Putting a Cap on Urban Redevelopment

The Green Line LRT has brought many redevelopment projects to St. Paul. One such project site involves a parcel of land on Snelling Ave., just north of I-94, known as the Bus Barn site.

The Bus Barn is part of a larger site, called Snelling Area Station. Future plans there include significant transit-oriented development, a mixed-use urban village, green space, and better leveraging retail and job opportunities. It's a solid start for developing the area.

I look forward to a final site plan and community engagement on this project. But it is missing an opportunity to be truly innovative. I want the community, the city and the developers to think about something else. Freeway Caps (or lids). What if we added these along I-94? 

I-94 divides many communities up and down its corridor. In Saint Paul, there is a clear divide from those who live on the north side of 94 from those who live on its south side. You're not likely to cross the freeway by foot or bike, unless you absolutely have to. As someone who lives south of 94, I can attest to this. Crossing the freeway, with the exception of the Griggs and Chatsworth bridges, is a pretty daunting task—narrow sidewalks, speeding traffic, windy, dirty and generally unfriendly to pedestrian and bike traffic.

As Saint Paul works on its mission to be the most ‘Livable City in America’, we need to look at other cities for inspiration: how about Florence, Italy?

Ok, ok, a little too far away? How about something closer to home? How about Dallas, TX? Columbus, Ohio? or Chicago, Illinois? Or even Minneapolis?

Freeway caps/lids are based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. Most freeway caps are usually turned into parks, but many cities are starting to use them for added office, retail and restaurant space.

Columbus constructed its freeway cap over I-670 to connect it’s downtown with the Short North neighborhood. Chicago is looking at covering three blocks of the Kennedy Expressway and building an office complex and a park. There are many other cities that are looking at doing this or have already done a cap. Recently, students at the ‘U’ came up with a plan to cover I-35 that would include business, retail and park space.

Saint Paul should look at building a freeway cap or lid over 94 at Snelling Ave to Pascal St. This would link the north and south side of 94, connecting a residential neighborhood with mixed use and business areas. State, local and private partnership financing could also be on the table because of the project's transformative economic potential. 

With new development on Snelling and Selby underway and the eventual redevelopment north of 94 toward University, freeway caps would help ensure more foot-powered traffic through a much longer stretch of Snelling, maximizing economic and environmental impacts. 

Is the City ready to be that innovative?

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: City Management  Minneapolis / St Paul  Roads & Highways  Infrastructure 

Weigh in on Statewide Bike Plan

Minnesotans are invited to weigh in on a forthcoming statewide bicycle system plan at nine public meetings around the state over the next several weeks. Public comments "will help us identify and recommend bike routes, improve existing facilities in the bike system and more effectively address the needs of bicyclists," says the state Department of Transportation.

Details, including an online survey and mapping tool, are available at dot.state.mn.us/bike/system-plan.html

The meetings will include a facilitated workshop and activities for both adults and children. They will run from 4 to 6 p.m., with a community open house until 7 p.m. Here's the schedule:

St. Cloud: April 23, Whitney Senior Center, 1527 Northway Dr.

Granite Falls: April 30, Kilowatt Community Center, 600 Kilowatt Dr.

Fergus Falls: May 1, West Central Initiative, 1000 Western Av.

Mankato: May 6, Blue Earth County Library, 100 E. Main St.

Bemidji: May 7, Hampton Inn and Suites, 1019 Paul Bunyan Dr. S.

Duluth: May 8, City Hall, 411 W. First St.

Rochester: May 13, University Center Rochester, Heinz Center HA102, 1926 Collegeview Rd. E.

St. Paul: May 14, Neighborhood House at Wellstone Center, Westside Room, 179 Robie St. E.

Minneapolis: May 15, University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, 2001 Plymouth Av. N.

Your input is vital for this important initiative to expand our transportation choices. If you can't make a meeting, comment online at mndot.gov/bike.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Complete Streets  Bicycles 

More Transit Blarney, and its Effects

Last month, I showed why transit ridership figures considered authoritative understate the totals by a billion or more and how autocentric conservatives use these statistics to plead their case

The beat goes on. Katherine Kersten just cited the American Public Transit Association's flawed annual report to add more noise to the echo chamber.

