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St. Paul's controversial Jefferson Avenue bikeway sparks even more citizen hearings

Bike activists say Jefferson Avenue is a perfect route to connect with other bikeways.
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Bike activists say Jefferson Avenue is a perfect route to connect with other bikeways.

Most bicycles are hung in the garage after Saturday's snow, but there'll be plenty of heated bike action next month in St. Paul when the city holds three meetings in another attempt to get community consensus on a bikeway along Jefferson Avenue.

Jefferson is a prime target for bike activists who say the residential street that runs east-west for four miles between a loop in the Mississippi River is a perfect route to connect with other bikeways in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The residential Jefferson street runs from Mississippi River Boulevard on the west, where you can look across the river into south Minneapolis, to the St. Paul Schools headquarters building on the east, not far from the High Bridge that crosses the river. Jefferson is just four blocks north of the busier, more commercial Randolph Avenue, which gets a much higher share of motorized traffic.

But changing Jefferson into a real bikeway (or bike boulevard or bike/walk street) has turned into a long-running dispute, with a vocal group of neighbors worried that proposed changes will cause safety issues for their families.

The December meetings are an attempt to bring some resolution to what newly elected City Council member Chris Tolbert calls "one of the most divisive issues" he found while campaigning this fall in the neighborhood.

Probably the biggest sticking point: a diverter on Cleveland Avenue at Jefferson — a median that wouldn't allow left turns onto Jefferson — as a way, in theory, to make it easier for bikers and walkers to cross the intersection and use the street. But a test of the diverter caused much angst for many neighbors, who said cars were speeding down neighboring streets and alleys as drivers sought alternates routes when they couldn't make the blocked turn.

The city says the diverter is now off the table — although some of the concerned neighbors aren't sure they believe that — and now the challenge is to find others ways to slow traffic on the street, or risk losing the $750,000 in federal funding that's been set aside for the bikeway.

The dilemma is linked to the city's successful application for the federal grant to build the Jefferson bikeway; part of the proposal included having some of those "traffic-calming" measures on the roadway. 

But earlier community meetings have already shown a dislike for such potential calming proposals as round-abouts and speed humps, so with the pointed opposition to the diverter, too, it's clear that there's still a big gulf to bridge.

Meanwhile, the Transit for Liveable Communities nonprofit group, which is administering the federal grant, has watched the city miss deadlines the past few years, and is keeping a close eye on the city's progress to reach a consensus and approve the project. So far, though, it has not given the city a drop-dead date to use the money or lose it, said Joan Pasiuk, director of TLC's Bike Walk Twin Cities, which oversees the funds.

"We've conveyed to city officials all along that if they are not able to fulfill the requirements [some traffic-calming elements], they can still develop Jefferson, but to use these funds, they'll need to meet the criteria."

[Update: The neighborhood group opposing the project points out that Pasiuk, who works for TLC heading up the bikeway effort, is a bike enthusiast who lives on Jefferson, and therefore has a conflict of interest on the issue, which they say, hasn't been properly disclosed.

[Pasiuk's response: 

["All funded projects are managed by the implementing authority. In the case of Jefferson, the project is managed by the City of St. Paul. I direct the entire program that has funded 37 capital projects, 8 planning studies, five education projects, an ongoing measurement project, numerous contracts to support communications work, and staff effort in all areas. My job is to oversee resources of all aspects of our program to achieve best outcomes related to program goals. All project award decisions were made the the TLC board, with input from the Bike Walk Advisory Committee and technical scores from a panel of experts. Staff also provided recommendations to the board; I participated in this process in all cases except for the Jefferson project, removing myself from any relevant staff meetings prior to the award decision."]

Some bike/traffic improvements have already been made on the eastern part of Jefferson — and paid for by the city, not by the federal money . They include:

  • Striped bike lanes between Lexington Parkway and West Seventh Street.
  • Bicycle-related pavement markings (called sharrows) between Lexington Parkway and Snelling.
  • Bicycle-related destination/directional signs.
  • Street name signs that include a bicycle logo which identifies Jefferson Avenue as a bikeway.
  • A dynamic speed-display sign near Edgcumbe and one just west of Saratoga.
  • A reduction of the speed limit between Lexington Parkway and Victoria Street from 40 mph to 30 mph.

