Bloomington’s Death Roads

October 23, 2016 at 7:14 pm | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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There’s a danger lurking in Bloomington in the form of the ordinary looking streets you drive, walk, and bicycle on. Engineers call them “Four Lane Undivided” and you might call them nothing special, but the have another name, the Four Lane Death Road, and all the ones in Bloomington need to go. I originally wrote about this when I was writing for streets.mn, and now that there’s been a pedestrian fatality in Bloomington I thought I’d revise and update it here.

A Danger to Motorists

Imagine a typical trip down a death road. You’re driving down the right lane. Pretty soon there’s a bus stopped or a brave and fearless bicyclist in the lane, so you move into the left lane. Then a car is at a dead stop waiting to make a turn, so have to move back into the right lane. But stopping in a traffic lane to turn is a good way to get rear ended, as well as causing friction and other motorists to make abrupt lane changes, another was of inviting crashes. Plus the motorist waiting to turn is going to get ancy, fearing being rear-ended if he stays their to long, so at the slightest break in traffic s/he guns it, hopefully not hitting any cars or pedestrians in the process.

Engineers like to talk about “conflict points”, where two motorist might try to occupy the same place at the same time. A four lane road doubles the conflict points at an intersection…

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Conflict Points

And conflict points for turning movements. Red is through traffic and blue is turning traffic. You can see at the bottom left the red car moves out of the left lane to avoid the blue car that is stopped in the through lane to make a turn, potentially hitting a car in the right lane, then ahead could rear-end a car stopped to turn in either direction on the through lane. At higher volume intersection a right turn lane is appropriate to remove a further conflict point.

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A Danger to Pedestrians

There’s really two issues with pedestrian safety on Death Roads. The first is that with multiple lanes, a motorist will stop for a pedestrian. A second car coming will not see the pedestrian because s/he is crossing in front of the stopped car and try to pass the stopped car, and hit the pedestrian. There’s been several fatalities due to this in the state recently, such as on Maryland Ave in St. Paul.

A second problem is a site distance problem with turning traffic. A car in the left lane can block the view of a car in the right lane from a motorist waiting to make a left turn.

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A few months ago there was a pretty dramatic crash on 86th Street and Nicollet Ave. A southbound Xcel Energy truck made an evasive maneuver to avoid a left turning car that failed to yield, but wound up losing control and plowing into a signal pole on the southwest corner, knocking it over. And in “Final Destination” in real life, a man that was just standing their waiting for a bus was buried under the whole mess. As typical once the scene was cleaned up and the next dramatic story came about the news media stopped reporting on the investigation, so we don’t really know what happened, but I strongly suspect it was either the sight distance issue or the northbound motorist trying to get out of the through lane.

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Scene of the crash on a Bloomington Death Road.

Of course this particular crash could have been prevented by putting the bus stop in a better location (and it has in fact been moved to the near side) but it illustrated the problem with Death Roads in particular, and also pedestrians are vulnerable almost the full length of Nicollet Ave due to the sidewalk being right next to the curb with no boulevard and no shoulder. It’s only a matter of time till a texting or drunk driver jumps the curb and hits another pedestrian that just happens to be there.

The situation was aggravated by the lack of a flashing yellow arrow (FYA) at this intersection. A “left turn yield on green” (YOG) just doesn’t communicate the amount of caution that’s needed for permissive left turns. Right now the the focus on convestions is to decrease safety and increase efficiency by converting protected only turns to FYA protected permissive, but we need to focus on increasing safety too by converting YOG turns to FYA, as Richfield has done at 76th Street and the northbound I-35W ramp where a freeway ramp crosses a major regional trail.Then you have Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are still installing new, dangerous YOGs, and in those cities pedestrian volume is much higher.

Bloomington even looked at not allowing left turns during a pedestrian phase. This was rejected, in part because existing controllers can’t handle this and it would have required fabricating external logic (this might be possible in the future as the trend is to have traffic controllers run custom software that is more adaptable). But one thing Hennepin County is doing now as standard practice is a 4 second delay in permissive only phases from the time the green through indication lights to the time the FYA lights. This prevents left turners from gunning it as soon as they get a FYA before oncoming traffic and pedestrians can establish themselves.

Some Conversion Options

But what if we restriped the road to three lanes? Bicyclists have a place to ride without impacting traffic. And left turning cars have a safe place to wait without disrupting through traffic. And the issues with pedestrian safety are solved.  The only downside is at traffic signals and stop signs through traffic has one lane instead of two, but often there is functionally a single lane here anyway due to stopped traffic waiting to turn.

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Lyndale Ave, a former Four Lane Death Road restriped to three lanes.

Sometimes of course the roads are so wildly overbuilt the center lane is not needed because there’s so little traffic that it’s unlikely a left turning car will cause a conflict or create congestion. Here’s 102nd St near my house  with even more generous shoulders. At the heaviest volume near Lyndale Ave, traffic volume would have to triple to justify four lanes. Death Roads where traffic does not justify them create dangerous with almost no efficiency benefit.

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102nd Street at Pleasant Ave.

These can of course be done within existing curb lines, but Richfield has done even better by completely reconfiguring the Portland Ave was reconstructed. In addition to eliminating the death road, there is now a protected bicycle path for the 61% of people that would be interested in bicycling but refuse to do it on a busy street, even with painted lanes.Also notice the trees and streetlights (although by my measurements the streetlights fail to meet state and national standards for an arterial street in a residential neighborhood.

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Portland Ave, Richfield

Here’s a chart from Portland, Oregon: The 1% “Fearless” will ride on a busy death road and the next 7% will if there’s bicycle lanes. Richfield is to be commended for building protected infrastructure for the next 60% of their population.

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Of course sometimes you simply need more than one through lane to handle motorized traffic. In that case it’s appropriate to add a 5th lane and protected bicycle infrastructure (this is what Richfield is doing with the center section of 66th St) , or maintain the death road configuration if there’s absolutely no way to widen it. Lyndale Ave in Minneapolis I wrote about earlier in the article on Traffic Signal Warrants, and that’s one situation that it applies to. But nowhere in Bloomington.

The traffic volumes that require more than one through lane vary depending on the study, with 20,000 being the most commonly cited figure nationally. In Minnesota 15,000 is the de-facto upper limit, as Mn/DOT requires a traffic study at volumes above that. The only street in Bloomington with those kind of volumes is Old Shakopee Road between France Ave and I-35W, and the houses are set back so far there that adding a turn lane and preferably a protected bicycle path could be done without impacting too many actual houses.

The Status of Bloomington’s Death Roads

Bloomington had an awful lot of Four Lane Death Roads. In a traffic calming policy started a number of years ago on collector streets, they’ve slowly been fixing them as streets come up for resurfacing. For political and possibly liability reasons they’ve avoided marking and calling them “bicycle lanes” even though they are, and they cater to the 7%. Conversions have been rarer on arterial streets, because the policy didn’t cover them and many of the arterial streets are county roads.

Here is a map of the status, Fall 2016. Black are Death Roads that haven’t been looked at. Red are Death Roads that were looked at but still not fixed. Green are Death Roads that have been converted, and Yellow are those planned or under construction. We’ve come a long way, but it’s time to do more.

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A Word about “Pork Chops”

I’ll also say a few words about Channelized Right turns, aka “free right” aka “pork chop”. I’m not really inclined to blame the presence of a pork chop an Nicollet Ave and 86th St. It’s true that without one it’s possible they lady might not have been standing right on the street, but on the other hand the issue would have been easy to rectify by moving the bus stop, and pedestrian push-buttons are required to be present and be present right next to the curb due to ADA requirements so this encourages pedestrians to wait right by the street.

