I have already written twice this week on Brainerd and was going to give it a rest for a while until I saw this article in the local newspaper. It describes an improvement project to College Drive in Brainerd. The project is estimated to cost $7.4 million for roughly one mile of construction.

At a proposed $14,000 a foot, you might assume that College Drive is currently an important road lined with expensive properties and full of economic vitality. You might also assume that an investment of $5,400 per man, woman and child in a single road would create a huge return for the community, growing property values and expanding economic development opportunities. You might hope that any community seeking to spend twice their total annual levy on a single project would be doing so as part of a long-term, strategic approach to proactively strengthening the community.

You would be wrong on all counts.

College Drive is nothing but a shortcut, one that is mostly used by non-residents seeking to get around Brainerd as quickly as possible. As the road implies, it goes past the community college. The college sits on one side, athletic fields and apartments sit on the other. There is a little bit of undevelopable land, a river, a park and some parking lots. There is no economic growth happening here. This bizarre level of investment will not grow the community, will not expand economic opportunity, will not increase property values or bring wealth to anyone in the community.

Why is it being done? Let's listen to the engineer, Ron Bray of WSB and Associates:

"The need is great on College Drive, that's why we're looking at different alternatives," Bray said. "It's in need of improvements for handling traffic and safety concerns."

It needs to be understood that any safety concerns are due to the traffic, that is, the speed and the volume that traffic is channeled to flow through the area. Before our lust for road building got the best of us, College Drive was a small roadway that had low traffic volumes and speeds making it safe for students on one side to walk to the school on the other. As we have channeled traffic from the wider region through this corridor, the road has become unsafe for the students it was initially designed to serve. Correcting this self-created problem is going to cost $7.4 million.

So let's look at the traffic concerns.

Ron Bray, project manager with WSB, said he understood there would be "sticker shock" but noted Brainerd had three main east-west corridors - Washington Street, Laurel Street and College Drive - at or over traffic capacity.

I use College Drive as a shortcut all the time. So does everyone I know. It is wide, fast and gets you around town quickly. Making it wider, faster and quicker is only going to make me want to use it more. Same with everyone I know. You see, the more we spend to increase capacity, the more demand for capacity we create. It is a never-ending cycle.

So what should be done with College Drive? Here is a solution that will cost a fraction of what is planned, manage the real (not induced) traffic volume and dramatically increase safety:

  1. Narrow the road dramatically, making it function as a local street. Serve the people of Brainerd and the college, not outsiders seeking a shortcut.
  2. Provide round-abouts at the key intersections at the college and for local streets to keep traffic volumes moving through at peak and off-peak times.
  3. Provide walkways on both sides and clear, convenient pedestrian crossing areas.
  4. Eventually open up other parts of the system by connecting roadways to create more routes for drivers to choose, taking volume away from College Drive.

Will anyone take my advice? Not a chance. Here is why:

Of the total cost, $2,234,000 would be in federal aid; $1,092,236 would be from the city's 2010 state aid account; $1,306,524 would be in a three-year state aid advance; $1,452,913 would be from the sale of state aid bonds; $869,600 would be from the city; $356,895 would be from Brainerd Public Utilities; and $73,196 would be from Crow Wing County.

You see, the solution that would solve the problem, strengthen the neighborhood, strengthen the city and be cheaper is not one that would be eligible for federal and state funding. So the city can:

  • Spend $1.2 million, get the engineer's thoroughfare and the federal/state subsidy, or
  • Spend what would likely be around $2.5 million, get my neighborhood design, and pay for it all themselves.

Also note that, ironically, the options that would be eligible for big-government funding are all so drastically unsafe for the neighborhood that extra millions are needed to build tunnels and other elaborate pedestrian mitigation devices to make things safe. Sadly, pedestrians won't actually use them but instead will choose to avoid walking altogether (would you walk out of your way to take a tunnel under a highway in the middle of winter?). This, again ironically, will actually improve safety and "justify" the extra expense. In reality, a cheap snow fence would accomplish the same thing.

What are we doing? Sadly, we're destroying a good city and going broke at every level of government doing it.

That is the thing that is truly shocking.


(As a final note, besides the induced traffic demand that widening a street like this creates, allowing traffic to flow faster not only makes the road unsafe, it also reduces the volume that will be handled on that road. As speed increases, the room between vehicles increases and the number of cars that will pass along the roadway thus decreases. Trying to obtain near-highway speeds and capacity through a residential neighborhood is an example of seeing only hammers in the toolbox.)