Now the city wants to want get going on its plan for the western section of the road.

Incoming Council Member Chris Tolbert said some neighbors see the Jefferson project "as a solution without a problem, and a waste of government money."
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
Incoming Council Member Chris Tolbert said some neighbors see the Jefferson project "as a solution without a problem, and a waste of government money."

Neighborhood worries
A neighborhood group has emerged to oppose many aspects of the western Jefferson plan, particularly that diverter at Cleveland. The Local Taxpayers for a Liveable Community neighborhood group has pushed hard on the issue and sent a letter to Mayor Chris Coleman earlier this month, saying that they're interested in "protecting our neighborhood streets for pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers throughout Ward Three."

But they don't want the diverter and don't like the current process.

"While we fundamentally reject the philosophy that comes with the "use it or lose it" approach that has dogged this project from the beginning, we have come to realize the City intends to spend this money despite taxpayer objections," said the letter, signed by the group's leadership, including Erich Mische, who was once a top aide to former Mayor Norm Coleman.

Clare Bluhm, a spokesman for the group, said she fears the diverter may return in a later city plan, and her group is adamantly opposed to that.

During the test in 2010, cars seeking alternate routes would speed past her street and in her alley where her young child plays, she said.

"We're not anti-bike or anti-bikeway," she said. "More than half the members of our group are regular bikers. But we feel this has become more of a political thing, and they're making it look like we're not progressive and against increasing biking. But it's a common-sense thing.

"Cars already go slow on the street; it's narrow and bikers regularly use it. It doesn't make sense to spend extra money there on a forced project."

Incoming Council Member Tolbert said some neighbors see the Jefferson project "as a solution without a problem, and a waste of government money."

The neighborhood group does say it supports better striping of crosswalks in the area, more police presence at intersections to enforce crosswalk laws, and more digital speed signs to encourage motorists to slow down.

Public meetings set
Trying to keep the bikeway process on track, city officials last week scheduled the three December meetings to review potential traffic-calming treatments on Jefferson. The goal is to get community consensus on some improvements that can be made at various points of the proposed bikeway, fulfill the application requirements and free up the federal money.

The meetings are:

  • Dec. 6: 7 to 8:30 p.m., Nativity School, 1900 Stanford Ave., to consider the stretch of Jefferson from  Mississippi River Boulevard to Finn Street.
  • Dec. 12: 7 to 8:30 p.m., Nativity School, for the stretch from Finn Street to Fairview Avenue.
  • Dec. 13: 7 to 8:30 p.m., Nativity School, for Fairview Avenue to Snelling Avenue.

After the meetings, city staff will take the ideas and produce a preliminary design proposal, said Emily Erickson, the city's sustainable transportation planner.

Bike walk streets, shared lanes and new bike lanes are included in the concept plan.
bikewalktwincities.org
Bike walk streets, shared lanes and new bike lanes are included in the concept plan.

The city's goal, she said, is to find ways to make the streets safer for bikes, pedestrians and cars, while improving ways for people to get around on bikes and on foot.

Disagreements and misunderstandings have slowed the process on this project, even after 16 or 17 public meetings, she said. "People don't want to be told what their street is going to look like; they want to have input," Erickson said.

From the neighbors' perspective, there's still some distrust of the TLC group's intentions for remaking Jefferson. Mische wrote this in an op-ed piece in the Highland Villager this fall:

 Transit for Livable Communities (TLC), which was founded in 1996, seeks to “reform” Minnesota’s transportation system by offering more of a “balance” between motorized and nonmotorized vehicles. It’s a worthy goal, and one I embrace as a private citizen, a parent and someone who has approached middle age believing that the more I engage in physical activity, the better.

But my agreement with TLC’s goals stops there. I object to this organization’s ends-justify-the-means mentality, its methods and tactics, and the process that has led to a neighborhood being forced to accept a project it never requested — a process that has our own tax dollars being used against us by an organization that is unelected.

 But TLC's Pasiuk says the St. Paul community, as a whole, appears eager to secure the federal funds for the Jefferson east-west bikeway, with the links to Minneapolis and St. Paul bike routes and connections with schools, community centers, playgrounds and commercial areas.