This particular pork chop was installed along with the 3-Lane conversion a few years ago. Turn lanes can mitigate two of the problems with such convention; you’ve double the impact of the right turning conflict points and decreased through traffic lanes at signalized intersections. This conversion was already contentious, with one of the councilmen who’s district it passed through an outspoken opponent. If problems had appeared at this intersection it would have put a screeching halt to any future conversions in Bloomington, and might even have resulted in a reversion to four lanes.

I’ll also say as a pedestrian I much prefer intersections with pork chops as opposed to without. It’s not an issue to wait a few moments for traffic to clear on the right turn before crossing, and then you have a much shorter stretch of pavement to cross on the Walk signal and you know that the car you’re in front of you is not going to not see you and start off in an attempt to make a right turn on red. Another person expressed a similar comment about liking them as a pedestrian on a recent MnPost Article.

There are ways to make them better. One way is to reduce the angle that they enter the cross street, to give turning motorists a better view of pedestrians and cross-traffic.

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Burnsville has experimented with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons at a Highway X and Highway 13.

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Pork Chop with beacon, Burnsville.

They could even be signalized like is the practice at some places in Wisconsin.

Just because Bloomington has been improving things doesn’t mean it isn’t time to do better.

Back to North Star Highways Home

A New Life for the Old Cedar Bridge

October 1, 2016 at 11:52 am | Posted in Abandoned Highways, Bicycling, Bloomington and Suburbia, Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

 

[Originally Published May 2016]

The Old Cedar Bridge is now open, but it’s been a long road to get to this point. THis article takes a look at the restoration and reopening of the Old Cedar Avenue Bridge. (I’ve chosen to consistently refer to it as the “Old Cedar Bridge,” it was originally known as the “Long Meadow Bridge” to distinguish it from the river span).

Old Cedar Ave Bridge Around 2002

The Old Cedar Bridge, around 2002

Inception of the Bridge

Although the bridge was only part of the state trunk highway system for a generation, history is intertwined with it. In the old days, if you wanted to travel south from Minneapolis, you first had to travel to St. Paul, then cross the High Bridge and head out on the old Dodd Road. Then you could take a road through Farmington to Northfield to Faribault to Albert Lea that eventually became part of the Jefferson Highway and later on was designated Trunk Highway #1. Directly south of Minneapolis lay nothing but ferries (that had existed since the 1850s) and routes suitable for local travel.

It wasn’t long until demand for improvements were made. Around 1890 two new bridges were funded by the state legislature as part of a generation-long period of increasing state involvement in roads before the formal establishment of the state highway system. One bridge replaced the ferry at Bloomington Ferry Road, and one extended Cedar Avenue across the river. Although the river spans were long-lasting steel swing bridges, the original bridge over Long Meadow Lake was a rudimentary wooden trestle. These choices were not without controversy. Minneapolis business interests favored a crossing at Lyndale Avenue, the most direct route to the south. It was thought that extending Cedar Avenue would be of more benefit to St. Paul, which already had well established roads to the South, and that Bloomington Ferry was way out of the way.

During the 1910s, it became obvious that the automobile was the wave of the future for personal travel, and trucks for commerce was imminent, and demand for more and better roads continued. Although the marked auto trails system provided consistent guidance, actual maintenance fell to a labyrinthine assortment of agencies, and the maintenance was anything but consistent. Momentum grew for the state to assume maintenance of roads of statewide significance, and the Minnesota Highway Commission was formed in 1911. The state provided aid for major roads and standardized plans for bridges. In turn structures needed to meet state standards, which the Old Cedar Bridge obviously did not. In 1912 the Dunn Amendment was passed, providing for changes to the Minnesota constitution to allow a trunk highway system. In 1917 the Minnesota Department of Highways was formed with Charles M. Babcock as the first commissioner, and in 1920 the state constitution was amended. Finally in 1921 legislation was passed and the trunk highway system debuted.

With regards to the Bloomington area, two more bridges were planned as part of this ramp-up of state involvement in major highways. A crossing at Lyndale Avenue and the replacement of the wooden trestle on Cedar Avenue with today’s steel structure. World War I delayed building, but after the war plans resumed. The original plan still seemed to be that Cedar Avenue would be the main route southward from Minneapolis; my 1920 map shows a proposed road between the bridge and the existing north-south road to the High Bridge and Farmington and it was paved from Minneapolis to the new bridge.

Proposed Cutoff from Minneapolis to the main north-south highway at Farmington

But Babcock favored Lyndale Avenue, replacing an old ferry at the foot of Hopkins Road. Then focus shifted to improving the even more direct route, first with a cutoff from the bridge to Farmington (what is now County 50), then a direct route south to Faribault which became US 65 and then I-35. Here’s the trunk highway system about 1925, after all the routes that were planned were actually laid out. Route 1 was the main route north and south of the metro, with cutoffs from Minneapolis (Routes 50 and 63) which took a few years to implement leading to it.

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Trunk Highway System about 1925. The Farmington Cutoff between Lyndale Avenue and the main trunk highway at Farmington had been built as Route 50, and note that the Bloomington Ferry Bridge was the main route to the southwest leaving Cedar Avenue left to local traffic.

 

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Charles Merritt Babcock

As a side note, despite Babcock’s role in advocating and creating the trunk highway and his national profile (he was president of the American Association of Highway Officials) his career was cut short. As evidenced that almost from the beginning politicians have fancied themselves as highway engineers, Babcock was fired by Governor Floyd B. Olson for refusing to accept an absolutely massive expansion of the trunk highway system. Some of which, like MN 100 Beltline or MN 55 west of downtown, were worthy candidates. But many of which were both then and today extremely dubious inclusions for the trunk highway network. This included a portion of MN 65 through the north woods that sees and average annual daily total traffic of 30, and spurs to serve the unincorporated hamlet of Island View and a private resort on Lake of the Woods. Today, I doubt many people know or care who Babcock Trail was named after and his legacy to the state.

The Bridge Opens

In late 1920 the Old Cedar Bridge opened, at the cost of $114,940. It was Hennepin County Bridge #55, but also assigned a state bridge number, #3145. It was a maintenance nightmare from the beginning. and there were calls for its replacement as soon as 1956. Ten foot lanes may have been adequate in the early days when the only traffic was a car now and then, and semi trucks weren’t as prevalent. Early trunk highways had 9 foot lanes as standard. But even by the 1950s it was considered awkwardly narrow, and both the railing and structural elements being hit by vehicles was a regular occurrence.

Although neglected, this neglect also led to its preservation, as the old Lyndale Bridge was demolished when I-35W opened. The bridge wasn’t even part of the trunk highway system until MN 36 was extended in the mid 1950s. In 1962 the concrete deck was replaced with a wooden one. As late as 1970 there were only around 11,700 vehicles a day using it, but around that time east Bloomington approached becoming fully built out.

As the American Dream crossed the river, regional commuter traffic increase dramatically, and with the Met Stadium and the “New Zoo” there was renewed interest in improvements. Finally in 1980, what long term residents like myself still call the “New Cedar Bridge” opened. The old 1891 swing span across the river was demolished, and the Old Cedar Bridge was transferred to the City of Bloomington, against their wishes, to provide access to the river bottoms.

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New Cedar Bridge Invitation

Unlike more recent turnbacks where the road was fully reconstructed, Bloomington got the well-used bridge “as-is.” They did not have the funding or wherewithal to maintain it, so it continued to deteriorate. In 1993 it was closed to motorized vehicles. With no road access, this marked the end of the river bottom farms, and they became part of the wildlife refuge through sale and tax forfeiture. Even without paved trails in the river bottoms, it was still frequently used by bicyclists and pedestrians. Then finally the Old Cedar Bridge was closed to all traffic in 2002, severing a key link for bicycles across the river.