She parrots full-time transit-basher Randal O'Toole's "closer look" at the APTA's numbers, including some careful cherry-picking of those from particular places. Rail ridership declined in the Twin Cities last year, Kersten and O'Toole tell us, conveniently ignoring the fact that overall regional use climbed by 300,000 trips, boosted by surges in bus and Northstar commuter rail boardings. This despite weekend shutdowns for construction and maintenance on the Hiawatha Blue Line, which still stayed 25 percent above projected ridership for 2020.

Right-wingers correctly point out that even though APTA's raw figures are the highest in decades, per capita ridership remains far below that of earlier times. The connection to massive government investments in motorways, hugely subsidized by non-users and dwarfing those for transit, is artfully absent from their commentary.

Unfortunately, such half-truths impact policy. For one current example, federal commuter tax credits for transit riders dropped almost in half on Jan. 1, to $130 per month. At the same time, parking tax breaks for drivers rose to $250 monthly from the $245 that equalled the transit benefits last year. 

U.S. Senate progressives attempted to keep the playing field even at the end of last year, but were stymied by conservative opposition, according to the Government Executive blog. Three months later a Senate committee approved a retroactive raise in the transit credit to match that for parking and added an employee benefit for bike-share subscribers.

Will the fix go any further? Bipartisan negotiations over a much bigger budget deal brought parity to riders and drivers for the first time in 2012. Whether conservatives will agree to this again remains an open question.

But if we had a full accounting of the actual growth of transit, and an even-handed reflection of it in conservative punditry, such plain fairness would stand a better chance.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation 

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Multiple Gluts Overload Railroads

Rail shipment delays apparently have plagued the Upper Midwest more than any other U.S. region, and the reason goes beyond the gusher of crude oil rolling out of North Dakota. Bumper crops of corn and soybeans, combined with frigid recent winter weather, also have tied up the tracks, overflowing grain elevators and sparking a dollar-a-gallon surge in ethanol, which has driven up prices of motor fuel at the pump.

As recently as last week, USA TODAY and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported that South Dakota's bipartisan members of Congress were pressing the railroads to end potentially costly delays in moving the bounty of the state's No. 1 industry, agriculture. The head of the state's corn growers association said farmers who are dependent on BNSF Railway won't complain for fear of losing service.

No such protests have emerged from frackers in North Dakota, who are sending up to 10 oil trains a day from the Bakken bonanza to distant refineries. But renewable energy producers have had to cut production by 80,000 barrels a day because of full ethanol storage tanks and slow trains.

"Nothing hs changed with regard to ethanol production costs or efficiencies," Bob Dinneen of the Omaha-based Renewable Fuels Association told Bloomberg Businessweek. "The only change has been abject failure of the rail system to adequately address the needs of all its customers."

To be fair, the railroads were hit with huge challenges over the winter. In addition to record oil and farm output, the cold weather forced freight trains to slow down and shorten from 7,000 feet to 4,500 -- still nearly a mile long -- to ensure the effectiveness of air brakes, Pew Stateline reported. Meanwhile, demand for coal shipments soared with plummeting temperatures.

Combine that with the nation's biggest corn crop ever and the third-largest of soybeans and the five-pound sack of rail capacity was splitting at the seams. While the effect may have been the greatest on Upper Midwest tracks serving the pipeline-sparse Bakken -- with drilling equipment rolling in as well as black gold pouring out -- oil's actual share of overall rail cargo is surprisingly small.

Major U.S. railroads loaded 434,042 carloads of crude last year, up nearly 200,000 from the year before. But in the first three months of this year their shipments of all goods hit an annual rate of 27 million carloads, which dwarfs the oil spike.

The railroads are responding with speeded-up investments that tax-supported transportation agencies can only dream of. Warren Buffett's BNSF, which logged half the growth in Class 1 rail traffic last year, says it is spending a record $5 billion this year on capital assets -- up from $4 billion in 2013 -- while hiring more than 5,000 new employees. It is buying 500 new diesel locomotives and 5,000 safety-enhanced tank cars, creating more jobs with suppliers.

Canadian Pacific, the other major rail shipper of Bakken oil, plans to invest $1.3 billion this year on top of $5 billion in the past five years.