Tolbert says he's siding with the neighbors against the diverter, as did his predecessor, Pat Harris, who didn't run for re-election. Tolbert hopes next month's meetings will get the two sides talking again with an eye toward finding a compromise.

"We need to get a lot of public input, a lot of discussion, and decide as a community how to move forward," he said. "The saddest thing is to see this divisiveness among neighbors."

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Comments (15)

I just love how you don't hear a peep from anybody when we spend $300M on a freeway interchange but try to build one bike street (or one light rail) and it's this incredibly controversial issue. There are thousands of streets in this town; it's about time there's *one* oriented towards bikers when bikers deal with all other streets being focused on cars. And the neighbors who say they ride bikes and don't think it would be good to have need to go try out the really nice new bike boulevards in Minneapolis.

"and now the challenge is to find others ways to slow traffic on the street, or risk losing the $750,000 in federal funding that's been set aside for the bikeway."

That's not an argument, that's typical government-speak that shows bureaucrats find it way too easy to spend other people's money and the people are getting tired of it.

I live close to that neighborhood and "traffic calming" methods like their little pretend european traffic circles aren't too popular with the folks who live here either. Solutions in search of a problem.

Tolbert seems to have some difficulty in knowing where he stands on this issue. Apparently the winds aren't yet blowing strongly enough in one direction.

Incoming Council Member Tolbert said some neighbors see the Jefferson project "as a solution without a problem, and a waste of government money."

vs.

"We need to get a lot of public input, a lot of discussion, and decide as a community how to move forward," he said. "The saddest thing is to see this divisiveness among neighbors."

I'm a TLC Board member and familiar with this. For the past 5 years TLC, by congressional directive, has awarded and managed $21M of federal funds in competitive grants to enhance biking/walking mode share in the Twin Cities.

St Paul submitted an application for Jefferson Avenue. TLC (using a panel of national design consultants) found it met program criteria, and awarded a project grant to the city. The eastern part of the project was constructed. However, the city's design apparently was ahead of its local process, and the western part of the project has encountered the lack of neighborhood consensus described above.

TLC has offered the city substantial time and flexibility to revise the design, but has emphasized that TLC, as curator of the federal funds, cannot fund a redesign if it doesn't meet basic program criteria for mode share impact. If the city cannot reach an adequate community consensus on a design that meets these criteria, TLC will reprogram the funds to other competitive projects or return them to the feds.

Mr Mische may legitimately organize his neighbors against a project if they do not believe it will be right for their street. But his method of doing so, claiming that TLC (a local nonprofit founded on the principle of credible, objective transportation system research) is a public Leviathan coming from afar to "force" this project on the community, is objectionable, and I think just a little bit ideological.

Follow the money.

I'm all for bicycling (I own several bikes and ride a lot) but this is not only excessive but also intrusive. People can ride on a residential street like this without making a mess out of the neighborhood. Lowering the speed limit to 25 is a good idea for any residential street but all the lane markers and round-abouts aren't needed and will simply cost a lot of money in an already cash strapped economy. This is a prime reason you should vote against tax increases and politicians that think they have to throw money at everything.

@1: Good to have and need are two entirely different things. Arguably, we needed a mass transit approach in the TC, though I really question the approach chosen. Until we put some limits on expansion and/or have a fully operational mass transit system, we really have no choice but to spend money on our interstates, not simply for convenience but for energy efficiency and public safety.

As someone who lives in the general area and occasionally rides his bike around the neighborhood, I'm not convinced that we need a $750k + bikeway that runs from the river to the river when he have a bikeway along the river that will take you between the same two points. BTW, I have no problem getting to either point from my home midway between the two.

@5: Nobody knows what you mean by that. It's not clever.

I'm really surprised at the number of people who claim to be bikers who don't see the value in this. Have you seen how lovely and peaceful 40th street in south Minneapolis has become, where groups of bikers can enjoy use of the entire road and can enjoy the pleasure of riding together and conversing without constantly being pushed into the gutter to let angry drivers pass? I mean, there's an entire freaking grid of roads. Cars can drive on ANY of the others. How is this such a burden?