The Bickering Begins

From then on, there was a desire to replace the connection, but the bickering went on for over a decade. Bloomington saw themselves as in the business of transportation, not historic preservation, and sought the cheapest way possible to provide that service. Bloomington has insisted it couldn’t pay for repairs; that it shouldn’t have to do it alone for what is a regional amenity; that it shouldn’t have to deal with something that will require extensive maintenance in the future.

Meanwhile, as early as 1994 there were calls for the preservation. Through-truss bridges aren’t by themselves historic (two are being demolished in the Lanesboro area this year). The Old Cedar Bridge is one of only three truss bridges in Minnesota that predate the trunk highway system, and five sections on a Parker Through-Truss design is uncommon.

Nor was the bridge designed to be aesthetic. Trusses were just the way longer bridges were built in the era of cheap, abundant steel and immature concrete technology; thinking that they look nice came later after most of them were demolished. The New Cedar Bridge (and its contemporary, the Bong Bridge) were the last ones in the area built with massive structural elements above the bridge deck that were driven by engineering needs. The steel arches on the Hastings and Lowry Avenue bridges, and the concrete towers and steel cables on the St. Croix Crossing and Hennepin Avenue Bridge are there because people liked they way they look, and they cost substantially more than a generic concrete bridge would have.

Silverdale Bridge on the Gateway Trail

Another Parker Through-Truss bridge, this one a single section from 1873, now located on the Gateway Trail. The single lane wasn’t a problem with 30 vehicles a day at its longtime location on MN 65 in the north woods at Silverdale.

The original proposal was an earthen causeway to be built in conjunction with a new gas pipeline. Fish and Wildlife said no, so from then on Bloomington pursued funding to demolish the structure and build a new one, which would have been half the cost and easier to maintain. There was a 2008 study, and a bill that would have provided money for demolition and replacement. One idea was to set the old trusses on the new bridge as decoration. Then the bridge got officially designated as historic and in 2013 the federal government made it clear that they would not allow demolition. With only one option now, Bloomington commissioned a 2014 study for rehabilitation, and thanks to longtime local Representative Ann Lenczewski, $14.3 Million in state and federal funds was allocated.

Obviously, the bridge is badly missed, but I hope I have provided an explanation why it took so long to sort things out. Here’s a map of the bridge in context, showing how it and the soon to be built I-35W trail crossing will connect existing and proposed trails in Bloomington and Minneapolis to the rest of the Twin Cities to south of the river.

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Bicycle Minnesota River crossings (Green- Existing, Yellow- to be built), and select existing (red) and proposed (black) trails.

The Nuts and Bolts of Restoration

So now that the decision was made to restore it, more decisions had to be made. when restoring an old structure. There’s a lot of philosophical issues and sometimes conflicting goals. You want something functional that will be cost effective to maintain.

The Foundations in the river turned out to in pretty good shape, and will for the most part be left as-is

The Piers and Abutments are not in good shape. Normally with historic restoration you attempt to save as much as practical. However in this case the outer layers of all the piers were peeling off. Saving a historic core in the middle while replacing the concrete on the outside would be technically challenging, and possibly even dangerous to workers while leaving no historic concrete visible. So the decision was made to completely demolish and replicate them, down to using wood boards as forms as was done in the old days to leave a distinctive, rough edge.

The Deck was in even worse shape. This is what led to the closure, and it continued to rot in place. Some photos show how you can see daylight through some of the decking members.  Initial plans were to attempt to repair it, but it soon became evident it was a lost cause. The 2008 proposal was to use laminated wood planks that would be placed side to side, negating the need for steel stringers underneath the deck.

The current plan is to use a special, lightweight modern concrete with a completely redesigned joist and stringer system, . This replicates the original concrete deck, although the asphalt wearing surface will not be applied to save weight and as there is no engineering need. The new lightweight deck system will lessen the wear on the remaining historic, visible parts of the bridge, while still allowing bicycles and pedestrians and the occasional emergency or maintenance vehicle.

The Trusses by contrast are in pretty good shape. One of the chords on the bottom (where it was hit with salt spray) would be only 1% above the required safety factor, so the decision was made to replace it as part of the project rather than the probability of having to come back in the few years and do it anyway, requiring another closure and construction mobilization. Some of the diagonal bracing has been bent by being hit with vehicles; this is not a safety issue and they never bothered to fix them before, but they are being straightened now, as the report notes: “the site of bridge members in this state of distress could cause the public unnecessary concern”

The bridge never had lighting, and they are not adding it now. It was considered, but it was noted that “the refuge is closed after dark.” Obviously the east-west trails will be closed, but it’s an interesting point whether it will be legal to travel north-south across the river. The old bridge had an “Area Closed After Dark” sign on it, but it appears you can use the bridges without leaving city-owned property and the New Cedar Bridge has a light on it for the trail as well as spill from the roadway lights. At any rate there are no street lights on road south of the bridge and as poorly as Bloomington lights their streets, not a good idea to be riding around without a good bicycle light after dark anyway.

As far as color is concerned, we all know the bridge as a rusty brown, which is actually a good match for the painted brown new bridge as well as blending into the natural surroundings. However it will be returned to it’s original dark grey color.

See this beautiful railing from the Holmes Street Bridge in Shakopee?

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Holmes Street Bridge Railing

The Old Cedar Avenue Bridge railing is nothing at all like this. In fact it’s nothing but the type of gas pipe you buy at Home Depot. The original bridge was way out in the sticks, so unlike those closer to the city, little thought was given to ornamentation, and as I mentioned in the last part they had no idea they were creating beauty instead of just transportation. This leads to some philosophical and practical issues. Normally you want to save as much of the original structure as possible, but a gas pipe in 1920 looks a lot like a gas pipe in 2016 and virtually all of it would have been replaced already due to collision damage. Note how nondescript and bent out of shape the railing is. Not surprisingly, no one bothered to keep good records as to when they had to go out and replace which small section of it.

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Old Cedar Ave Bridge in 2002

Moreover, the original configuration doesn’t meet modern standards for bicycle and pedestrian facilities–it’s not high enough and there’s too much space in-between the rails. So the what’s being done is

  1. The existing railings will be scrapped entirely
  2. New railing is being assembled out of gas pipe and the top rail will be somewhat higher than the original
  3. Steel cable will be used in-between the gas pipe to reduce the spacing to meet standards. Steel cable is allowed for railings as long as it it not the topmost rail (on the Holmes Street bridge photo you can see a single cable was added to allow it to meet specs.

Even the nuts and bolts are thought of. The original bridge used rivets exclusively. Nowadays riveting is becoming a lost art, and is prohibited for certain structural parts. The plan is to use rivets on visible pieces where it’s allowed and on pieces fabricated in the shop. Button-Head bolts, which resemble a rivet from one side at least, will be used in other visible areas, and the contractor will be allowed to use standard hex-head bolts underneath the bridge where no one but the frogs will see it. Generally, the bolts will be mounted button head inward, due to both practical concerns with getting a wrench in tight places, and aesthetic as the inside side of the bolts will be viewed up close. This unavoidably alters the aesthetic slightly from the outside. Consideration was given to putting plastic caps on the outside, but they would still stick out more, and that would introduce an inappropriate material.

