A street is a platform for creating wealth. This is different than a road, which is a high speed connection between two places. There is an important difference between the two.
The most prominent street in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, is South 6th Street. It runs north/south through the heart of the city terminating on Gregory Square, a central gathering area just north of the downtown. Old photos reveal that this street was once the backbone of the community.
No longer. During the highway building days (which, despite completing the interstate system over three decades ago, apparently isn't over yet), this wealth-building street was made into a highway, its design tasked to function more like a road. Of course, as a street, this didn't work well either for the businesses along it (which fell into decline) or the cars expected to travel through it (the signals created endless congestion). The state attempted to address this stroad problem in the 1990's with the construction of a bypass through the neighboring city. #fail
The lonely stroad left behind creates enormous negative consequences for the community. Back in 2009, in the early days of this blog, I documented many of the buildings in decline. Not surprisingly, few of these have made any kind of turn around and more have joined the ranks of the terminal. The design of South 6th Street hurts property values and drives out investment. As one vivid example, here is a vacant lot for sale for just $4,000. Understand that, in addition to the cost of the street, there is tens of thousands of dollars of public infrastructure investment serving that lot. The really nasty stroad essentially negates -- and then some -- all of that public investment.
The transformation of the street from positive to negative can be documented by observing the orientation of the buildings along it. These two (below) are directly across from each other. The one on the left is a Depression-era school. At that time, the street was a positive force, something that created value for the community, and so the school's orientation was towards the street. Directly across is the YMCA, which recently underwent extensive renovation. Note that it has turned its back on the street and oriented itself completely in the other direction. Some trees have been added to provide additional buffering to what is now a really negative space.
The most substantial investment that has been made in the downtown in my lifetime -- perhaps in the last six decades -- was also oriented away from the street. The impressive brick building was designed to front away from South 6th Street with the utility boxes -- usually reserved for the alley -- on display for those driving by. Not only did the city subsidize this building, there was no substantive objection or even a questioning as to why it would not face the city's most important street. Everyone involved understood why; who would want to face that nasty stroad.
It was announced last year that MnDOT -- who still apparently owns and maintains this local street -- is scheduled to perform a complete reconstruction of it in 2017. Despite having a fraction of the traffic needed to justify five lanes, the debate began and has centered around whether or not the reconstructed stroad should be five lanes or three. For a DOT facing massive budgetary shortfalls, this is an absurdity.
Brainerd bills itself as the 4th of July Capital of <something>. I've heard "Central Minnesota" and just plain "Minnesota" and I also distinctly remember hearing "the world" which, as I noted at the time, was not very humble. Still, for one day each year this city is really fun. People take over for cars, we shut down many of the streets and it's just a big party. Tons and tons of fun. The area around Brainerd is a big tourist draw with lots of lakes and resorts. Estimates are that the local population of around 40,000 swells with visitors to over 200,000 during this week.
Here's a photo I took of South 6th Street at around noon on July 5, 2014.
This is the most important north/south corridor in the city of Brainerd, running right through the heart of its central business district, during the noon hour on the busiest week of the year. No cars. No people. Nothing.
Yet the debate centers on whether or not to put back all this pavement, whether removing lanes would cause congestion, whether on-street parking is something the city should have to to pay for and whether bike lanes can fit within this right-of-way.
James Hallgren, MnDOT project development engineer, appeared before the Brainerd City Council at the meeting Tuesday, asking what the preferred concept was for the project: Three lanes or five lanes.
Both options would require the state acquiring right-of-way, including resident's private property. More land would be needed in a five-lane project, Hallgren said.
That's right. Somehow, someone has come up with a design that needs more land than this. When we suggest that "it's time to start thinking," this is what we mean. With 12,000 cars per day, anything more than two auto lanes is just throwing money away. An insolvent MnDOT is actually proposing to acquire more land on a corridor that handles less traffic than some side streets in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
MnDOT, you're broke. Did nobody get that memo?
This past weekend I was badgered by a few antagonists who reacted to Nate Hood's piece on Perham's third interchange by suggesting that all we do here is oppose spending, that we don't put forward any alternate plans. Forget the fact that, when it comes to transportation, I actually published my plan in an ebook, let me make something clear to everyone: you don't need a 64-page published plan in order to point out bad policy. Unless you are a public official, it is not your job to make policy. These proposals for South 6th Street are clearly stupid. When you see something like that, don't be intimidated by those who would try and shut you up for not having developed a 20-point plan that solves all problems. Speak up. It isn't just your right, it is your responsibility.
For those of you that are interested, I have been working with a group here to build support around an alternative vision for South 6th Street. If you'd like to see how we are framing that and what a cheaper, safer and more productive alternative would look like, you can check out our web page.
When we call for #NoNewRoads, we are advocating for an end to this mindless process of constantly building, widening and expanding auto-based infrastructure without any consideration given to the health of our cities or even how the approach has made our transportation funding systems insolvent. We have to reform this system before we give it large injections of cash.