As someone who lives in the neighborhood, bikes year-round and cares about my own safety (unlike Kevin), these no-brainer bike improvements are absolutely necessary. Speeding is rampant (I almost always get tail gated for driving the speed limit on Fairview, Cleveland, Marshall and Summit) and traffic on the north south streets like Cleveland and Cretin is extremely heavy. Similar improvements like the intersection of 40th Street and Chicago in Minneapolis and the temporary Cleveland and Jefferson island make biking much more pleasant and safe. All TLC and other adovcates want is a few streets where alternative transportation is encouraged. Mr. Mische will still be able to drive to his work place but he may have to drive around the block to do so. Cyclists and pedestrians deserve a safe route across the city.

For conservatives like Dennis and Mr. Mische cycling is another battle in the fictitious war against well-off older conservative males. Don't worry Mayor Rybak and TLC aren't going to confiscate your GMC Yukon. Driving will continue to receive the vast majority of public and private transportation funds. I am happy with the crumbs I get but would like another couple nibbles.

Before this there was the Highland Parkway bike boulevard which was killed through neighborhood opposition and now years of arguing about Jefferson. How about this? Clearly Highland Park is not interested. Please give these progressive street improvements to Hamline-Midway and Frogtown. We will be glad to have them and soon we will be the destination area of St. Paul.

James - The river trails are nice but a Jefferson route is much more direct. I have never understood the opposition to this bike may. The one block detour created by a bike island is too much but adding a couple miles to a bike trip is nothing. What?

"While we fundamentally reject the philosophy that comes with the "use it or lose it" approach…"

The "use it or lose it" structure in the provision of public goods is a flawed approach. Instead of rewarding efficient production, providers of public goods are encouraged to be "takers." But then CEO's are criticized of being "takers" in the production of private goods; taking as much as they can get their board of directors to approve in salaries, bonuses and stock options.

If we all become "takers" it seems we will end up in a gridlock of indecision.

It might be useful for MinnPost readers to know that the Jefferson Avenue bikeway is one of 37 infrastructure projects funded through the Bike Walk Twin Cities nonmotorized transportation pilot program administered by Transit for Livable Communities. Many of these projects, including bicycle boulevards, have opened already. The story left the impression that the bikeway was proposed by activists, but in fact it was proposed by the City of Saint Paul in 2009 and was awarded funding because of its potential to increase bicycling and walking as transportation.

Fifty percent of all trips Americans make are less than 3 miles. Many of these trips could be made on a bicycle or by walking—but only if people feel it will be safe and convenient. The proposal from the City of Saint Paul that was awarded $750,000 includes adding a sidewalk between Lexington and Victoria and curb bumpouts between Victoria and Bay Street. The funds also would be used to add traffic calming elements west of Lexington. As the story noted, the route is not far from commercial destinations on Randolph. It also is near schools and rec centers. Traffic calming and other features make it safer for kids and families to reach destinations in ways other than driving a car.

Federal funding for bicycling and walking projects is generally 2-3% of overall spending on transportation. The total funding for the Bike Walk Twin Cities nonmotorized transportation pilot program is $28 million over five years, or about $6 million per year (the funds were authorized in the 2005 transportation law, SAFETEA-LU). By comparison, Minnesota’s apportionment of federal transportation dollars for one year (2010) was $633 million.

The proposed bikeway along Jefferson would develop the network of routes for safe trips for bicyclists, while also enhancing safety for people walking. Hopefully, the City of Saint Paul’s upcoming meetings will yield a good resolution. But, if not, the City can withdraw the proposal so that the funds can be reprogrammed. There is great demand for funds for bicycling and walking projects.

P.S. At the start of his story, Mr Kimball said, “Most bicycles are hung in the garage after Sunday’s snow.” But, Bike Walk Twin Cities’ data shows that 20-30% of bicyclists keep riding all through the winter. Minneapolis was just named to a list of the top winter bicycling cities, surpassed in this case only by Boulder, Colorado.

Why is it that they can build one/two/three bike boulevards in Minneapolis in the time it takes the St Paul DOT to consider having a public process re-consideration meeting recommendation plan?

Ms. Bluhm does not speak for the neighborhood--only a select group of residents.

Based on recent meetings and my own conversations with my neighbors on Jefferson Avenue there are plenty of people who live here who support this project and believe improving non-motorized transit options IS common sense.

I'm sorry that a lack of strong leadership and the wild spread of misinformation has left my neighborhood so deeply divided.

I look forward to civil and respectful communication between all interested parties at the upcoming meetings.