Yes, we've got trouble with safety and environmental risks, clogged transport networks and disrupted markets amid the booming oil, grain and rail businesses. But these are largely good problems to have as we continue to climb out of the Great Recession. Our mid-continent region faces more of the challenges, but also stands to reap more of the benefits. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Freight Rail 

Photo-Cop Sparks New Civil War

It was probably inevitable that the overheated uproar on the autocentric right over automated traffic enforcement would come to this: South Dakota just enacted a ban on supplying identification of its resident motorists caught in moving violations by cameras in other states.

The move was met with over-the-top glee by the conservative Washington Times, which accused camera jurisdictions of running an "extortion racket" and a "revenue-camera scourge." Its editorial added: "The South Dakota solution is elegant in its simplicity and respect for states' rights ... South Dakota is within its rights not to participate in a corrupt scheme ... Other states should follow the example ... lest South Dakota license plates, with their immunity to all photo tickets, become the most sought-after plates in the nation."

Once upon a time, right-wingers sternly upheld the rule of law (and order), and I seem to recall their dogmatic belief in photographic evidence for voting. But never mind that. When it comes to driving, nothing shall stand in the way of "states' rights" and freedom, even to ignore speed limits and red lights.

To be sure, photo-cop systems can be vulnerable to abuse, as I discussed in a post last fall. In fact, as the Times noted, a former executive of camera enforcement contractor Redflex has admitted bribing officials in a dozen states to install the firm's system. It should be noted, however, that the risk of such shenanigans applies equally to all sorts of government outsourcing prized by conservatives.

With photo-cop, though, I sense a rush to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Good safeguards against corruption are in force in many places, including outlawing predatory speed traps and short yellow traffic lights, photo-IDing the driver as well as the vehicle, safety studies before systems are placed and restrictions on revenue flow to both private contractors and the government.

South Dakota's move seems to have been prompted by an overreach just across its border in Sioux City, Iowa, where state authorities are trying to clamp down on a lucrative municipal speed trap along Interstate Hwy. 29, and the city is resisting.

Minnesota is among 16 states that have nixed automated traffic enforcement by statute or court ruling. The devices are falling out of favor in many other places, with their penetration down to 506 U.S. localities from 540 in 2012 and several contracting companies facing financial difficulties, according to Fox News' gloating report.

Done fairly and right, however, photo-cop can be a useful tool for traffic safety that Minnesota policymakers ought to reconsider. Meanwhile, it shouldn't be cause for a new War Between the States. 

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Midwestern States  Roads & Highways  Road Safety 

Amtrak Sets Return to Union Depot

More than 42 years after the last intercity passenger train left St. Paul's Union Depot, Amtrak's Empire Builder service to Chicago and the Pacific Northwest will return to the beautifully refurbished 1920s historic landmark in Lowertown on May 7.

Twin Cities access to Amtrak's most popular long-haul route will switch from the utilitarian Transfer Road station in the St. Paul Midway with the 10:03 p.m. westbound arrival from Chicago on May 7, departing at 10:10. The first eastbound train is scheduled to arrive at Union Depot at 7:52 a.m. May 8 and leave at 8.

Passengers can get to the trains via the 240 E. Kellogg Blvd. entry. Priority parking for Amtrak and intercity bus passengers is available at Lot B on N. Sibley Street between Kellogg and Warner Road.

The Transfer Road station will close after the May 7 morning departure.

In addition to the Empire Builder's northern tier destinations, the depot offers connections to hundreds more places via Greyhound, Jefferson and Megabus intercity buses, Metro Transit and the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority. In June, the Green Line light rail line to downtown Minneapolis will begin service at the depot's front entrance on Fourth Street.

Amtrak says Union Depot's revival as a transportation hub follows a national trend. In 2002, passenger trains returned to Kansas City's Union Station and this year they moved back to Denver's Union Station as well. In the 1920s, up to 20,000 travelers a day thronged Union Depot.

"These historic buildings can be saved, be made more relevant to the transportation network and serve as 'front doors' to their communities and the future," Amtrak's Mark Murphy said in a news release

The Amtrak switch comes just in time for a National Train Day celebration on Saturday, May 10, at the depot. The free event sponsored by Amtrak and the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority will include indoor and outdoor activities, exhibits and a railfan picnic area. Schedule details will be posted later at uniondepot.org

As air and motor travel have lost luster, it's nice that measures of elegance and comfort have been restored to America's long-neglected passenger train network.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Passenger Rail 

Why Ridership Counts Matter

If there was any doubt that a full and accurate count of transit ridership is essential to a fair debate over U.S. transportation policy, it should be put to rest by the latest misleading blast from the autocentric right.

