A Different Kind of Subsidy

April 18, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A Different Kind of Subsidy

What is a Subsidy?

One thing I really get tired of is the time-worn adage from the suburb-haters. “We’re subsidizing your ‘sprawl'”. I don’t really deny this, but part of living in society is everyone subsidizes someone else. The working subsidize the retired and the disabled. The people that make the lifestyle choice not to have kids subsidize those that do. And even limiting it strictly to development, a person in a duplex the Wedge might subsidize my lifestyle in Bloomington. But the person in an apartment downtown is subsidizing the lifestyle of the person in the Wedge. And in turn I’m subsidizing the lifestyle of a person in Elko. It should also be noted that Bloomington is a huge loser with the fiscal disparities pool, a Robin Hood scheme to redistribute property tax dollars between various cities in the metro. (Minneapolis breaks even and St. Paul is a big winner thanks to tax free buildings for colleges and state government waste and bloat.) But there’s a subsidy most people don’t think of. The inner ring suburbs bear the burden of providing low value and/or subjectively undesirable retail to the cities, like big box retail, car dealerships, and gun shops.

Discount Stores, Hypermarkets, and Groceries

Although there’s (for now) plenty of Cub Foods in the cities, there’s exactly one Menards (in Midway) and Home Depot (the Quarry). For the most part if you want to fix up your house, and with the age of housing in the cities there’s a lot of it, you’re stuck paying outrageous prices at the local cute “Hipster Hardware”, or else driving. And the suburbs have more low value big box retail than they would need just for their own residents.


Home Depot in Richfield, but the de-facto store for the entirety of South Minneapolis

Here’s a map showing home improvement stores in blue and discount / hypermarkets in red.


Minneapolis area discount / hyerpmarkets (red), home improvement (blue), and large format grocery (greeen)

If we assume Cub Foods and the Lake Street K-Mart are not long for this world, the map gets even more sparse in the center. It’s not hard to see that with the coming of HyVee, Cub’s days are numbered. HyVee seems not particularly interested in taking over existing stores, and at any rate the Cub stores are much smaller than their preferred size.

Speaking of Hyvee, I’ll comment on the Terrace Theater situation. I’m a big believer in private property rights, provided you don’t do anything to impact you neighbors private property rights. Want a high pressure sodium vapor yardlight? (Banned on private property in Bloomington even thought it seems to be fine for the city to use them as streetlights) Fine. Want to build a 20 story apartment tower on three sides of my property with balconies overlooking my backyard?  Hell No!

Was I sad to see the Terrace Theater go? Yes. But we can’t save everything, and it was private property for the owner to do as he wished. I know there were offers to buy the theater, but imagine if I was trying to sell my house. The only interest in the property as a whole is someone that wants to tear it down and build something else, but it turns out George Washington slept in my garage. So I have all sorts of people screaming at me not to tear my garage down, and even offering to buy the garage, and the garage only, not the rest of the house, and without which the rest of the house is a lot less valuable.


The Terrace Theater

Cars, Guns and Gas

Suppose you need a new car (80% of Minneapolis residents own one). Sorry, can’t buy one at all in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. Need a gun (Nationally 1/3rd of households have one)? Sorry, can’t buy one in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. In Bloomington which is still trying to court Bass Pro Shops as a Mall of America tenant, there was a kerfuffle with the city  tightening the zoning ordinance to prevent the proliferation of smaller shops. Essentially the only place you can sell guns in Bloomington now is a few parcels in the Oxboro area and near I-494.


Minneapolis area new car dealers.

What about gasoline stations? There’s still many in the city, but they’re disappearing. The business model of a couple of pumps in front and a small store that sells hot dogs is no longer viable.  When you only make 3 cents a gallon, you need to sell a lot of it to be successful, which means a lot of pumps so people don’t see a line and decided to drive onto the next station. And in addition sell a lot of high profit items like donuts and car washes, with a store that has parking so motorists will stop to buy a donut on their way to work.


Small gasoline station, closed despite it’s prime location right next to the freeway.

Gasoline station attempts to expand to be viable have met with mixed success. Bobby and Steve’s on Washington Ave and Holiday on Central Ave were able to expand, despite opposition. SuperAmerica on 40th St and Lyndale Ave was not


SuperAmerica- Denied the oppurtunity to remain viable it’s probably not long for this world.

