Missing the Forest for the Stroad

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When I was in Mississippi last week, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran this article about a major road reconstruction project in the city of West St. Paul. The headline of the article, and a major thrust of the lament, centered on the lack of trees in the new design of Robert Street. Here's how one city council member was quoted in the article:

“I want trees and I want a lot of them, and I want them all up and down,” said City Council Member Jenny Halverson. “To me, trees are vital to improving the atmosphere on Robert. Right now it’s a sea of concrete and I am afraid that it will remain a sea of concrete if we don’t have these trees.”

Besides engineers, who wouldn't want trees? Our local $9+ million federally-built stroad here in my hometown is lined with trees. When we drive it together on our way to church and I've complained about the colossal diversion of resources the entire project represents, The Final Edit lets me know that she really likes the trees. At 30+ mph, those trees are a powerful soothing device, modern America's version of superficial detailing. It is bondo for the boulevard.

So why can't the good people of West St. Paul have their vegetative prozac? Well, according to the project engineers, there just isn't enough room for trees, particularly when the state and federal design rules are applied. To quote again from the article:

It’s the combination of [Mn/DOT and Federal highway Administration design] rules that makes an 8-foot strip along the road too narrow for planting trees, according to Dave Hutton, the consulting engineer from SRF who has been project manager for the city.

The first 2 feet in from the curb are a “clear zone” required by MnDOT so that cars don’t hit something if they happen to jump the curb.

Beyond that, 4 feet must be kept clear for sidewalks wide enough to meet federal rules to allow safe passage for people in wheelchairs.

“That leaves you 2 feet — that is a small area for a tree,” Hutton said.

Now you might be tempted to tell those state and federal officials to stick their rules you know where, but there are a couple of complicating factors. First, Robert Street is no street at all. It is a state highway. In other words, its theoretical function is to move people and freight very quickly from one place to another. I say "theoretical" because nobody is getting anywhere quickly on Robert Street (not to mention safely -- the Star Tribune reports a crash rate 89% higher than similar four lane roads).

Image obtained from Google Earth.

Image obtained from Google Earth.

The other reason the rules will be followed here is that the project along this 2.5 mile stretch of stroad (street/road hybrid) is going to cost $22+ million -- that is over $1,650 per foot -- and the federal government, hot off a government shutdown and debt ceiling increase and bungling along with no transportation budget and even less of a coherent vision on how to fund ongoing transportation needs, is stepping up to chip in millions.

There is no word from Mn/DOT's Hat in Hand Tour as to whether this project is part of the routine maintenance budget that we can't afford without heroic political measures or whether it would more properly fall into the "world class system" category, that is, the improvements we will do once it starts raining gold coins or BS becomes an exportable commodity.

What is happening on Robert Street is simply the inertia of a broken system. Instead of spending tens of millions of dwindling dollars on an improvement residents, business owners, commuters and local politicians all agree is vastly sub-optimal, what should be done?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

While we don't want to acknowledge reality, we are in the triage stage of our transportation system. Even if there was a consensus to increase transportation spending -- and there clearly is not -- the amounts that are imaginable politically do not come anywhere near what is needed to maintain everything we've built, let alone continue to build more. We're going to have to make tough decisions -- very tough decisions -- about where to spend our scarce resources. In a world where we are honest enough to acknowledge the limits of our resources, projects like the one planned for Robert Street would never be a priority.

When triage is applied to the battlefield of yesterday's earmarks, pork projects and highway-mining economic "growth", the Robert Street stroad is given a shot of morphine and helped to feel comfortable while it passes peacefully from this world. Given our limited resources, it is simply too messed up to save.

I know that thought is upsetting to those who own businesses along Robert Street. As barnacles attached to the Good Ship Gas Tax, the Lowes, Applebees and Bingo Palaces of this highway obviously have a lot at stake and have let their opinions be known.

The city has clashed with business owners upset that a new center median will cut off access for some customers; cost estimates ballooned from $10.4 million to more than $20 million last year; and the city came close to losing crucial grant funding because a promised pedestrian bridge was deemed too expensive and dropped from the plan.

It is probably also upsetting to the 16,000 to 26,000 commuters each day who may be scratching their heads that $22 million can't be found for their favorite stroad, especially when $680 million was found by a cash-strapped Mn/DOT for the St. Croix bridge, which carries fewer cars and provides no significant economic growth potential. Yet what would improve life for commuters -- a well designed highway free of the friction and complexity of the street -- is impossible politically due to those businesses and their demand for access.

As a stroad, Robert Street is the most unproductive of all transportation investments. Stroads like this cost a fortune to build/maintain and provide neither a robust economic environment nor a high speed connection. Unfortunately, it is also not a good candidate for retrofit to something that would actually be financially productive. To demonstrate, let's examine how we could retrofit this corridor to actually be financially productive.

Here's the current stroad alignment as proposed by the project engineer. This is a 2.5 mile stretch where the section changes so I'm taking something of a composite here, but this section is roughly what it is like. Note the adjacent land use is the typical stroad fare: parking lots, drive throughs and other uses that are not very productive financially.

Produced in Streetmix. Click for interactive version.

Produced in Streetmix. Click for interactive version.

If we were going to try and make Robert Street a financially productive corridor -- in other words, a street -- here's how I would envision that layout working. Note that the center lanes still carry through traffic at reasonable speeds, but the majority of the investment here is dedicated to building a real street, which is a platform for creating and capturing value. For this to be successful, the adjacent land use would need to undergo dramatic change over the coming decades, something theoretically possible but not likely in the vision of anyone along the corridor today. (For you hard core geeks, this section is wider because I assumed adjacent private investments would fill in the additional sidewalk).

Produced in Streetmix. Click for interactive version.

Produced in Streetmix. Click for interactive version.

Ironically, the most affordable thing to do with this corridor is to construct it as per its designation as a state highway. In other words, to convert this stroad into a road, a high speed connection between two places. To accomplish this, we would be removing all of the accesses (something Lowes, Applebees and the Bingo Palace would surely fight to the pain) as well as closing many of the signalized intersections. While I could have a nice intellectual conversation with the adjacent residents that the local economy that would emerge within their neighborhoods would be stronger and more vibrant, I question whether they would be patient enough for that transition to fully take place. I can't say I would blame them as it would not be without some discomfort.

Produced in Streetmix. Click for interactive version

Produced in Streetmix. Click for interactive version

So what does a pragmatist do here? We fix the cracks and fill the potholes on this stroad, then shake the asphalt from our feet and take our dwindling millions to a place we can actually fix. Maybe there is a block or two of Robert Street we can repair today -- converting the stroad to a road or a street -- and maybe West St. Paul can adopt a different land use approach that would prepare the rest for a higher level of outside investment in the future. Today, however, we sadly need to acknowledge that we messed up in how we have built and developed Robert Street to this point and, in making that admission, free ourselves from the self-destructive obligation to shovel good money after bad.

Maybe we can even throw in some trees to help the medicine go down.

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