Reading the Highland Villager Op-Ed Extra #6

Our newest sport: Pothole slaloming
By Tom Goldstein

No matter where you travel in St. Paul, there’s no escaping the potholes. The official tart of summer is just around the corner, and the deplorable road conditions that plagued us thorough the winter and spring show scant signs of improvement.

As might be expected, the condition of St. Paul’s streets has generated lots of angry calls to the Mayor’s Office and City Council. Most taxpayers have little patience for tired excuses about the harsh winter we just endured when they know the real culprit is years of failing to maintain the streets while the mayor focused on flashy downtown projects like the new Saints ballpark and the Penfield.

What many St. Paulites fail to appreciate is that the apparent neglect of our streets is really part of a wickedly brilliant plan concocted by the mayor over the past six years that is only now beginning to bear fruit. Think about it: Did anybody every describe St. Paul as the “most livable city in America” before the mayor diverted $350,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department’s budget to build the city’s firsts refrigerated outdoor ice rinks back in 2007? Heck no! And who can deny the energy and excitement generated by the Crashed Ice event that sends skaters hurtling down death defying ramps every winter while the rest of us look on?

Well, thanks to the mayor’s genius, we’re no longer relegated to the status of mere spectators. After a glorious winter in which every trip to the store involved a thrilling slide along iced-over streets, who among us wants to return to the days when getting in your car meant just one more boring trip where nothing exciting every happened? Not me. I’d go crazy [too late] if I had to endure another Minnesota winter where I couldn’t take my life into my hands every time I slid behind the wheel.

Even better, with pothole slaloming – St. Paul’s unofficial new sport – no longer just a spring pastime, anybody with the courage to put the pedal to the metal on our city streets can enjoy a jaw-rattling adventure year around. Even bike enthusiast can get in on the action.

But addition recreational opportunities such as these are only part of Coleman’s plan. In the same way that competitive youth sports have proven to be a boon for orthopedic surgeons, pothole slaloming is generating a surge in business for auto and bike repair shops for new shock absorbers, wheel alignments, and tire replacements. These repair services are sure to jump-start the local economy. Job growth in St. Paul during the mayor’s time in office may have been stagnant, but just wait. But next winter all of that is bound to change.

And this is just the start of what’s to come. Last month, Gil Penalosa, executive director of the Tronto-based 8-80 Cities program, was in town to discuss “placemaking” – the art of transforming cities in to urban oases by promoting amenities such as transit, parks, biking and walkable streets that benefit everyone from kids to seniors. As part of his presentation, Penalsaoa talked about how the public’s fixation on potholes underscores the excessive resources we devoted to roadways rather than the urban amenities most city-dwellers prefer.

To no one’s surprise, the mayor championed Penalosa’s work. [He did?] And while Coleman didn’t explicitly reveal how the city’s disinvestment in city streets perfectly aligned with the goals Penalosa outlined, the proof is in the pudding: As city streets continue to deteriorate, driving as a means of transportation will all but disappear, and pothole-slalom devotees will flock to St. Paul, transforming our culture the same way that snowboarding created an entire new industry. And before we know it, the Green Line – as well as the many streetcar routes that are sure to follow – will be transporting so many riders that road maintenance can be abandoned.

Unfortunately, by the time all of this comes to pass, the only occasion we’ll have to see our former mayor is when he comes to town aboard Air Force One. After all, who better to lead the country than a visionary like Chris Coleman, who discovered, long before any of us, that the only way forward in America is by neglecting basic needs in favor of more important things?

Tom Goldstein is a lawyer and former St. Paul School Board member. He lives in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood.


Mike Hicks said...

Ah, he had to bring out the "bike enthusiast" label.

I do think that the streets of Saint Paul have been neglected too much, though I'm not totally sure if it's the city's or the mayor's fault -- a lot of the worst pavement I come across are in the county road network. Certainly the city could do more to persuade the county to do work, though.

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