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Button Head Bolt

The Project Begins

The project initially got off to a rocky start. To begin with, CenturyLink had move a fiber optic cable that was in the way. Their boring machine broke, and it broke directly underneath a significant oak tree, which they were not allowed to cut down to retrieve it, so they had to bring in a new machine and start boring again from the beginning. The second task was the building of a temporary bridge in order to provide access.

Next demolition of the old bridge deck was done with small excavators removing the wood, an then the rotten steel was removed.  Next massive cranes were brought in and shoring towers were built and an entire section of the bridge was lifted off the piers which is easier to do with no decking, only lightweight temporary bracing to keep it in shape. This is very impressive visually with the huge cranes dwarfing the bridge. While suspended the piers were being demolished and rebuilt and the gusset plates evaluated and replaced if needed. The bridge has now piers, and construction on the new deck is underway.

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Old Cedar Bridge Shoring Towers

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The northernmost span has been set back down and is ready for the deck to be built, April.

Trailhead Improvements

Going together with the long term plan to reopen the bridge and open the valley up to a wider demographic by filling in a gap in our paved trail network are plans to make the trial-head more functional and attractive, and even enable school groups to visit. Some invasive underbrush and non-significant trees are being cut down around the parking area. Significant canopy trees are being left. This will provide a more open, attractive, park-like atmosphere around the immediate parking area, and increase the perception of safety. (“Perception” being the term from the study, not mine). A mowed, maintained area for picnicking will be located between the bridge and the parking lot. A modern restroom and shelter building is being built just out of the floodplain on the east side of the street. A new boardwalk with rails has replaced the a rotting structure.

Earlier plans were to add nothing but a striped biked lane going uphill (northbound Old Cedar) and sharrows going downhill. The revised plan includes a fully protected eight to ten foot off road trail. This will be a city-owned extension of the Nokomis-Minnesota River Regional trail that now runs between the Minneapolis network and 86th Street, and also connects to the Nine Mile Creek Regional Trail. This is a challenging engineering feat, with wetlands on the east side and a steep slope on the west. Since you open up all kinds of issues by cutting into a slope, the trail will cross to the east side near the curve. Originally they were looking at a boardwalk, but now it’s apparent something more like a bridge will be needed.

As a side note, I arrived an hour into the meeting about the new trail, and was only the second person to sign in. Does Bloomington not care about bicycling because the off-road infrastructure is so poor (the Nokomis trail is the first off-road paved trail anywhere in the eastern half of the city), or is it so poor because Bloomington doesn’t care? Or do people just figure it was going to be built anyway, and are not interested into finding out more in advance or providing input? I do know that public meetings aren’t the best gauge of public opinion, they tend to skew towards older people with more time on their hands, and people really involved in the community (the previous name I recognized as a regular contributor to the East Bloomington Residents Facebook Group). At least I got plenty of time chatting with the city engineer about this and other projects.

Finally, back to the bridge: the informal name is now official; the Long Meadow Bridge is now the Old Cedar Bridge.

Minnesota Statute 161.14 Subd 77: Minnesota state bridge number 3145, the Camelback bridge over the Minnesota River overflowage (referred to as Long Meadow Lake) constructed in 1920, is designated and named the “Old Cedar Avenue Bridge.” This designation and name also applies to any renovation or reconstruction of the bridge and must be used in any publicly financed signage that refers to the bridge.

Yes, it was expensive, but sometimes nice things cost money and this was money well spent.

Old Cedar Ave Bridge

The New Old Cedar Ave Bridge

In Defense of a Paved, Accessible Minnesota Valley State Trail

September 30, 2016 at 2:51 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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Recently there’s been a lot of controversy about filling in a link in our protected bicycle trail network, the portion of the Minnesota Valley State Trail through the Minnesota River Bottoms in Bloomington. The idea to add a paved trail to the existing dirt mountain bike trail is nothing new, the concept of a trail from Minneapolis to Le Sueur (and later all the way to South Dakota) has existed since 1969. What’s different now is that construction of the controversial segment is imminent. Ann Lenczewski, the (now former) longtime DFL state representative from Bloomington, secured $2.5 million in funding in the 2013-14 legislative session. Plans are to do various engineering and survey work this year, with heavy construction, starting with a bridge over Nine Mile Creek, next year. City Pages recently ran an article, “The High-Priced Paved Trail Bloomington Doesn’t Want” and this has generated a lot of comments on Bloomington-related Facebook Groups, so I thought an article here would be timely.

Is This Really Something “Bloomington Doesn’t Want?”

So far, most of the public input has been overwhelmingly negative. But does this really reflect on what the people as a whole want? It’s been pointed out many times here on streets.mn that public meetings aren’t the best indicator of actual public opinion, whether for new parking meters or a new building. The people that attend public meetings are disproportionately people with lots of free time on their hands and those that are extremely passionate about an issue. So it seems reasonable to believe that hardcore mountain bikers and birdwatchers are naturally going to be over-represented. The mother with 3 kids that would like someplace besides a busy street for herself and her kids to ride their department store bicycles isn’t likely to show up.

Are the 5000 people signing an online petition representative of public opinion? Even assuming all those 5000 people are from Bloomington, which they almost assuredly are not (it seems that, like other controversial proposals, this issue is stirring up environmentalists from all over the state and even the country), that’s only 6% of the city population. Perhaps an unbiased poll of city residents is in order. It’s also worth noting that the Bloomington city government, elected by Bloomington residents, has overwhelmingly supported this.

Similarly the move to organized trash collection has generated vocal opposition, the “Hands Off Our Cans” Facebook group, and even a lawsuit to force the city to accept a petition to put in on a referendum. Other cities have even been scared away by what’s happening. But really, it’s hard to tell, apart from the loudmouths, what the people of Bloomington actually think. If 90% mildly support something and 10% vehemently oppose, the latter viewpoint is going to get the most attention. I personally oppose organized trash collection due to my libertarian political views and because I like my current hauler. But I roll my eyes at the huge stink that’s been created. I have more important things to do than file a lawsuit about who picks up my garbage, or even attend a public meeting about the matter.

The Mountain Bike Trail is not Going Anywhere

By the sensationalist media headlines and the rhetoric of the opponents, you’d think the proposal is to kick them out permanently or to do something like this to the valley:

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Valley of the Drums

When the reality is that making mountain bikers share this space with the physically handicapped, casual bicyclists and others unable to use a narrow, muddy trail, will look something like this:

Big Rivers Regional Trail

Despite headlines and web sites like “Last Chance to Ride …”, “Save the River Bottoms“, and “Mountain Bikers Fear Loss…“, the fact is the unpaved trail isn’t going anywhere, or at least not far. When building the paved trail they will try to avoid it if possible, but it may be unavoidable having to move it a few dozen yards or so in some locations. Portions where mountain bikers will need to ride on pavement will be kept to an absolute minimum; in most places there’s plenty of room for both trails.

Besides hyperbole, opponents keep focusing on straw-man arguments like maintenance costs. But there’s already quite a few paved trails in areas that flood. One of the premiere off-road trails in the country, the Root River State Trail, floods regularly. So does the Minnehaha Creek Trail.  Even if it is expensive, sometimes nice things cost money. Sure, it’s more expensive than building an off-road trail along a ditch next to a highway, but then again an iPhone costs more than a TracFone for good reason.

Bloomington Does Not Have Enough Protected Bicycling Infrastructure. 

Some opponents have suggested that we have enough protected bicycling infrastructure. Look at this map at East Bloomington, and see if you agree that East Bloomington has enough.

