Thursday on Zoom, Minneapolis Public Works held an unusual “stakeholder engagement” meeting. Jeni Hager, director of transportation planning and programming, did her best to suggest that everything was fine around the Bryant Avenue reconstruction. She spent most of an hour taking questions about last-minute changes to the two-and-a-half mile project in the heart of south Minneapolis.
It did not go smoothly. At the heart of the issue was why plans, already approved by the City Council and signed off by Mayor Jacob Frey, were hastily being altered. Asked why the plan was not re-submitted to the City Council, which technically has jurisdiction over street design, Hager explained her perspective.
“This is not going back because the design revision continues to align with the project goals,” Hager said. “(It) continues to align with the TAP (Transportation Action Plan) and the (adopted) street design guide. It does not substantially change what is included in the original design.”
As the meeting went on, it became clear that the plan revisions were not complete. After one question, Hager admitted the department didn’t yet have firm plans for most of the project’s blocks. If the Bryant Avenue reconstruction were happening months in the future, all of this would have been normal, but work on Bryant Avenue began this morning. Crews are already under contract and putting shovels in the ground.
For a normally transparent Public Works department to make up plans on the fly represents a big departure for Minneapolis’ approach to transportation. Even if you like the changes, which water down safety on the new street, the process is a red flag. Reflecting the shifting power dynamics between the mayor’s office and the City Council, the changes seem like a step backward for equity and climate action.
An overview of the Bryant Avenue project
The Bryant Avenue reconstruction is a once-in-a-lifetime rebuild of a residential street running through the heart of south Minneapolis. More than a repaving, the $4.7 million project represents an opportunity to remake the street from the foundation. In this case, planners and engineers are installing completely new street elements, from dirt to curbs, trees, sewers, rain gardens, concrete, and light poles.
While a quiet residential street, Bryant Avenue is a key corridor for bicycling. It runs north-south through the heart of Minneapolis’ dense Wedge neighborhood, parallel to busy Lyndale Avenue which sadly, is too choked with cars to be safe. In 2010, Bryant was converted into a “bicycle boulevard”, a kind of bike infrastructure which, in theory, minimizes through car traffic and prioritizes bicyclists.
In practice, the City of Minneapolis installed almost no traffic calming measures for the street, reducing the “boulevard’s” features to little more than paint and an occasional sign. As a result, the Bryant Bike Boulevard has long been a running joke among Minneapolis cyclists, a street where bikes should have priority but instead became easy fodder for honking drivers.
That’s why Public Works’ 16-month Bryant Avenue engagement process was predicated on designing a better bike lane. The final design, approved by the Minneapolis City Council and Frey in 2021, was quite innovative. It moved transit service off of Bryant and onto busier Lyndale Avenue, two blocks away, turning Bryant into a one-way, slow speed route designed around people walking or rolling.
Most importantly, it introduced a suite of traffic calming elements including chicanes and bump outs, that, according to Deputy Director Bryan Dodds, have been “very successful” at reducing speeds along the southern half of the street (Phase One). This is precisely the kind of design outlined in Minneapolis’ ambitious “Vizion Zero plans,” increasingly important as traffic deaths have spiked since the COVID pandemic.
That’s all changed at the very last minute. Public Works posted a posted a letter about Bryant on the project website on March 30. The updated plans make two key changes to the Council-approved street design, both of which reduce the safety elements for people on foot or bicycle.
First, the new design removes the chicanes (alternating sides of car parking) in favor of a straight traffic lane on the left. According to Hager, the changes were necessary due to concerns over fire truck access. Public Works staff testified that Minneapolis drivers have had trouble parking close to the curb, particularly on the left side of the street.
“We thought people would park closer to the curb than they are doing today,” Dodds said. “Even in fall, folks were parking a couple feet away from the left curb (so that) emergency vehicles and larger vehicles have a hard time going through.”
The other big change is that the two-way protected bike path has been moved next to the street, instead of being buffered by a 4.5-foot grassy boulevard. This is in order to incorporate an angled “mountable curb” along its length, allowing emergency vehicles to drive onto the bike path if necessary. As one cyclist explained during the stakeholder meeting, from a safety perspective, the change is a downgrade.