Unsurprisingly with few gasoline pumps per resident in the city, the place was packed when I visited, but if you have a tiny capacity you cannot be viable no matter how busy your are. For now SuperAmerica is still open, but it doesn’t offer a car wash or the food offerings that an expanded store would have, and thus probably won’t be open forever. Urbanists tend to yawn when an individual gas stations closes, figuring a hipster cafe with zero lot setback will be better, but what if there’s eventually only a couple of stations in the entire city. Maybe they figure no great loss, the suburbs can build more large stations to accommodate them, which is my point exactly.


So Why Are Things Like This?

I can think of three things.

First, the cost of land is simply high, that means that fitting a standard Home Depot in Minneapolis is difficult to impossible. An attempt to fit a K-Mart in ended in the disaster we all know.

Second, NIMBYism is much worse in the cities. It’s so hard get anything built that’s not cute and “urban”. It’s a lot easier to get your efficient prototype built in the burbs.

Third, there’s the cities anti-business ordinances like sick leave, minimum wage, and staple foods. Could Hyvee have found some cheap land in the city that they could have built on? Maybe, but better to locate just outside of the city where they can still attract city residents while being exempt from the ordinances. Obviously staple foods doesn’t impact Hyvee, but it does gasoline stations, who now have to figure out how to be fresh grocers, and deal with multiple weekly deliveries, product waste, and low profit that fresh produce involves.


So do I think the city should change things? Not necessarily. They can run things how they want, it’s none of my business; I choose not to live in the city and have little to do with it. My point is simply that it’s too simplistic to say “the city subsidizes the suburbs”, and I’m fine with this reverse subsidy since I’m part of society.


Time of a Portland Ave for all People

April 3, 2017 at 1:49 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Right now unless you’re a motorist, Portland Ave in Bloomington is a pretty dangerous and dismal place.  But now we have a chance to improve things for all people, not just those in cars. Coming up shortly is a county resurfacing project with a chance to include unprotected bicycle lanes. But they’re looking to beyond that to when the corridor is up for complete reconstruction too.


Public Meeting


The Current Portland is a Danger to Motorists

First, let’s take a look at what’s wrong with the present situation.  Imagine a typical trip down a death road like Portland Ave.  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 antsy, fearing being rear-ended if s/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…


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.


The Current Portland is a Danger to Pedestrians

There’s really two issues with pedestrian safety on 4-Lane Death Roads like Portland Ave. 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.


Last year there was a pretty dramatic crash a mile over another Death Road, Nicollet Ave at 86th St. 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 there 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.


The situation is aggravated by the lack of flashing yellow arrows along these roads. A “left turn yield on green” just doesn’t communicate the amount of caution that’s needed for permissive left turns.  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 flashing yellow arrow lights. This prevents left turners from gunning it as soon as they get a flashing yellow arrow before oncoming traffic and pedestrians can establish themselves. I really hope these signals make it into the new Portland Ave.

Of course some Death Roads just have too much traffic for a 4-3 lane conversion. Lyndale Ave or Lake Street in Minneapolis, or Old Shakopee Road east of Penn Ave. But Portland Ave is not one of those. In fact south of 90th it has so little traffic it would even function fine without the center turn lane, so including one is more than generous to motorists.

A Multi-Modal Portland is in the Alternative Transportation Plan

It’s worth noting that an “on street facility”, ie unprotected bicycle lanes, is in the city’s Alternative Transportation Plan.  Not that they always follow it of course. They stubbornly refused to provide any accommodation to bicyclists when Lyndale Ave between 99th and 102nd was overlaid, despite it being in the plan. But the fact that it’s at least on their plan is a good start.

The I-494 Problem

One complication is connecting with the bicycle facilities to the north in Richfield across I-494. We have the following issues here:

  1.  The 1990 era long term goal for the freeway was to shift the entire mainline to the south. Right now Mn/DOT “is not pursuing that vision”.  But things could change in the future where we once again have the wherewithal and funding to meaningfully attack the congestion problem with capacity expansion. So we don’t want to spend a ton of money on something that might eventually need to be removed.
  2.  Right now it’s not likely a 4-3 conversion over the bridge will work without creating an absolute nightmare for motorists. The plan is to close the ramps at 12th Ave, and Nicollet Ave, which will only increase motorists using this portion of Portland Ave making it even less likely to work.

