2020-03-20

Still Further Thoughts on Ayd Mill Road

[Ayd Mill drone shot!]
It might seem incongruous to write about Ayd Mill Road in these trying times, but now more than ever, this road continues to be a thorn in the side of the city of Saint Paul. The public meeting, the existence of which was an outcome of the heated conversation at City Council three weeks ago, was supposed to take place this week. In its place, we have a 30-minute youtube video from Public Works explaining a few things.

The point here, though, is that this moment of social distancing and quarantine is the PERFECT TIME to send in a thoughtful comment in support of progressive low-car / no-car changes to Ayd Mill Road. So take some time out of your humdrum working-from-home schedule, brush your cat off your keyboard, and comment today!

Obviously a lot has happened since I last wrote about this concrete quagmire, and how Saint Paul “fixes” this road has rightly faded into the background. But the road must go on, and public works is still going to spend its allocated budget this year on maintenance and construction. So I wanted to post an update with some of the new information I've learned since I last wrote about Ayd Mill Road.

But first, let's watch this informational video!



OK well. Here are my quick takaeaways from the presentation and survey:
  • It is very nice that "repaving the status quo", i.e. the initial Public Works / current CM Thao proposal, is not one of the options mentioned in the video. Indeed, it is not mentioned at all. 
  • The "timeline" of Ayd Mill Road really glosses over former Mayor Randy Kelly’s highly-controversial "test connection" back in 2003, which is a key reason we're in this mess today.
  • Wow those renderings are cheesy!
  • Why does the 3-lane option require fewer drainage improvements than the two-lane option? Inquiring minds want to know. I'd imagine the drainage issues would be the same, regardless.
  • What is the reason for the claim that the Jefferson ramp is a minor adjustment for one, but not the other? 
  • They talk about reconstruction as a cost driver, but don't mention the reason, which is the the turn lanes. I wonder what the range of possible stacking length for the turn lanes was, and how that might have affected costs for the two-lane option.
  • What is the design speed of the new road going to be? And what will be the posted speed of the new road? That seems super important because...
  • The video glosses over the safety issues. Decreasing speed should be a major goal of this project. And yet the focus here is  “separating” cars going each direction with a median? That's a key design feature if you have a high-speed road (>40mph, like it is now), but if you are designing a low-speed road (<30mph a="" bikes="" boulevard="" buffer="" case="" design="" don="" especially="" have="" if="" important="" in="" is="" li="" like="" lower="" median.="" mississippi="" nbsp="" nearby.="" need="" or="" pedestrians="" river="" safer.="" speed="" t="" than="" that="" the="" this="" two-lane="" with="" you="">
  • A quote here from the second presenter: “It stands to reason that the three-lane operates more efficiently than the two-lane.” ...hm, does it? I don't see why that would necessarily be true. If you create more crashes with a three-lane road due to weaving traffic and contrasting speeds, it is less efficient and less safe.
  • Finally, I hate to say this, but the survey is terrible. I've never seen a worse one from anyone other than a hack PR firm. 
So, yeah. Well at least this video and survey is still better than an in-person meeting about Ayd Mill Road would have been. I can only imagine how terrible that experience would be. The focus groups alone would have set a new state record for mansplaining.

The Big Picture on Ayd Mill Road

Since I last wrote about Ayd Mill Road, and expressed my opinion that the best option for the City of Saint Paul would be to remove it completely from the city-funded motor vehicle network, I've had a few in-depth conversations with folks close to the project, both within advocacy groups and within City Hall.

While my mind hasn't really changed, and I stand by most everything that I have previously written about this project, I do want to share a few things I've learned. Here are a few things that I've learned.

First, the concrete roadbed underneath the degrading is in better shape than people (and myself) had thought. That means that a mill and overlay will theoretically last longer than one might have initially expected (maybe 15-20 years instead of 7-10).