Inveterate transit-basher Randal O'Toole of the libertarian Cato Institute responded to the American Public Transit Association's report of ridership growth in 2013 by blogging that the entire increase occurred in and around New York City while the rest of the country saw shrinking patronage. Therefore, he said, the numbers actually argue for cutting transit funding, not hiking it as the APTA called for.

O'Toole's conclusion is controversial although, based on the APTA's statistics, not outlandish. Trouble is, as I pointed out a short while ago, the APTA's figures, while considered authoritative, overlook a billion or more annual rides, predominantly in rural areas and small cities. The APTA develops its count by surveying its member transit systems, and many smaller ones are not on its rolls.

In Minnesota alone last year, that meant approximately 20 million rides went uncounted, more than half outside the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Department of Transportation makes a complete count for our state, but its 2013 figures for Greater Minnesota are not yet out. For 2012, however, it documented a 0.7 percent ridership increase over the year before. That matched the APTA's reported growth in 2013 and exceeded the comparable gain in motoring.

O'Toole repeats the tired circular argument about U.S. transit's relatively small market share of travel -- no surprise given persistent ridership undercounts plus decades of outsized public investment in pavement and long neglect of alternatives -- and complains about transit subsidies, without mentioning similar percentages of non-user funding for motorways that consume vastly more taxpayer dollars. Even observers more friendly to transit can be led astray by the APTA's bad statistics.

But if we could count transit rides as thoroughly as we do vehicle miles traveled, O'Toole and his ilk would find it harder to get away with their misinformed malarkey about a growing, efficient and sustainable means of mobility.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Busing 

Walkability for ‘real Americans’

It's common in autocentric polemics to dismiss walkability as a plaything of chic-chic urban elitists, having nothing to do with real Americans' modes of (motorized) living. As usual, this kind of ad hominem attack is but a lame attempt to mask the weakness of the fundamental argument.

In fact, walking is the most basic form of human transportation, and promoting it with appropriate infrastructure and community planning can lead to healthful, efficient and economical social change. In cities large and small, street work for both driving and non-motorized uses is funded mainly by general property taxes, not automobile user fees such as fuel taxes.

So why shouldn't public policy pivot to support of walking amenities, neglected for decades in favor of right-of-way designed and regulated mostly for motor vehicles? It turns out this is exactly what is happening in many places far from the habitats of the hip and rich.

Two recent examples come from southern Minnesota corn country, Albert Lea and Mankato. Another is from cities all over Texas, widely known as an oil-glutted epicenter of conservative car culture.

Albert Lea has made "important improvements to the city's streets," according to a recent study of complete streets policies and implementation by Carissa Schively Slotterback and Cindy Zerger of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Under "an innovative project called the Blue Zones City Health Makeover," they wrote, "many residents see Albert Lea's streets as important places to encourage community connections and active living."

The initiative has produced more than four miles of new sidewalks, traffic calming on arterial Front Street and Albert Lea's first bicycle lanes. Planning to improve Broadway Avenue with pedestrian-friendly corner bump-outs, dropped curbs and decorative walkways is underway.

Mankato's Front Street, once bustling with streetcar and foot traffic, had devolved into a desolate "stroad" -- a street-road hybrid that did a lousy of job of either function. Now, according to Matthias Leyrer in streets.mn blog, the city has committed $1.3 million to redeveloping it with wider, tree-shaded sidewalks, bump-outs and traffic calming. Support from local merchants was key to launching the project, Leyrer reports.

And in the Lone Star State, walkability is bustin' out all over, according to the Texas Tribune. The article features a five-acre platform park built over an eight-lane freeway to connect downtown Dallas and its Uptown neighborhood.

"The bustling patch of urban parkland may seem unlikely in a state still largely seen as a sprawling, highway-laced land of car-centric cities and dispersed suburbs," writes reporter David Muto. "But ... interest in making Texas cities more walkable ... is on the rise -- a subtle shift spurred in part by changing demographics and the state's growing population."