Perhaps the best solution is like Hennepin County is doing at Portland Ave over the Crosstown, widen the sidewalks as much as practical, build slip lanes for bicyclists to move on and off them, and do a 4-3 conversion outside the immediate area of the ramps.

The Ideal Arterial

The new Portland Ave in Richfield is perhaps the ideal for an urban arterial. Three 11-foot lanes for motorists, shoulders for the confident bicyclists and an off-road path for the less confident. Street lights, that while according to my measurement don’t quite state standards are an improvement over Bloomington’s love with the darkness. Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals provide added protection for motorists and non-motorists alike.


The Portland of tomorrow, in Richfield

With the limited scope of this project and Bloomington’s stubborn refusal to follow state street lighting standards it’s too much to hope for something this nice in the short term. According to a Portland study only 8% of the population are the “Strong and Fearless” or “Enthused and Confident”; presumably the type that would use unprotected bicycle lanes such as these. So Isabella is probably still excluded.



But one can always dream of the future while modestly improving things in the interim.

The Twin Cities Future Highway Map?

September 28, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This is one idea of what the state trunk highway system could look like in the future, perhaps 30 years out. I’ve pointedly avoided calling it a “fantasy” map, since it’s based mostly on official planning documents, not me drawing lines wherever I think a new freeway would be cool. I’ve also excluded the “I-894 Outer Beltway”, which would cost roughly $1 Zillion and thus is just a little to abstract and unlikely for here (Even though it actually got inserted in a recent funding request).


Twin Cities Future Trunk Highway Map?

Large size version Here

Sources are:

  1. The often repeated long term goal of having the trunk highway system correspond to principal arterials and the recent jurisdictional alignment study.
  2. Specific local planning documents for locations of new principal arterials.
  3. A bit of my own fantasy and speculation. Notably all the assigned numbers are fantasy and speculation

The history of the trunk highway system is long and convoluted an would make a good article someday, but Mn/DOT and it’s predecessor, the Minnesota Department of Highways, have always felt they’re in the business of facilitating long distance and regional transportation. However due to political reasons they have in addition have a bunch of local, unimportant roads (like MN 270) they are obligated to maintain, Mn/DOT is trying to return them to local control. This has been happening statewide at a very slow rate with routes from trunk highways to minor unimportant towns that Mn/DOT was forced to take over a 1949 pork barrel bill. With respect to the Twin Cities; it’s more the shift of long distance and regional traffic to the freeways  rendering the city streets more local in character. Here’s a 1979 map showing all the trunk highways on streets in Minneapolis and St. Paul.


Twin Cities Map, 1978, after substantial completion of the interstate system but before turnbacks really began.

Brooklyn Blvd is MN 152. Although US 65 was shifted off Lyndale Ave almost immediately, the street remains a trunk highway except for 50th to Lake St, and US 8 no longer follows Broadway St to Central Ave.  For some true Roadgeek Trivia, notice MN 278 and MN 280 as pork barrel routes. What would be MN 279 is Cedar Ave, and was marked as an extension of MN 36 instead.

Here are some specific notes on the future map:

South Metro

MN 13 is shown moved onto Cliff Road, and MN 149 and MN 952A (Robert Street’s secret number) are shown turned back.

The status of MN 50 reflects some of the conflicting goals involved. As a non-principal arterial, it is a turnback candidate (and has already been turned back in Lakeville). Yet there are studies for a new east-west principal arterial, one possibility being MN 50. Thus I’ve shown it as remaining a trunk highway and extended directly west. And Scott County is not coordinating with this study, so I’ve shown it ending at I-35.

I’ve shown the existing County State Aid Highway (CSAH) 42 and CSAH 21 principal arterials as trunk highways, and the existing MN 13, MN 21, and MN 282 as turned back. Scott County, newly flush with road funding from a local 0.5% sales tax and $20 motor vehicle excise tax, plans to significantly upscale CSAH 17 into a new principal arterial, and to even build interchanges at some of the major junctions.