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Bloomington Protected Bicycle Infrastructuer

When I want to ride, I do this: load my bicycle in the Jeep (in practice it usually never leaves the back because there’s no protected cycling infrastructure anywhere close to my house), and drive to Lake Harriet or Hyland Park or someplace. And normally when I want to go out is right in the middle of rush hour traffic after I’m done with work.  Is this what we expect the residents of East Bloomington to do? Imagine if Minneapolis had decided a couple of trails along busy streets was enough and left the Grand Rounds trails as bare dirt!

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My House to Hyland Park, the nearest decent paved bicycle trail.

Even if Bloomington Actually Does Oppose This, it Might not Matter

As evidenced by its name, the Minnesota Valley State Trail, this is more than just a city issue. We’re all part of society, and sometimes cities need to accept something that while not their preference, may be good for the region as a whole. See the suburban interests getting the urban freeways built, or urban interests wanting the suburbs to build more affordable housing. As you can see by the map, this is a huge, glaring gap in the regional (and state) paved trail network, not just an issue with a more local park. In fact, what delayed the reconstruction of the Old Cedar Bridge for so long is Bloomington’s insistence that the river bottoms are a regional amenity, and therefore should be paid for by the region.

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Minnesota Valley Trail tie-in to existing Minneapolis and St. Paul paved trail network.

Opponents have not suggested a realistic alternative routing. Old Shakopee Road will need to be rebuilt sometime, and while protected bicycle infrastructure like a multi-use path or cycletracks would be nice, a State Trail isn’t intended to run along city streets for significant distances. Similarly, running something along Highway 13 would hardly be worthy of a statewide amenity. An alternate routing directly along the south side of the river would be possible east of I-35W, but west of 35W is a maze of barge terminals, quarries, and toxic waste contaminated landfills. Especially with the Old Cedar Bridge finally being restored on the east end, the new bicycle crossing at County 101 on the west end, and the soon to be built bicycle crossing at I-35W, this will ultimately be a network that is so much more than the sum of its parts, attracting riders from all over the metro.

The Old Cedar Bridge

In closing I thought I’d mention what’s going on with the Old Cedar Bridge. It’s a completely separate project, just coincidentally happening about the same time, in the same area, and will be part of the same network.  Basically the impasse for the past several decades has been that the city of Bloomington claimed they did not have money to fix it, that the burden shouldn’t be solely on the city to fix it, and that if they were going to fix it, then it should be in a manner that kept future maintenance costs to the minimum. But the original plan for a causeway was vetoed by the federal government, then the old bridge was designated historic, ending proposals to replace it with a modern structure.

Finally, Bloomington got a significant amount of state money to fix it, now totaling $14.3 Million from various sources over the years (more than double the cost of what a replacement would cost and likely with higher future maintenance costs). It turns out the foundation and trusses are in pretty good shape, but the deck and piers are trashed. So the trusses are being jacked up and hung from shoring towers while new piers are built on the existing foundations. A new deck will be made using modern standards and will be much lighter as it only needs to support bicyclists, pedestrians, and the occasional maintenance or emergency vehicle. This has necessitated the construction of a temporary bridge and bringing in three cranes. The trailhead is getting cleaned up and is getting a modern restroom building.

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Old Cedar Bridge Construction

In closing, I’ll say this about the unpaved trail: I’ve tried to ride it a couple of times on my $100 department store mountain bike. But after a couple of miles, I was dissuaded by the mud, brush (is that poison ivy or a stinging nettle you’re heading straight toward?) and debris. I couldn’t even begin to start  feeling safe or comfortable. I’ve been on foot a few times too, and I still feel I’d enjoy it more walking on a paved trail.

Presumably, a lot of other Bloomington (and regional) residents are in favor of this, so it’s time for them to speak up and be heard too. It’s time to not limit it to those that have $1000 mountain bikes and the skills to ride them, or the wherewithal to slog through the mud pits on foot. It’s time to open it up to all of Bloomington.

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Mud pit. It took me weeks to get the mud off my shoes after taking this photo

The Case Of Bloomington’s Disappearing Streetlights

September 28, 2016 at 2:03 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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In the summer of 2015 streetlights were disappearing in Bloomington. First came red spray-paint on a bunch of the poles on Lyndale Ave. Then they started to disappear. One day I drove out during my lunch hour, and crews were literally cutting them down with a Sawzall.

An email to the city revealed that many of the 1970s-1980s vintage poles were structurally unsound, and they hope to get funding to replace them in the future. So Lyndale Ave is left with long dark spots and these stubs.

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Perhaps it’s excusable that a city is caught off guard when this happens. Bloomington has done what many of us do when the furnace gives out or the car needs transmission work, although ideally we’d have money saved for such eventualities, as should the city. But Bloomington’s issues go deeper and farther back than this one time incident. I’ve been dealing with them over street lighting and traffic signal issues for years.

Here’s another section of Lyndale Ave. Notice the concrete circle. That was a street light. Several years ago the underground wiring failed. After several unacknowledged requests to the city and Xcel Energy (who have a contract for routine maintenance of all city-owned lighting as well as their own), the pole was totally removed.

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Another missing light on Lyndale, gone for years. The neon sign is really cool though.

Another query to the city asking what was going on was returned with “It’s not economical to fix it now.”  Maybe I can accept that fixing underground wiring is expensive, but they’ve fixed it in other locations, and if they couldn’t fix it right away they could have budgeted it for the next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that.

Soon after, the light next to this failed, and then the one next to that was sawed down this year leaving a long, dark stretch

Bloomington is Severely Under-lit

Here’s some maps with the street lights highlighted of a random half mile square section in Minneapolis:

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Minneapolis Streetlight Map

And Richfield:

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Richfield Street Light Map

And Bloomington:

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Bloomington Streetlight Map

Does anyone else see the problem? To be fair, property tax revenues and density are lower,but not that much lower. Note that this includes Nicollet Ave, which as an arterial should be lit better than purely residential streets.

You might think things would keep getting worse the farther out you go, but here’s Shakopee:

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Shakopee Streetlight Map

Moving beyond dots on a map, how do these areas look at night?

Richfield, MN street at night

Richfield street at night

Bloomington, MN Street At Night

Bloomington Street at night. In what world is this level of street lighting considered acceptable? This is not some African village!

These were shot with identical camera settings: f/8, 8″, ISO 200.  Keep in mind there are no sidewalks so pedestrians, likely not wearing the pedestrian safety kit may be walking on the street. I also commonly see bicycles at night without any kind of light; it’s difficult to see them in the dark sections between street lights in these installations if you’re driving in a bright section.

How about those nice Minneapolis lanterns? (This picture  wound up zoomed in a bit more, but settings are still the same).

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Minneapolis Lanterns at Night

Besides looking at pictures, there are objective ways to measure how good or bad a lighting installation is. There’s a measure of how much light is striking a horizontal surface, the “foot-candle (fc)”, or 1 lumen per square foot. State and national standards for a typical residential street are an average 0.4 foot-candles (fc), with a average to minimum uniformity ratio of 6-1 (and using these we can derive a minimum acceptable level of 0.067 fc.).

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Here’s another way to look at it: light levels as you walk down the streets, from the center of a cross-street down a long block to the center of the next cross-street.

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The Minneapolis lanterns have an average of 0.38, which is close enough to the 0.40 standard to be statistical noise; even within the 5% accuracy of my light meter. The dip towards the beginning is due to the  placement of the lanterns at a “T” intersection to favor the major cross-street. (The streets I measured were nearby but not the same ones I photographed). The spike towards the middle of the Bloomington installation is a private yard light.

(To make up for these shortcomings, private yard and floodlights either burn all night or annoyingly and distractingly turn on with motion are common.)

Improving the Installations

Even the very few lights that Bloomington does have, the spacing is very odd in some areas. You can see in the above map that some superblocks have a light where a street would be, and some don’t. But odd spacing goes beyond that.