The caveat is that there’s a particular spot near Grand Avenue where there’s a natural spring (that presumably once fed Ayd Mill Creek). There, the city needs to do something -- re-grading, or installing a new drain -- that will cost at leastr  $1M. I'd imagine that, in any roadbed re-paving scenario, including re-paving the status quo, that would would have to happen to keep the project from quickly degrading.

That said, I imagine that with a theoretical park/trail-only option, this cost could be avoided. Or maybe, the money could be spent instead on rainwater or daylighting.)

Second, the main cost driver of the two-lane road option is installing turn lanes, which would require pouring new concrete to create enough stacking capacity to allow people to wait for the light before exiting.

(More on this in a moment.)

#3. Finally, the city’s process has been admittedly flawed, with some missed opportunities to communicate and/or come up with consistent options over the last year or so. It’s understandable, as Public Works projects are constantly evolving and often the timelines are improvised depending on what money and resources are available.

But, that said, the current proposal is better than a lot of other outcomes.

Ranking The Options

Speaking of which, here’s my ranking of the options that are currently on the table…

  • #4. The $4m four-lane status quo repaving — as I’ve said, this sucks.
  • #3. Doing nothing — Honestly, this could be great or terrible, depending on what ends up happening. If the city “kicked the can” once more and didn’t repave it this fall, likely the road would have to be shut down over the winter. At the very least, though, that would give people a chance to think through the situation more completely, as well as demonstrate what traffic impacts might look like.
  • #2. The $9m 2-lane option — this is the best outcome, but it’s just costs too much money. For example, $9m could get you a long way toward completing the Capital City Bikeway, which would have many times the benefits of the Ayd Mill Road connection for bicyclists and for the city's economy.
  • #1. The $7m 3-lane option — Well, it’s a compromise, and at least it’s a change that would finally eliminate any freeway-connection pipe dreams. That said, I find it hard to believe that the bike lane would be very pleasant or useful in the short term, but it's better than nothing.
But, I still feel that there are two options that are not on the table, and that’s frustrating. Here's one...
  • #?. Closing the road, building a recreational trail and fundraising for a park —  I’ve already written about this, as have others. If you ballpark $2m for the trail, this would truly be the best choice, but sadly many people in Saint Paul are yet not ready to create a future with fewer cars on the city streets.
And there's this, lingering around in my head...
  • #?. A cheaper 2-lane option, somewhere in the existing $7m range — I still think, stubbornly, that there should be a way to design a two-lane road that falls close to the consensus budgetary range for this project.

[The St. Clair intersection is pretty useless.]
One way to do this might be to eliminate one of the access points. The obvious choice here would be the St. Clair on- and off-ramps. For one thing, this entire road offers only marginal benefits to the transportation network, but that’s especially true for the St. Clair intersection, where they’re less than a mile (and a 2-minute drive) away from the nearest 35E on-ramps and even closer to the Jefferson ramp. Simply closing this intersection has to shave a million bucks off the project cost.

I’d also be really curious about pricing out intersection alternatives, like a roundabout. In theory, it could save money on traffic signals, decrease speeds, and reduce the need for any turn lanes.

Conclusions

In short, I wish the City could have done more to come up with a more affordable, less compromised plan. I’m sure the consultant did their best with a very limited budget and the set of scope parameters they were given, but there have to be more design choices out there that could provide a quality recreational trail at a reasonable price tag.

This is to say that I reluctantly support the existing compromise, but the takeaway for me is that it’s a shame that we can’t make better decisions with city money and on city-controlled projects. Saint Paul is hampered right now by its lack of resources, both being short on critical staff in Planning and Public Works, and with a lack of tax base and revenue more generally. With a project of this size and budget, with such long-term implications, and with so many ambitions and idealistic plans on the city's books, this three-lane compromise project, while better than the status quo, seems like a missed opportunity. If we really want to make meaningful changes to our city, we need to do better.

So, go forth and take the "survey". At the very least, when this passes, I'll never have to write about Ayd Mill Road again!

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