CSAH 86 is proposed as a future principal arterial. It’s already used as a regional east-west route, and there’s a proposed interchange with I-35 (which would take some pressure off the CSAH 2 interchange as well as regional traffic out of Elko-New Market). CSAH 17 and 42, and MN 13, 21, and 282 are identified as potential transfers in the realignment study, and this is per the 2030 Scott County Comprehensive Plan.

I’ve included the planned freeway river crossing at MN 41. When and if it gets built it would likely cost around $1 Billion, so I’m not optimistic about seeing it in my lifetime, but I included since it’s still officially planned. As an idea toward how far it’s along, Scott County is going to build an interchange at the existing MN 41 that would likely need to be demolished if the new freeway crossing is ever built.

This is what I would consider a reluctant but appropriate use of road tolling: providing badly needed highway expansion that has zero chance of happening otherwise. But aside from Mn/Pass lanes, every toll facility proposed in Minnesota has either been sunk by over-ambition or denied municipal consent. (Remember the proposals to build the new Wakota Bridge or US 212 as a toll facilities? And I’m not aware the idea is even being discussed here.)

Despite MN 7, US 212, and the MN 41 river crossing being the only principal arterials in Carver County and MN 5 being identified previously as a turnback candidate, only MN 282 is shown on either the jursidictional alignment study or the Carver County 2030 Comprehensive Plan as being turned back. MN 5, MN 25, and the rest of MN 41 remain, except MN 25 is shown rerouted farther west and MN 5 is moved slightly to bypass Norwood Young America.

North Metro and Minneapolis

I’ve taken the liberty of delving into almost pure fantasy here with the idea of moving MN 95. The existing highway going through Stillwater and the downtown areas small riverfront towns isn’t appropriate as a regional through route, although MN 95 between CSAH 18 and I-94 was already moved back onto Manning Ave, and there was actually a 1960s plan to route it west of Stillwater.

Bridge 03

1961 proposal for the Stillwater area showing a westerly bypass of MN 95.

MN 96 is shown deleted both as being identified on Washington County’s comprehensive plan as a turnback candidate and not a principal arterial. The plan shows MN 244 being kept, but I’ve shown it deleted as it’s not a principal arterial, or even very important.

There also is a proposal to study a new river crossing between the Wakota Bridge and the Hastings Bridge. When I was at a public meeting discussing what to do about the JAR Bridge, I mentioned the possibility of reopening it to vehicle traffic. The consensus was that a local crossing would not be a bad idea, but it would be better to do a new study and build a new structure rather than send cars back over an old bridge that, eventually, partially fell down by itself. I’m not even sure this would be  trunk highway and there’s no specifics where it might go. I’ve put it in dashes.


John Dillinger Fled Here: the old JAR Bridge

CSAH 12 is a principal arterial and is identified as misaligned, so as such I’ve shown it as a trunk highway. Part of it was a trunk highway, but was recently turned back in order to cheat the system and get funding for improvements from the turnback fund, that would be long in coming from other sources. CSAH 22 has been identified as a future principal arterial and trunk highway.

The Anoka County 2030 Transportation Plan identifies CSAH 22 as a new principal arterial under Mn/DOT jurisdiction, and moving part of MN 47 onto CSAH 9. University Ave and Central Ave south of I-694 are not principal arterials and are identified as misaligned, and as such I’ve shown them removed from the trunk highway system.

I’ve chosen to show the proposed new river crossing in dashes. Unlike the new Stillwater Bridge were there was cooperation between jurisdictions to facilitate regional mobility, in this case Hennepin county has refused to cooperate with Anoka County, and with the long term funding problems it’s hard to find the project even being talked about. The city of Ramsey is preserving right-of-way and has it in their 2030 Comprehensive Plan, but that is about it. The idea has been around for 50 years; originally it was suppose to be a bypass for what is now US 169 to get regional traffic out of downtown Anoka, but development has made that impracticable now, and it would now tie into a future Brockton Lane interchange on I-94 that local governments have been incessantly trying to get built for the last decade or so.

St Paul 

Yes, I know about state statute 161.122


The location, designation, marking and numbering of Legislative Route No. 125, marked Trunk Highway 51, as that route is established, located, designated, marked, and traveled southerly of University Avenue within the city of St. Paul, shall not be changed by the commissioner of transportation.