Consider this section of Normandale Blvd. What logic is there for the spacing? The two lights at the lower right are decorative lanterns on the housing development sign that cast no useful light on the intersection.

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Normandale Boulevard in Bloomington.

Or this section of Nicollet by Kennedy High School? Why does 96th street (at center left) get two lights plus another immediately adjacent, while 95th Street, (at the far left), a much busier street, gets one?

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Nicollet Ave in Bloomington

Even if Bloomington stubbornly refuses to follow state and national standards itself, it’s more than willing to impose them on private businesses. (In fact the lighting code is one of the most restrictive in the nation, mercury vapor and sodium vapor bulbs are banned in all but the smallest fixtures.) As a result, when you’re driving out of a parking lot that’s lit like the Vegas strip, as are the Holiday and Kennedy High School in the second picture, suddenly you’re on a street that might as well be in farm country, and you can’t see anything until your eyes adjust to the blackness. And many students at Kennedy walk across the road to get from the Burger King and Holiday to school, which is legal here provided they yield to motorists since this is not between two signalized intersections.

Here’s a much better spacing, with new lights in red and removed lights in grey. It doesn’t take that many more to make a much better layout.

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Normandale Blvd, Improved Street Light Spacing

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Nicollet Ave, Improved Street Light Spacing

Additional Weirdness

And some more examples of odd spacing. Here’s where they never bothered to remove the old Xcel Energy wood pole light after a traffic signal went up, so we’re paying for rent for a useless street light.dissapearing-lights-15

This is not in some remote, out of the way location, the building in the background is the public works facility, and right across the street is city hall. The personnel responsible for street lights likely drive by this twice a day. (And they obviously don’t walk to work because one of the “Walk” lights was out on the signal.)

In my neighborhood on Wentworth Ave just north of 104th St,  there’s a light on two immediately adjacent poles.  You can petition to have a street light added. Apparently the residents wanted a yard light, but didn’t want to pay to rent one themselves (which you can do as a private homeowner), so they got one at the city’s expense.

So what would lighting improvements cost? A 100 watt street light rents for about $12 a month, energy and maintenance included. There’s 14 houses on one of the Bloomington blocks in the previous diagram. So to light blocks where there are overhead utilities to the standards of Richfield and Minneapolis wood pole areas (which as noted above still don’t quite meet state and national standards due to lack of uniformity) would cost about $30 a year for each house.

That’s pretty small compared to the typical property tax bill. Even a single mid-block light on the long blocks, at $10 a year, would be an enormous improvement.

Routine Maintenance is Troublesome

Even maintaining what few street lights there are  is troublesome. There is the Xcel web based reporting system. But it does not talk to their database; a worker reads the reporting system and then keys it into another system. Ideally the systems would talk to each other, to confirm that the address you keyed in corresponds with one of their lights. Or you could see a graphical representation if you don’t know the address. It’s nearly impossible to get a light fixed in a place like the boat landing parking lot, where there really isn’t a physical address and you have no idea what they have listed for one. Sometimes the actual tech will call back if they run into issues, but the office staff may or may not, so when a light doesn’t get fixed right away you’re left wondering if maybe they got the wrong one.

Furthermore there seems to be plenty of finger pointing to other agencies.  In an extreme example, it took several unacknowledged requests to Xcel, then several emails to Bloomington and MnDOT for Bloomington to acknowledge that this light at 90th and I-35W actually belonged to them. When I demanded they either fix it or remove it, they simply removed the luminaire and left the empty pole in place.

There’s a “How many civil servants does it take to change a light bulb?” joke in here some place, and it’s not funny.

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90th And I-35W

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Bloomington’s Oxboro Neighborhood

September 27, 2016 at 1:45 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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I’ve lived in the Oxboro area of Bloomington my entire life, 3/4 of a mile from the major commercial area at 98th St. and Lyndale Ave. Although most of my shopping is done at big box stores in other areas, this is where I go to the bank, get lunch at the drive-thru, drop off mail at the post office, and access the freeway. Though I’m basically happy with it, there is always room for improvement for both motorized and non-motorized traffic, as well as the general area.oxboro-1In the past this area was the unincorporated town of Oxboro, dating from the 1850s. The Oxborough family from Canada built a trading post called Oxboro Heath on what is now Clover Center. Meanwhile Bloomington was a stagecoach stop at Nine Mile Creek, and there was another settlement at Old Shakopee Road and Old Cedar. These all eventually got absorbed into the city of Bloomington.When I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, the Oxboro area had a single noteworthy building, the Sunde blacksmith shop (owned by the father of Vikings great Milt Sunde). And a lot of decrepit buildings: the old Burger Brother’s store and Bloomington Drug, Kinney Shoes, and a bar at 95th. REI was in Clover Center before they moved into their newer flagship store along I-494. There are quite a few photographs on the Flashbacks of Bloomington Facebook group.In the early 1980s the grandiose “Oxboro Redevelopment” plan was initiated, but it never lived up to it’s highbrow aspirations, eventually stalled, and is still going on in fits and starts. The city thought they were creating something much more elite than they were – after offering SuperValu a place in the new strip mall, they broke that promise when they decided they wanted Byerly’s instead.

SuperValu was full of mismatched floor tile, bare fluorescent strip lights, and stained ceilings, but it was a place to get groceries. I remember walking through Byerly’s when it was new and being awestruck by carpet, chandeliers, and lobster tanks, and also being awestruck by the prices. Aside from our initial trip, I think we shopped there twice before they closed. The owner raised their lease rate from the original 20-year sweetheart deal and their freezers needed replacing, but obviously they could have made it work if it had been a good fit for the neighborhood.

In typical 1980s fashion, we got a mix of “suburbanism” and “fake urbanism”; Some strip malls with lots of parking in front that have gone downscale over the years, and then what is now Duluth Trading Company and Fairview Oxboro clinic. These went right up to the street, but have blank walls where doors would obviously be in an urban setting.

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Fairview Oxboro Clinic

More recently, two new housing developments have gone in. After adding two strip-malls to the area, the city said no to a fourth, but relented when the developer added senior housing.

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Strip Mall and Senior Living

A new set of apartments replaced the old lumber yard. Wixon Jewelers had a plan to build an elaborate jewelry store and watch museum at what is now Duluth Trading company (and wanted to buy and knock down the Bakers Square so the rich people that could actually afford their products wouldn’t have to park so far from the door) which was eventually was dropped. The trees and street furniture were plopped down centered in the sidewalk. Constricted by tree rings, the trees have never grown much and are constantly dying and being replaced.

Over time too, people like me have moved a lot of shopping elsewhere. My family quit shopping for groceries at SuperValu when the new Cub opened at Valley West. We quit shopping for toilet flappers and light bulbs at Hardware Hank when Home Depot opened along 494. It seems others have done the same. Over time the restaurants, banks, and other such staples have stayed, while some of the general retail has closed. (Although SuperValu was doing OK until the landlord kicked them out to sell to a developer to build the Holiday gasoline station.)

Few people are under the delusion that this is a cultured and sophisticated place. Yes, there are the typically derided places like Applebee’s and McDonalds. And yes I go to them. But to me it’s not “nowhere”. I personally don’t want to live in either the central cities or farther into the suburbs, so Bloomington’s Oxboro neighborhood is “somewhere” to me and quite a few other people. Yes, it’s ultimately very auto oriented, but again that’s something I like about it. It’s easy to drive down to Subway and park, it’s also easy to drivethrough on my way to the freeway entrance.