“The change most disappointing to me was moving the bike lane closer to the street,” testified Chris Meyer. “The boulevard in the original design makes it safer, especially for getting kids to use it. You have a barrier so that cars can’t just run into you.”
Faster Traffic on Bryant Avenue
The Bryant Avenue changes might seem like small potatoes, and in the grand scheme of things that might be true. While they make the street more dangerous, there will still be a curb-protected bike lane, even if it’s adjoined by a curb that easily allows trucks to drive on it.
But the changes also reflect a departure in public process for Minneapolis. In my experience, it’s not normal for a long-approved plan to be scrapped at the very last second.
“The proposal that the City Council passed was less than 30% design,” explained Deputy Director Bryan Dodds. “We have a conceptual design layout that goes through City Council, and it’s a 5% to 10% plan. Taking a two-dimensional plan and turning that into a three-dimensional plan takes a lot of work.”
As a St. Paul planning commissioner for a decade, the process Dodds describes is unusual. Traffic engineers use distinct language for street designs: “30% engineering” refers to a general layout while “60% engineering” has specific dimensions at intersections, etc. Though not required, St. Paul Public Works typically submits 60% to 80% designs to the public, a level of detail has also been standard for major Minneapolis projects.
If Minneapolis Public Works has normalized sending the City Council and the public “10% engineering” plans, it effectively cuts the 13-member Council, and the larger public, out of the detail-work for street designs. That’s a big change from the past, when the City Council typically took the lead on transportation designs.
This is important because, for bicycle and pedestrian projects, details matter. Small elements that remain undecided about the Bryant Avenue project, such as curb design or intersection crossings, are critical pieces of the safety puzzle. If the Bryant Avenue project sets a precedent, these decisions will happen behind closed doors with almost no public scrutiny.
End of Transportation Consensus
This isn’t the only recent chaos around a major Minneapolis transportation project. Last year saw a drawn-out fight over staff-proposed bus lanes on Hennepin Avenue, another street reconstruction. The design became a political standoff involving a mayoral veto of an eight-member Council majority vote. Like Bryant, the issue exposed fissures within Public Works, where staff-led plans were scrapped at the last minute by department leadership.
There’s a cost to this disarray. The Public Works staffer in charge of the Hennepin project subsequently left the department, and according to multiple former and current employees, she was not alone. Many key Public Works staff have left the City for a variety of reasons over the last two years, including some of its most experienced transportation planners.
Under Director Margaret Anderson Kelliher, appointed by Mayor Frey a year ago, the shift at Public Works seems part of Minneapolis’ new “strong mayor” system of government. According to reporting in Southwest Voices, citing an internal email, the Department today is more likely to embrace a “let (Director Kelliher) wing it” approach, and is more responsive to direct complaints from the city’s business community.
For their part, Public Works staff denied that the Bryant Avenue changes were a response to business lobbying, instead pointing to the impact snow has had on emergency vehicle access. When asked, Dodds explained that the Department has been mulling changes to Bryant Avenue since January, after the winter’s heavy snowfall.
A less visionary Public Works?
It wasn’t too long ago that Minneapolis Public Works was a national leader in transportation planning, engineering street designs often found in countries with far safer streets. Plans like the city’s Transportation Action Plan, Vision Zero Action Plan, or 2040 Comprehensive Plan reflected a commitment to a modal hierarchy (i.e. prioritizing pedestrians, transit users, and cyclists) and reducing the city’s vehicle miles traveled.
Today, many of the city’s most forward-thinking transportation choices have fallen by the wayside or, in the case of the Bryant Avenue bike lanes, been literally pushed to the curb. Instead, Minneapolis cutting-edge street designs seem to be retreating toward mediocrity, where parking complaints trump safety and climate goals occupy a back burner.
“We are working very quickly,” Hager said during the stakeholder meeting. “We are really in a design-build phase right now with construction starting on Monday. We are handing contractors design plans as quickly as we can get them done. It feels very fast to us as well.”
By the time you read this, construction will already be underway, so don’t email your Council Member to ask for changes to the vague plans. Instead, the people of South Minneapolis, including most of its elected officials, will find out what the street will look like when it’s done.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Bryan Dodds’ name and the date the Public Works Department posted its letter about Bryant Avenue.