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.

Planning Blunder #9: Over the highway and through the lake

Bill Lindeke, proprieter of the nation’s best sidewalk blog, twin cities sidewalks, has bestowed upon me the honor of writing half the entries in his bile-fest of Twin Cities planning blundersNumber 10 went to the low-density industrial redevelopments of the St Paul Port Authority, and I will attempt to live up to Bill’s word-wizardry with the following:

What's in that water, friend? (Nokomis Bathhouse in the 20s)

Ahhh…. the classic Minnesota summer at the lake….  basking in the brief pleasure of sunlight hitting your winter-pasty skin….  splashing and being splashed as your feet dance in the sandy bottoms and mystery slippery sea monsters graze your shins…  goosebump eruptions on your arms as you momentarily return to dry land to consume a scorched tube of ostensible meat….  the sharp bursts of honking and the screech of brakes from the uncomfortably proximate highway–hey!  What the hell is a highway doing in the middle of this tranquil lake?

The answer is Planning Blunder #9:

The Cedar Avenue bridge over Lake Nokomis!

Thank you Santa for bringing us progress

Who would hate Minnesota so much that they would literally pave over the quintessential Minnesotan experience?  To find out, you would have to look up the payroll of the Minnesota Department of Highways between 1920 and 1926, when someone had the brilliant idea to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bridge over smallish Lake Nokomis  instead of curving Cedar Ave slightly to the west.

The Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, in its “veritable encyclopedia of Peculiar Park Particulars,” claims credit for trying to avert this blunder, but was foiled by Richfield, whose borders hadn’t yet been turned back from the south end of the lake.  To some degree, it makes sense that Richfielders would be in such a hurry to get to points north that they would pay the price of a lake’s spoilation to shed a minute or so of travel time.  Contemporary judges should remember, also, that at the time Lake Nokomis still had the Minnesota swampy shoreline and may have felt more like an enormous morass than a resort paradise.  But from a statewide perspective it is difficult to understand why this route was so important that it would have been ruined by a small curve to the west – according to Steve Riner, the highway (36) of which the bridge was a segment ran south only a few miles to MN-5 (about where I-494 is today), and only crossed the Minnesota River in the 1950s.

Using this helmet underwater is the only way to cut out the highway noise

My Take on the Lake

Despite noise pollution from the airport and water pollution from Cedar Ave, Nokomis Beach remains a pretty hot summer spot.  I remember an awkward work party there several years ago, where we munched on samosas and sipped 3.2 while screaming gremlins ran around us and middle-aged men showed the world exactly how little exercise they get.  In other words, a classic beach scene.

So even though the lake is still brings aquatic pleasures, it is the principle of the thing that gives me a queasy feeling when I go over the bridge.  Lakes should be for lake-like things, for example fish or ducks or inner-tubes.  If you must use a motor on a lake, please let it be driving a boat.  But part of this principled revolt comes from the fact that they seem to have built the bridge just because they could; for reasons detailed above, Cedar Ave easily could have been routed west around the lake.

Apparently I’m not the only one who is made queasy by this particular bridge.  A facebook group dedicated to removing the bridge started last summer, and while it has relatively few members, it counts several local policymakers in its ranks.  However, in a political environment where it is difficult to convince a certain party to spend money to construct something, it will  be even tougher to persuade anyone to destruct something.  This particular bridge seems to have been rebuilt recently, too, so it will be a while before it attains functional obsolescence.

Winter Blunderland (by Tim Kiser, who is a good photographer and I hope is not a lawyer)

Minnesota likes to trumpet its lake-iness, but has no qualms about destroying its liquid jewels.  Other metro-area impaled lakes include Twin Lake in Robbinsdale and Anderson Lake(s) in Bloomington, although Lake Nokomis is more gratuitous than those two.  Every time I cross it, I see that tiny amputated remnant and I’m reminded that anywhere I go, roads will follow me.  Although there is no doubt that millions of dollars have been wasted to bridge this lake, maybe it is not a blunder.  Maybe it is something more devious.  Maybe it is there to remind us that in the USA our way is the highway, and the road to the open just leads to another road.

Reviewing Politics and Freeways

I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to track down the parties responsible for some dunderheaded planning decision and ask them what they were thinking.  In more violent moods, I confess to wanting to track them down and do more than ask them more than a question.

That’s why the premise of Patricia Cavanaugh’s Politics and Freeways was so intriguing to me:  the book aims to be an oral history of the contruction of the Interstates in the Twin Cities, as told by the engineers and policymakers giving birth to them, and the activist groups intending to abort.  Sensibly but frustratingly, the persons interviewed for the book were kept anonymous, probably for reasons like the second sentence of this blog post.

Mysteriously, the book never really picks up its mission, and relies more heavily on newspaper articles and government documents than the dozens of interviews the author conducted.  While that move gives Politics and Freeways more legitimacy as a history, it robs the book of the personal touch that would have made it a more compelling story.  At a slim 125 pages, I think the book could have incorporated more of those personal perspectives and emerged perhaps a bit more frayed but  not overly long.  At the very least, an appendix with transcripts of the interviews would have been valuable.

Politics and Freeways is still a good read for anyone interested in local history or the influence of politics on infrastructure.  The coverage of the early era of Interstate construction, that of I-35 and I-94, is a bit short, but still summarizes the action and provides useful details.  For example, the route of I-94 originally followed the design of City Planning Engineer Hermann Olson through the Seward neighborhood, crossing the river around 26th Street, but was detoured to its present route through the mechanations of the wealthy and connected downtown business interests.  Cavanaugh seems to mostly take her interviewee’s word for it, crediting the efficacy of citizen advocacy for burying the planned elevated segments of I-94 through St Paul, when really the generous layer of topsoil in the Twin Cities made a sunken construction cost-competitive with the extensive framework of an elevated freeway.  In a final dubious detail, Cavanaugh cites a Minneapolis Star article pricing the 9-odd miles of I-94 built in the 60s at $80m, which would be around $490m today.  Excuse my skepticism that a project that purchased and destroyed some 80 blocks of fully-developed urban fabric cost around the same as I-394, which was built largely on existing right-of-way.

I’m not as interested as Cavanaugh in the era from the 70s to the 90s, in which freeway construction was delayed and eventually forced to incorporate (or at least appear to consider) the opinions of neighbors.  This era saw the cancellation of I-335, the planned segment that leveled several blocks of Old St Anthony so commuters from New Brighton would be able to shave off a minute or two of their drive. Cavanaugh does a good job of describing the debate that occurred in this era, and how the cancellation of this segment was as much due to the development of the I-394 downtown spur as a replacement as due to the efforts of city activists to stave off more destruction.  I wish the author had devoted as many words to the earlier era as she did to this one.

Ultimately the historical documentation in Politics and Freeways succumbs to Cavanaugh’s academic interest in creating lessons out of the events she describes.  While the latter is valuable, what we really need is the former.  The Interstates impact most of us every day to some degree, and most of us have never lived a life without them, but it is important to imagine what life was like before they were built and the process that led to their construction if we are to truly understand our options in future transportation decisions.  To that end, Patricia Cavanaugh does us a great service with her book.  If you have wasted any time reading my blog, I urge you to spend it more wisely in the future by reading Politics and Freeways.