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METRO B Line should move to Marshall in St. Paul; rebuild Selby as pedestrian mall

Clearly, Selby is a street for people, and not a street for a high-frequency bus rapid transit line.

A rendering of the proposed Metro B Line.
A rendering of the proposed Metro B Line.
Metro Transit

There is a tragic transportation project currently underway along Selby Avenue in St. Paul, but people won’t understand the scale of this mistake until it is completed in a year.

The city of St. Paul, along with the Metropolitan Council, is constructing a high-frequency bus highway down this street, arguably the most historic and quaint in the state of Minnesota. Not only should this project be halted and moved two blocks north to Marshall Avenue, but Selby should be closed to vehicles and remade as a pedestrian-only mall.

The project is called the METRO B Line, a bus rapid transit route that largely replaces the existing Metro Transit 21 bus line. It will run the width of Minneapolis, starting west of Bde Maka Ska, continuing along Lake Street and into St. Paul along Marshall, and then it will inexplicably jog over to Selby at Snelling Avenue, until it reaches the Union Depot in downtown St. Paul. Double-length buses will run every 10 minutes in each direction, and stop at long platforms that are at least one foot higher than street grade.

While this may be an upgrade to bus service on Lake – a dense, busy, mixed-use urban corridor, similar to University Avenue in St. Paul – it will be entirely wrong for Selby and will ruin the character of the Cathedral Hill neighborhood.

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This stretch of Selby, particularly the span from Dale Street to Summit Avenue (but extending as far west as Lexington Avenue) is a narrow, walkable, quaint and even European high street. It is lined with several restaurants, bars and coffee shops, notably at the corner of Selby and Western Avenue, the picturesque corner that houses landmarks like W.A. Frost and Company and Nina’s Coffee Cafe in the incomparable Blair Arcade.

This span also includes wine shops, clothing boutiques, upcoming dessert and ice cream shops, and it is lined with countless Victorian homes, all close to the street on yards with short setbacks – even as the street itself is only 25 feet wide in places. It eventually terminates at the magnificent Cathedral of St. Paul, arguably one of the finest cathedrals in the United States.

Clearly, this is a street for people, and not a street for a high-frequency bus rapid transit line. It should instead be a pedestrian mall, full of restaurant tables, fountains like the ornate fountain at Irvine Park, benches, public artwork, and a generous amount of tree canopies. Imagine people strolling along this mall, going in and out of businesses, and enjoying their time in this historic outdoor setting and you’ll realize that this is exactly how it should be preserved.

In fact, several other cities have developed similar streets into pedestrian malls – often along stretches without such stunning architecture – and into successful regional destinations. Examples include the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington, Vermont and the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The original plan for the METRO B Line was for the busses to run down Marshall, where the current bus route currently operates. This is a far superior stretch of road for this purpose, as it is much wider and the buildings and houses are set back much further from the street. It will also serve riders and this neighborhood equally well as a Selby line, as Marshall is just two short blocks north of Selby.

While roughly three or four stations along this route are in various states of construction, both St. Paul and the Met Council should be nimble enough to realize that this part of the project is an enormous mistake and will set back better plans to improve St. Paul, and return the route to Marshall. After all, a business pursuing a money-losing venture would change course, and so too would a sports team pursuing a game-losing plan.

If this part of the project were to continue, it would forever ruin the legacies of the people involved. To quote an apt Turkish proverb, “No matter how far you’ve travelled down the wrong road, turn back.

J. Dan E. Maruska is a resident of St. Paul.