Still, I acknowledge that there are people that do walk or bicycle in the area and there is room for improvement without impacting motorists too much, and some things that could be improvements for all modes. Although it’s only 3/4-mile away, taking pictures for this article was the first time I’ve ridden down there in years.

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Some of the problems I see:

1) Although vehicle traffic flows pretty well, there are a few operational problems. Firstly the heavy westbound through and westbound to southbound movements at 98th St and I-35W conflict with the heavy eastbound to northbound movement. Eastbound to northbound only has a single turn lane, and aggravating the problem, and there is no right turn lane from westbound to northbound. Secondly, both directions of Lyndale Ave at 98th St have very short single left turn lanes that tend to back up into the through lanes during peak hours. My attempts to complain to the county and city have gotten nowhere. Traffic signals are still mostly the inefficient, protected-only turns (red arrows), and there are no sight line problems or other unusual considerations that would preclude protected/permissive phasing allowing motorists to make a left turn if there’s a break in oncoming traffic.

2) There’s a complete lack of bicycle infrastructure in place.  The official line from the city is that bicycles are supposed to (carefully) use the sidewalks, which although having few pedestrians, are full of trees, light poles, and garbage cans. Meanwhile there are free rights, which I like as a pedestrian but not usually as a motorist, and auxiliary lanes of dubious value. And while Lyndale needs all the lanes it has right at 98th St, probably north of there and certainly south of there it could use a road diet.

There’s been a few modest improvements for bicycles and pedestrians, including the addition of countdown pedestrian signals and this new sidewalk to the VEAP social services building with a rectangular rapid flashing beacon, and new marked crosswalk to cross Lyndale Avenue.

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New Crosswalk

3) The Orange Line has to fit in somehow, which will increase the number of people walking and bicycling in the area.

4) I think the free right from the northbound ramp to 98th St. is extremely dangerous. I have seen crashes there, including one where a car was flipped onto it’s roof. There’s simply not a good sight line to see cars coming over the bridge (due to the railing and the hump), and cars tend to speed since it’s fairly wide open.

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Driver’s eye view of free right

5) There are too many ramps too close together on I-35W

6) Thinking broader, Bloomington has way too many Four-lane Death Roads (even one is too many).

7) There’s no drive-through coffee shop. Seriously! I’d probably stop several times a week if there were. Maybe we can find room for a Dunkin Donuts! The only shop in the area is a Starbucks, and while I’m not too highbrow to go there, there’s no drive-thru and believe it or not it’s usually difficult to even park there.

Although I’m basically satisfied with the way things are, here I start to fantasize about changes that could be made.

So Here’s What I Propose:

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Yellow: New Ramps, Blue: New bicycle trail and bridge, Orange: Orange Line Station, Aqua: roads reduced to 5 lanes (except 98th right at Lyndale), Green: Roads reduced to three lanes. North is to the left.

Roadway changes, the interchange

The most notable change is the addition of a loop ramp from eastbound to northbound. This was actually envisioned as phase two of the interchange project back in the 1980s but not implemented–you can see the extra space available on the northbound side of the underpass.  The Orange Line documents hint at not building overly elaborate stations at 98th Street in anticipation of “future interchange reconfiguration.” This accomplishes three things: (1) it fixes the problem with heavy vehicle movements conflicting, (2) it eliminates the free right, and (3) with no left turn lane needed on the bridge, that can be given over to expanded bicycle and pedestrian options without widening the bridge structure.

The ramp to southbound is removed, the existing carpool ramp off the frontage road expanded, and the carpool bypass moved to the loop. This might even have an operational advantage to motorized vehicles, since eastbound to southbound and southbodund to eastbound traffic would no longer cross. The northwest loop is tightened and realigned to Dupont Avenue. The access to the office building is changed to 3/4 access. Office workers would still be able to easily access the southbound freeway by taking a right and then crossing 98th and going around the loop. The ramps to and from 94th Street to the south are eliminated in favor of the frontage roads.

The net result is an important, high volume interchange remains friendly and even improved to motorists, while the high speed movements on and off 98th Street that pedestrians now have to negotiate are eliminated.

Lyndale Avenue

Here, the free rights are removed and replaced with conventional right turn lanes, and the useless auxiliary lanes converted to cycletracks. South of 98th Street there’s not enough room to have a double turn lane and cycletracks, but banning the left turn from Lyndale Avenue southbound into the shopping center would allow lengthening the northbound lane. Southbound at 98th Street there is room for a double lane. North of 95th Street and south of the business district it is converted to a three lane configuration.

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Green Lines indicate new protected cycletracks at 98th St and Lyndale Ave

98th Street

I’d add cycletracks with space taken from the auxiliary lane between Grand Avenue and Lyndale Avenue; probably east of Nicollet Avenue, and definitely east of Portland Avenue, a three lane section will suffice. If more lanes are maintained to Portland I’d buy out a couple of houses to eliminate the short “four-lane death road™” segment from 3rd Avenue to Portland Avenue by adding a center turn lane or median.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned “bicycle lanes,” just cycletracks. This obviously represents my biases, since I don’t use bicycle lanes at any time, anywhere, for any reason. I want something more than paint between me and cars when I’m on a bicycle. But in the real world with other people planning, that would be an option. Similarly on-street parking is something I don’t want, wouldn’t use, and see no need for (the last time I really parallel parked was my driver’s test), but would be possible along “Clover 2.0” along Lyndale Avenue.

Thinking of Bloomington as a whole for a minute, the four-lane death roads all get road dieted, except for Old Shakopee Road west of the freeway which gets a five lane section. (Traffic counts are above 20,000 for most of it, due to Hyland Park limiting east-west options). The Lyndale Avenue cycletracks go from the new bicycle crossing at the Minnesota River bridge (which is going to get replaced sooner or later, and it looks like sooner), to the 86th Street bicycle lanes, the 98th Street cycletracks go to at least the new Nokomis-Minnesota River Regional Trail and the under reconstruction Old Cedar Avenue bridge along the newly road-dieted section.

StreetscapingMoving back to the Oxboro area specifically, I’d replace the street lights. Due to the width of the streets the one on high poles are necessary to get even illumination on the road, but they could be alternated or supplemented with decorative pedestrian scaled ones like at France Avenue. I’m generally not a fan of the “fake history” lanterns that are so common; the ultimate in ridiculousness is the “acorn” lanterns in front of the Shakopee Walmart. My personal preference would be something attractive but contemporary. And I’d extend the boulevard trees to both sides from 95th to the end of the commercial area, and the freeway to Nicollet Avenue.

Traffic Signals

Flashing Yellow Arrows would be implemented at all the signalized intersections. Pedestrian recall (The walk light always goes on without having to push a button when vehicles have the green) would be possible across some of the minor legs of the intersections, like the shopping center driveway or 95th Street. Of course all the signals would get ADA compliant push-buttons. Also nice would be a signal at 102nd and Lyndale–it’s hard to make a left turn out of the intersection at rush hour, maybe even a pedestrian overpass at 102nd St over I-35W.

Redevelopment

Obviously this would take out the park and ride and Clover Center. To replace it, I propose to redevelop Clover Center and Freeway Ford with structured parking, market rate apartments, and a small amount of retail. The northbound Orange Line station would be integrated here, with a pedestrian bridge along the railroad tracks. Maybe that drive thru coffee shop could go here and also serve commuters. The bank might be able to stay, or maybe not–notice I’ve maintained two auxiliary lanes due the short distance between the new ramp and Lyndale, shifting things north. But I am thinking bigger for this corner.

