail transit line between St Paul and White Bear Lake.  Transit-oriented development built around those lines would be denser and more energy-efficient, use primarily existing sewer and local road infrastructure, and encourage healthier transportation than the sprawl built around a new bridge.

Minnesota has historically subsidized automobile use over all other modes, and has received as a result one of the most sprawling cities in the world, one of the least equal cities in the nation, and a rampant obesity problem.  If you’re going to legislate an exception to a long-standing federal law, amend the gas tax to allow  fungibility between transportation modes.





A Bridge Too Many

Once again this week’s TPW committee was packed with items that fascinate me and bore my girlfriend.  I’m going to comment on a couple:

Cedar Ave S Bridge

Blobs to be?

If you want a sample of the byzantine nature of transportation funding in the state of Minnesota, check out the RCA for this project.  Hennepin County is going to widen sidewalks on the bridge that carries Cedar Ave over CR-122 (referred to as Washington Ave SE in the committee agenda; someday I’ll post my rant on Minneapolis’ street naming “system” if I can cut it down to a length that doesn’t crash WordPress), also they’re replacing some streetlights and adding some nice railings.  If I’m reading it right, the only reason the issue is coming before the council is that Hennepin County awarded the city a TOD grant for this project, even though the county will be doing the work (“The project scope has limited implications to the City” according to the RCA).  The county seems to have awarded itself a grant.  Interesting the contortions that need to be made in order to improve the pedestrian environment.

If the project looks familiar, that’s because it first came up as a sweetener for the highway expansion project that Hennepin County submitted to the TIGER program.  It’s heartening that the County took this sweetener seriously enough to pursue it even without “free” money.  The RCA doesn’t mention widening the bridge, but mentions the same sidewalk widths as the TIGER application, implying the plan hasn’t changed.  Also not mentioned is the bridgehead “flaring” depicted in the sketch above; my guess is it won’t be included – the document I took the sketch from lists the flaring as a $750k expense over and above the $1m for widened sidewalks; the RCA lists the project cost as $1m total.

Van White Boulevard

A new place to slither

Pretty much everyone who’s been on Lyndale north of the Bottleneck has wished for another way between Uptown and the Northside.  Our wish will be granted by the Fall of 2012, when a half-mile segment of Van White Boulevard is scheduled to be completed at the cost of $42m per mile.  (Drivers, of course, will still have to contend with the Bottleneck itself, but the more mobile modes will be able to walk or bike through the park and avoid the mess – hopefully long-term plans include some paths through the mansions and up Lowry Hill, but I won’t count on it).

In order to just get this damn road built, they’re probably going to phase the project:  where the long-term plan calls for two bridges over the railroad tracks, each carrying one direction of travel, instead at first only one bridge will be built carrying both directions of travel.  I can’t help but ask the question why, then, they are planning to build two bridges at all.  The Bassett Creek Valley Plan answers that question – the city is planning for a lot of redevelopment in this area (although Hennepin County may throw a monkey wrench in the works).

The plan includes a bike path on the east side in place of the sidewalk.  North of Glenwood, it is a multi-use trail, with 6′ for pedestrians in addition to 10′ of bidirectional bike path; south of Glenwood the ped space disappears.  While I’m not much of a separatist in terms of non-motorized traffic, it seems like they could have designed it to include walking space along the entire segment.  It even looks like they bought enough right-of-way for it; isn’t it just the same old story that a bridge would be designed for twice the projected amount of cars but half the projected amount of pedestrians?