In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost had it right: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
The poet was referring to New England’s picturesque, handcrafted stone walls that sit so low to the ground even the unathletic can easily vault over them. If Frost knew about the 20-foot-high walls that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is planning to build along I-35 in the Marcy-Holmes, Beltrami and Como neighborhoods of Minneapolis, he would probably have been more emphatic, maybe writing, “Something there is that really loathes this hideous blot upon the landscape.”
The wall (actually it’s made up of six chunks) is a feature of a $13 million two-part state-county construction project. The first piece is the construction of new ramp at 4th Street South, complete with double left-turn lanes, to connect drivers coming from downtown to I-35 northbound. The idea is to alleviate eastbound traffic on Washington Avenue, which now offers the major pathway to I-35 north.
Part two is the addition of an auxiliary lane from the University Ave./4th Street SE entrances to I-35, all the way up to Stinson Boulevard (and of course, all the way down on the other side). Auxiliary lanes run on the right side of a highway; their purpose is to allow drivers more time to decide whether they’re going to exit or stay on the road and also to give trucks time to climb up to speed on a hill without getting in the way of faster traffic.
And this is where the walls come in. Because adding auxiliary lanes requires widening the interstate, it will lie closer to housing and other structures on either side. Hennepin County and the state are making these improvements, if you consider them such, and I have my doubts, but because the changes are attached to a federal highway, federal noise standards prevail. The top level allowed by the Feds is 70 decibels. Ergo, MNDOT is required to install sound-buffering walls — and pay an extra $3 million for them.
The walls won’t exactly be easy on the eyes. At 20 feet, they will tower over the average 15-foot single-story house and face off with the second-story windows of the standard 25-foot two-story house. Made of wood planks that look like pressure-treated patio decking connected by concrete posts, the walls promise to be only slightly prettier than — well, you’ve seen them, you know what they look like. But, the noise barriers must be erected if the project is to go forward — so saith the Feds. Only if the neighborhood has objections can MNDOT and Hennepin County avoid building them.
And the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, located along the Mississippi between the University and downtown (and by the way the oldest neighborhood in the city), has puh-lenty of objections — as do Beltrami and Como, for similar reasons.
At a meeting last week in the overheated basement of University Lutheran Church of Hope, Cordelia Pierson, president of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood association, explained that the highway currently generates 72 decibels, only two ticks higher than the federal level. (FYI: Decibels measure the intensity of sound waves. According to MNDOT, 72 is just above the level of noise in a business office. A chainsaw registers 90, truck traffic 80 and conversational speech 60; a library registers 50.) Even after the highway is widened, noise levels are expected to remain at 72 decibels. “None of us would even notice anything,” she says of herself and her neighbors.
Scott Pedersen, the Metro District-preliminary design engineer for MNDOT, who showed up to argue the agency’s case, puts the current noise level at 70 to 79 decibels, but he generally agrees with Pierson: “There would be no noticeable increase,” he says. With the noise walls, however, the level could drop from five to 15 decibels.
But there’s more. I-35 splits the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood in two pieces, which the community would ideally like to see reconnected by a land bridge. In an effort to soften the harshness of the freeway, however, 400 residents, starting in 1994, took on a beautification project, planting sumac trees, bushes and other greenery. All that would have to come out to make way for freeway expansion.
“We’ll have a big ugly wall that’ll be a canvas for graffiti,” says Pierson. The walls would or could create opportunities for mugging and other criminal activity, she claims, and make the area less safe for bikers and pedestrians.
“We’ve poured a lot of sweat equity into knitting our neighborhood back together,” she adds. “The sound wall is like turning the clock back.”
I almost felt sorry for Pedersen as he faced down the neighborhood’s fury. “You’re spending a helluva lot of money for something we don’t want,” said Ellen Krug, a resident. “You are polluting the visual environment,” insisted another resident.
OK, you say. If they don’t want the wall, they should vote against it.
That, however, is not so easily done. First of all MNDOT qualifies for voting only those housing units within a specific distance of each of the six walls. So, for example, there are 173 votes (MNDOT calls them points) for the “E” wall section on the west side of the highway between 4th Street and 8th Streets SE, but the “I” section — the east side of 35W between the CP Railroad Bridge and Talmage Avenue SE has only 79 points. According to Pedersen, building owners get four points, owner-residents six points and renters two points.
Get out the vote
Finding those who are qualified to vote is a major challenge for the neighborhood association’s vote-no campaign. The majority of eligible “voters” are absentee landlords and University of Minnesota students. And a non-vote counts as a “yes.” So if 20 points are voted against the wall and 10 for with 143 points not voted at all, the wall wins. The “election” started on July 24 and runs for a month; as of July 26, only Wall “I” looked to be losing. In all the other cases, the non-responses were in the majority.
At the community meeting, Pedersen described MNDOT’s efforts, which were considerable, to track down every last owner and resident. In fact, the agency seems so assiduous about its own get-out-the-vote campaign that I suspect that they also found something not to love about the wall, particularly the $3 million they’ll have to find to pay for it.
Meanwhile, I have to say that there is a lot not to love about the entire project.
Does I-35 really need an entrance in addition to Washington Avenue? Nick Peterson, project manager from Hennepin County’s Transportation Department, described congestion on the street as “horrendous.” I live on that street, and except for rush hour when there might be a five-minute delay — I’ve timed it — getting onto I-35 northbound, traffic is pretty light. Assuming that congestion is much worse when I’ve got my back turned, how much time would the new ramp save drivers? Five minutes? Ten minutes? I asked MNDOT’s Scott Pedersen, and I’ll let you know what he says when he gets back to me.
Further, widening I-35 to accommodate slower-moving traffic seems like an unnecessary frill. Yes, drivers have to criss-cross each other getting on the highway at University, but it’s not a junction that has caused a great many accidents. And, where are the hills that trucks would need to climb?
Perhaps the rationale is the following, which appears on the Hennepin County website: “These improvements will allow the region to capitalize on the new capacity of the recently replaced I35W/Mississippi River Bridge and encourage economic growth and stability in the area.”
Adding another passage to the north from downtown won’t increase bridge traffic. After all, the same number of people will be driving to and fro as previously. Nor will such an addition necessarily spur downtown growth, if that’s what the state and Hennepin County are getting at.
Finally, just because a bridge can carry more traffic doesn’t mean it should.
Have a question for Marlys? Don’t miss your chance to ask at an August drinks-and-dinner event for MinnPost members and their guests. More details here.