Nevertheless, statutes can be repealed, so I’ve shown MN 51 as shifted to Ayd Mill Road. Opening it up has shifted a lot of the thru traffic to it, and the proposed more direct connection to I-94 would shift even more.

MN 5 is shown moved from 7th Ave and Minnehaha Ave (which are not principal arterials) to Shepard Rd and Warner Road. Moving the trunk highway and building a better connection at I-35E would allow downscaling 7th to be a more neighborhood street as well as accommodating light rail.

Will all of this happen? Not likely, but it gives an idea of some of the potential changes that might happen in the decades ahead.

Hello, World!

September 2, 2016 at 3:11 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So this marks the return of North Star Highways. I’ve been active on the old usenet group misc.transport.road for a number of years, and it’s spiritual successor AAroads.com. At the height of people having personal web sites in the early 2000s, I had one too, devoted to roadgeekery with a Minnesota focus. Pages on such topics as abandoned highways sign shield galleries. However , there were several problems that I was never able to resolve.

First of all, it always looked like something someone threw together in Netscape Composer, because it was. I never learned how to program html, much less java. It was kind of OK in those days, but the look rapidly became dated.

Second, on my Earthlink free web site, I was limited to 15 MB of file storage. That didn’t go very far even back then and even with reducing images to the minimum size I considered acceptable. Finally I split the more  more historical aspects of the site from the others into
“North Star Highways II” which I never liked and didn’t ultimately solve the problem.

Thirdly, people did some key areas of my site better than me. John Weeks with his bridge photography, and “Deadpioneer” with historical context. One of my plans was to photograph as many Mississippi River bridges as possible, but with John having more resources and wherewithal doing so myself would be superfluous.

And fourthly, film photography was expensive and time consuming, and I was involved as a photographer for a church group, which took up much of my time and wherewithal.

Although the site languished for years with little attention, it persisted until it was time to switch the cable and internet account from my father’s name to mine. He had moved out years ago and it was an issue every time I needed to contact Comcast about something or other. Effectively the account was terminated and a new one was made in my name, and Comcast no longer offered for web storage with new accounts, so that was the end.

In the meantime I finally switched to digital and started loading photos on the Flickr. This increased once they removed their limit on the number of images for free acounts. This solved the lack of web space, and was fine for certain things like shield galleries, but created a new problem in that there was no real way to present them in the context of an article. Then I started reading articles on streets.mn, a local transportation issues blog. Although having no official site opinions, it was heavily slanted towards urban viewpoints. When I complained, they suggested I write for them myself, which I did, for 48 articles.

Most of the staff treated my nice throughout most of my time there, both online and at meetups and were appreciative of my writings, but ultimately I felt like the token black person that was accepted onto an exurban high school on the debate team to give the impression of diversity. It was a role I did not mind, bringing diversity and the minority report to the site. But for reasons I don’t fully understand,  eventually tensions increased and my opinions became less welcome, at least among some of the staff. This finally coming to a head when I used derogatory words to describe a type of development I personally don’t like, “Stack and Pack” housing in a comment one of the moderator’s articles.

I was told by a moderator to cut it out, despite the fact that everyone else was free to use derogatory words for development they personally don’t like, such as “Sprawl” and “Nowhere” to describe the suburbs, or “Stroad” to describe a street that was apparently anything more than the bicycle trail.  I was also warned about my “combative tone and inflexible opinions” and that other people were not writing articles for fear I might not agree with them and that if it continued I might be kicked out.

Never mind that my own articles had plenty of comments with “combative tone and inflexible opinions” and I wasn’t the only one criticizing articles. (And if you write an article you should expect people might disagree with you; I certainly did). Although it was not quite a “you can’t fire me, I quit type” of situation it was becoming clear the tensions weren’t going to go away and would only get worse if I stayed around.

Finally, although I pushed as hard as I could into roadgeekery, streetlights, and traffic signals on that site, I still had to hold back in some ways due to the general nature of the site. It is my intent to update, revise, and repost some of my articles, some of the old North Star Highways pages, make articles out of some of my Flickr galleries and of course fresh new content, both of the type I wrote on streets and of the type from the North Star Highways of old. Ultimately there will be challenges adopting a web site into a blog format and well as a cohesive theme with my new emphasis on suburbia as well as hardcore roadgeekery, but we’ll see what happens.

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