Tonight my local city council is going to make a decision on whether or not the main stroad through town should remain a five-lane wasteland or be reduced to three lanes. Based on recent decisions at MnDOT, it seems like a five lane is out of the question. Unfortunately, given the lack of imagination (and awareness, really) by the staff and others working on the project, the three lane has a strong likelihood of being really bad. Really, really bad.

To the extent I can, I'm still pushing for a better approach. Here's a letter I sent to my council members last week in attempt to keep open the option for a better design.

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Mayor and City Council:

With MnDOT clearly indicating that there is no engineering or traffic-related reason to keep South 6th Street as a 5-lane, and with the indications now being that the city will need to spend at least $2 million if it wants that unneeded capacity, it does not seem likely that South 6th will remain a five-lane roadway.

This is a really positive development. We now have a chance to rethink this corridor and build something that will attract investment, grow jobs and make the city more prosperous. Such a design would cost us less money – not more – and still meet the critical transportation needs of those passing through town.

Along with some others, I have been advocating for a two-lane design with parking and other improvements that would reactivate the empty and struggling storefronts along the street and improve property values along the entire corridor. I’ve provided some schematics and pointed out some successful places with similar designs. You can see more on the website www.abetter6th.org.

Yet, I appreciate the fact that this is a large leap to make, especially when we are used to five lanes. Here’s what I’m suggesting as a way to help the city council – and the residents and business owners of Brainerd -- experience the difference between a 2-lane and a 3-lane design: let’s do an experiment.

Working with MnDOT, let’s take a two week period of time to test out alternatives then monitor what happens. We can use cones, straw bales and bollards to cheaply and easily set up both a two-lane one week and a standard three-lane alternative the next so we can see the reaction. We can let residents experience both, we can measure things like travel times and speed, and we can get a clearer understanding of what the implications will be for this major decision.

Around the country, running experiments like these has become a fairly common way to make decisions and avoid high-profile failures. New York City did it with the Times Square Renaissance project where they used planters and paint to temporarily remove a bunch of lanes through Times Square. When they documented that congestion declined and travel times actually decreased, it gave them the confidence to make the change permanent.

We’re obviously not NYC, but cities of all sizes are using low risk experimentation as a way to learn what the best path forward is. It’s prudent, common sense, especially when we don’t know exactly what will happen when we make such a significant change. Let’s do what we do in all other facets of life when faced with an unknown situation: let’s get as much information as we can before making a decision.

I am volunteering my time, efforts and expertise to help the city work with MnDOT to conduct such an experiment. I’ve worked on these projects around the country and am happy to contribute to the community in this way. We can and should involve city officials, residents, business owners and others with a vested interest in the corridor in this effort. In this way, we can ensure we are running the best test possible and getting results that will clarify the decision to be made.

Taking the time to obtain these results will not impact MnDOT’s timeline, which was accelerated due to the need to potentially acquire land. With that need gone, taking some time now to have an inclusive experiment that informs elected officials and the public will remove ambiguity and help MnDOT’s municipal consent process.

After clarifying to MnDOT that you will not pursue a five-lane design, I urge you to take the time necessary to get the information you need to make a good decision on this important project.

-Charles Marohn