The article also notes pro-pedestrian developments in Dallas suburbs as well as in Austin, Fort Worth, Houston and its major suburbs and San Antonio. It's even happening in El Paso, a sun-baked slice of Middle America where Muto notes that the city planning department "offers courses on New Urbanism to city officials, staff members and the private sector."

If walkability is catching on in conservative Texas and southern Minnesota, its time on the fringe of American culture is all but over. It's mainstream now, and we're all better off because of it.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Minnesota Cities  Complete Streets  Infrastructure 

Danger at the Grade Crossing

The recent surge of crude oil shipments by rail across Minnesota has focused attention on safety risks, some unique to the new cargo and some longstanding. Prominent in the latter category are grade crossings where 53 train accidents occurred last year in Minnesota, according to federal records cited by MPR News

In February, 91-year-old William Briden died in such an accident just yards from his home in Sabin, Minn. Like most rural grade crossings, the one on Clay County Rd. 67 across Otter Tail Valley Railroad tracks was marked by only a wooden "crossbuck," a white X and the words "railroad crossing."

Otter Tail Valley is a Class III railroad that carries little or no crude oil. The crossing where Briden was killed is probably far down the waiting list for safety improvements like flashing lights and crossing arms, which can cost as much as $275,000. This year, Minnesota will receive nearly $6 million of a $220 million federal grade crossing safety program, which covers most of the expense.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation reports that about 2,700 grade crossings in the state lack active warning devices, 112 of them on oil routes. Legislation introduced this week in the Minnesota House would help improve crossings on those routes.

MnDOT guidelines give priority for upgrades to locations where daily vehicle traffic multiplied by the number of trains exceeds 5,000, although other factors such as accident history can be considered. This triage process is similar to that being conducted by federal officials developing new standards for rail tank cars, a complex analysis weighing the costs of accidents versus those of safeguards.

"They'll look at environmental damage, equipment damage and human life and injury and put prices on injuries and fatalities," University of North Dakota mechanical engineering Prof. George Bibel told MPR News. "We kill about 34,000 people a year in cars. You could reduce that by 99 percent if we all drive $2 million safety-enhanced cars. So it's always that kind of trade-off."

No matter how heartless such calculations seem, they are unavoidable in a world lacking infinite resources. Meanwhile, it's the movement of resources -- goods and people -- that builds the wealth needed to make us safer. MnDOT reports that an average of 400 vehicle-train collisions and 50 deaths a year in the state in the early 1970s was cut to 26 crashes and four deaths in 2012.

That's encouraging progress, and it has to continue in the face of new perils coming down the tracks.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Freight Rail  Road Safety 

Saint Paul: The most bikeable city

It is really exciting Saint Paul leaders are looking at expanding bike pathways all throughout the city – it is long overdue. Currently only 144 bikeway miles exist in Saint Paul. This plan would add more than 200 miles, bringing the total to 358 miles. This is pretty awesome.

You can view the proposed plan here and pertaining materials at the city's webiste.

There are a bunch of interesting things in this plan, but my favorite has to be the Downtown Off-Street Loop. This will make getting around downtown so much nicer. It will connect LRT, Union Depot, Rice Park, The Library and so much more. This will truly make downtown Saint Paul a bikeable city.

One potential change to the existing proposal that would make it even better is to take 4th Street, instead of Kellogg, and turn 4th Street into a walk/bike only greenway. Very cool.

There are many wonderful things about this plan and I truly think they have done a great job, overall, However, I have something I think the city needs to think about—even more In-Street and Off-Street Paths.

I know, I know, there is more cost to this. But, just putting markings on a street and calling it a bike path is not good enough. Which is really just what a Bike Boulevard or Enhanced Lanes is.

If you are truly invested in getting more people to bike and out of their cars, the safest and quickest way to do that is designated bike lanes, not a shared road.

When people are deciding to bike or not, the biggest factor is their comfort level on the road and quite frankly, the thought of having to share a road with a car kind of freaks people out.

If Saint Paul is really interested in making this city "the most livable city," invest now in even more separated paths. If you have to upgrade later, it will only cost more time and money.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Minneapolis / St Paul  Complete Streets  Bicycles 

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