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Freeway Ford

Also of note, the former SuperAmerica headquarters, now a storage facility, (the white building in the lower center) might be a place to think about redevelopment too. It might not seem like a great place to live, surrounded by a wide suburban style road, a freeway interchange, and a railroad, but keep in mind there are apartments now in what is basically the Southdale parking lot, and this would be right across the new pedestrian bridge from the Orange Line stop. Or the park and ride facility could go here and needn’t be incorporated into the Clover Center redevelopment.

What’s Not Going to Change

In case it’s not obvious by now, the fact that probably 95% of the people either drive to or through the neighborhood, so it will stay reasonably friendly to motorists. I haven’t mentioned the strip malls, fast food, banks, and whatnot. I wouldn’t mind limiting low density detached commercial to of 95th Street. Nor would I necessarily be opposed to eventual redevelopment of the strip malls with parking in back–it doesn’t matter to me if I park in front or back of the Subway or Chinese takeout. The issue is that it’s difficult to configure a business to have both front and back entrances, and the strip malls provide affordable rents for a variety of stores. If the area was all redeveloped at once, there’d be too much high-end retail space and not enough low-end; after all this is not a highbrow area, as Byerly’s found out. An advantage is that there’d be fewer driveways crossing the Lyndale Avenue cycletracks.

A Reality Check

So is all of this going to happen? No. Obviously this is just my fantasy, which differs from how Bloomington likes to do things. So far, the city hasn’t been receptive to my feedback about more minor issues so I might as well suggest that they allow a toxic waste dump next to city hall. But, I can dream that these auxiliary lanes get used more productively as something else.

 

Why Aren’t We Building Affordable Houses Anymore?

September 2, 2016 at 3:12 am | Posted in Bloomington and Suburbia | Leave a comment
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So is the American Dream dead? With the skyrocketing cost of houses it is for a lot of people. There’s simply no more  affordable houses  being built any more, and increasing demand for fixed supply is driving up the ones that do exist. . For the purposes of this article, “house” means “single family detached house,” the kind where you can paint your siding whatever color you like and plant a flower garden in back.

First, the original 1951 “Levittowner” house, priced at $10,990; 1000 square feet; three bedrooms, one bath, one car garage, inflation adjusted with the Consumer Price Index, would sell for $97,100 today. Estimated monthly payment: $67.00 (or $592.00 today) At that price unless you’re flipping burgers for a living almost anyone could afford it.

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Now here’s a house typical of what’s being built today, the “Bristol”: priced at $320,990, 2185 square feet, four bedrooms, 2.5 bath, 1/5th acre lot, estimated monthly payment: $1245.00. In practice, I’m sure they’d be willing to build you a house and sell it for that price if you insist, but if you walk up and want to buy a house, just like buying a car off a dealers lot, it’s probably filled with expensive add-ons. This one has an upgraded kitchen, sun room, and garage extension, pushing the price to close to $400,000. To be sure, there are some advantages to durable finishes. In a memorable cooking disaster my sister set fire to our Formica countertops. And I absolutely love spending evenings on the couch in the sun room or in a hammock on the deck. But not everyone can afford these.

Affordable Houses 02

So what do you do if you’re lower middle class and want a house today? You either have to settle for new multi-family housing instead, or a used house. For now, at least, there’s a plentiful supply of used houses, but with a declining supply (thanks to tear-downs, including some initiated by cities including Richfield’s apparent war on affordable houses with their willingness to tear down entire neighborhoods), and increasing population, eventually there will be a day of reckoning, with used prices being unaffordable also. (Compare Portland, median home value $330,100, as opposed to $202,500 here.) So choices will be a house in St. Cloud (at least you can sleep during your 2 hour commute in your electric self-driving car) or settling for a “stack & pack” condo or townhouse.

I have my own house now, but I see this as a problem both out of altruism because I want other people to be able to have theirs, and selfishness because in a classic case of a first-world problem I want my house to be worth as little as possible to keep property taxes and insurance costs down. As another data point, here’s my house: 1100 square foot, two car garage, originally bought by my parents for $27,900 in 1970, very slightly used (the owners got divorced and had to sell right after building their dream house). That’s $165,000 today, so still pretty affordable for a basically new house.

Affordable Houses 03

So why are no affordable houses being built?

Quite simply, I don’t know. So I’ll throw out a few possible reasons:

#1 Consumer and developer preference is changing

Just like you can’t buy a Yugo anymore, consumers are demanding more space and luxury in houses.

To some extent, to avoid living in a used house or an apartment, I believe people are overextending themselves and buying stuff they can’t afford and might not even want simply because that’s all that’s available. I know I’d eat Ramen and rice every night if it meant not having to live in a stack & pack

#2 Developer preference

But what if it’s not just consumer demand for more and more elaborate houses. What if builders have simply decided they’re simply not interested in building affordable houses. I’m not knowledgeable on the economics in this, but maybe they figured out that they can maximize their profit by only building McMansions and stack and packs, it’s usually it’s the option in the middle that gets forced out, because those consumers can stretch themselves to upgrade, or settle for a downgrade.

And it’s not just housing. How well did Mervyn’s do compared to Macy’s and Target? How well did Mercury do compared to Ford and Lincoln? Although I’m lucky enough to have been able to get a used house and be able to live comfortably, given the choice of living in a house and eating rice and beans every night, or living in stack and pack and eating steak, I’d take the former.

#3 Zoning policies by cities trying to maximize their tax base

But what if it goes even above builder preference and is skewed by local policies? New houses in Shakopee must be on 1/5th acre lots, Compare that to Levittown, which was notable for having extremely generous lot sizes because land was cheap but in the booming post-war years construction was expensive, which had 1/7th acre lots. Minneapolis proves you can have a single family house on a 1/12th acre lot. A typical lot in Shakopee is $85,000. There’s a general rule in the construction and finance industry that you build a house worth three to five times what a lot is worth, so means $250,000 to $400,000 houses are built. Theoretically, if we went back to 1/7th acre lots a sub-$200,000 house would be possible.

#4 Anti-growth policies artificially limiting supply

But what if the problem is even beyond local zoning? The area in blue the MUSA (Metropolitan Urban Service Area) line. No municipal sewer and water service is allowed beyond it. Instead of a natural barrier limiting land supply, we’ve created a political one.

In addition, Lake Elmo and Afton have anti-growth policies of their own and, even with the new St. Croix Crossing, the river is a physical and psychological barrier. If there’s anything I learned in college economics, it’s supply and demand. If you limit the supply of something, with an increase in demand, the price is going to skyrocket. The Builder’s Association of the Twin Cities obviously has an agenda to push so they might not be the most unbiased source of information, but it’s the only information I could find. They claim a shortage of build-able land is adding $35,000-$100,000 to the price of a house in the area. When you see how much more houses in Portland cost with the much stricter anti-growth boundary, or the Bay Area with pretty significant physical boundaries, it does seem plausible.

Solutions?

So what is the solution? I don’t know.

As should be obvious, I’m not even entirely clear what’s causing the problem. It could be a bit of all the above. But for starters, we could eliminate any zoning that forces a certain lot size and minimum value of house to be built. Then, in the context of that, evaluate whether the MUSA line really is causing a land shortage, and if so, expand it.

(Note: When this was originally published on streets.mn, it generated a firestorm with over a hundred comments, most of them with a combative tone. As well as several other writers insulting me behind by back via Twitter. I used the later to be banned “S-word” Stack and Pack for multi-family housing. I meant what I said, especially in the context of the frustration of a family seeking an affordable house, but in a sense I regret it since people were focusing on my tone rather than the content; it turned out to be a lot more controversial than I intended. At any rate I’m disabling comments for this article.)

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