Whose streets? Hennepin County’s streets!

Hennepin county roads in Minneapolis
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On the map above, the thick black lines with numbers in circles represent county roads in Minneapolis. These are roads that are designed and maintained by Hennepin County and can’t be changed without the OK of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, the majority of whom have no constituents in Minneapolis whatsoever. These urban streets are designed by county engineers in rural Medina (pop. 4,892), where they have an office that is west of more than 95% of the residents of the county. None of these engineers takes the bus or train to work, because neither buses nor trains go to Medina. Few, if any, are able to ride a bike or walk to work, because there are neither bikeways nor sidewalks near the department’s office.

These streets in Minneapolis, where 19% of the households don’t have access to a car (and many people who do have access to a car still bike, bus, or walk to work) are designed by people who drive to work approximately 100% of the time.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone does it this way. In other parts of the country, cities design and maintain their own streets, and county governments focus on taking care of roads in unincorporated areas. If Seattleites wants to implement the best bike plan in the country, the only thing that might stand in their way is other Seattleites. Here’s a map of the the Multnomah County roads in the Portland area. Notice how county roads stop at the city border. Cook County doesn’t do anything inside the city limits of Chicago (yes, I’ve heard that Chicago politics is unsavory; and no, I’m not arguing for a wholesale adoption of their structure). In this map of Austin, the green lines indicate roads maintained by Travis County, and the yellow area is the city. The twain don’t meet. Denver is a city-county, so it retains municipal self-determination. Madison, WI takes care of its own streets, and Dane County’s purview is limited to highways. Hopefully, you’re noticing a pattern by now.

This is all to say we do streets in a weird way, but everyone just seems to accept it. This summer, I was talking to a mayoral candidate about the reconstruction of Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, and the push to calm traffic, install protected bike lanes, and enhance the pedestrian realm. (We won, btw.) He proclaimed that Washington had been designated as an arterial street, and that its purpose was to allow motorized traffic to move quickly. The unspoken second half of that sentence is “at the expense of the suckers who live and play nearby.” Why? When did that happen? Can we revisit the issue?

That candidate lost, thankfully, but his sentiment remains. It’s time we questioned it.  What are Minneapolitans gaining by ceding control of major streets to engineers in Medina? Couldn’t we raise the state gas tax to ease the burden of property taxes, as David Levinson suggests? If Seattle, Denver, Chicago, Portland, Austin, and Madison can manage their own streets, I want to hear a good reason why Minneapolis can’t.

This post was written by Scott Shaffer and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/02/2014 - 11:43 am.

    It’s fine to be opinionated about biking in Minneapolis (the issue of “streets” doesn’t seem to apply here to pedestrians). but one should have more than an opinion: facts do count.

    The idea that Hennepin County has minuscule Minneapolis-based representation on the Board of Commissioners is a supreme ignorance here. We have two of the most savvy and competent commissioners (McLaughlin and Higgins) who not only live in Minneapolis but know it well.

    The idea that engineers in Medina can’t maintain streets in Minneapolis–in an age when they can call them up on Google Maps and Streetviews in an instant–is simply silly. As a resident of this city, I can say that the Hennepin County Board’s recent refusal to let the Minnesota Vikings close Portland and Park Avenues for their “park” next to the new football stadium is, in my book, enough to justify those Medina engineers over Minneapolis officials any day, when the latter were basically selling the farm to Ziggy Wilf and his crew. Many of us Minneapolitans trust the county more than we do our own City Council (it was the biking community that would have taken the Portland/Park Aves. “hit,” incidentally).

    And, I have to laugh at newcomers to Minneapolis who raise a hew and cry about our multi-layered governmental system (city, county, park board, school board, Metro Council, then state). It’s historical, it functions, many times it’s led (the Metro Council creation, for example, is now being imitated, more than forty years later, by other municipalities), which is somehow “inefficient” or duplicative or Not What Others Do.

    Prove us dysfunctional first, boys and girls. Then get your facts and carefully draw some conclusions not based on a prior concept.

    • Submitted by Scott Shaffer on 01/02/2014 - 01:49 pm.

      Government should be responsive

      I’m not arguing that Hennepin County engineers are incompetent or incapable. They do have less experience moving around in Minneapolis, than if their office were in the city, that’s for sure. A Google street view doesn’t convey the terror and frustration of trying to cross a seven-lane road (maybe with a stroller or a walker) when the traffic light is on the fritz.

      “Supreme ignorance” is a little harsh — It seems like you’re reading something that I didn’t write. Is it not the case that “the majority [of the County Commissioners] have no constituents in Minneapolis whatsoever”?

      I don’t expect a public works department to share all my opinions. I do think Minneapolis deserves a public works department that is civically responsive and pursues (affordable) locally-preferred projects.

      • Submitted by Diane Spector on 01/02/2014 - 04:16 pm.

        Ludicrous Argument

        Scott, your argument is ludicrous. To assert that county traffic engineers cannot possibly understand or appreciate the complexities of getting around in the city using something other than a car just because their offices happen to be located in the suburbs is just – well, I wish I could think of another word besides ludicrous – and also kind of disrespectful to professional engineers who for the most part live not in Medina but all over the Metro area, including in the city of Minneapolis.

        It is also spectacularly ill-informed about transportation systems and how they work. Roads are classified according to their function in the transportation network. Some of those classifications are traffic-moving major collectors and arterials, most of which are state and county roads, and then there are minor arterials, collectors and local streets, which are a mix of county, city, and private roads. There are design standards and practices for each type of classification. It is the engineer’s job to ensure that each road is designed and maintained to perform that function and to protect public safety. Where local desires can be accommodated without compromising those functions and public safety, then I agree, yes local desires should be considered. But “What are Minneapolitans gaining by ceding control of major streets to engineers in Medina?” is just a stupid, parochial statement. Minneapolis streets are part of a metropolitan NETWORK of streets that includes not only moving traffic inter-city but also intra-city. That’s why our traffic signals are coordinated, that’s why, for example, a 4-lane arterial doesn’t suddenly drop to 2 lanes because City A is OK with 4 lanes but City B isn’t. For a great example of how local control can lead to poor decisions, see 1) the old Crosstown Commons, and 2) eastbound 394 that drops from 3 lanes to 2 lanes at TH 100 because the Bryn Mawr neighborhood didn’t want 3 lanes of traffic noise. Now they get noise from traffic backups and fumes from idling cars.

        Your comments also ignore the many actions Hennepin County has taken to incorporate bicycle and pedestrian facilities and aesthetic improvements on county road projects, one of which improved an unsafe intersection in my own neighborhood – the Victory Neighborhood in North Minneapolis. Our neighborhood had been trying for years to get pedestrian and bicycle improvements at an odd intersection of 44th Avenue N/Penn Avenue N/Osseo Road and got nowhere with the city. Two of the legs of the intersection, Osseo and Penn, are county roads. Hennepin County held public meetings on a simple mill and overlay project through the intersection, worked with Bikes Belong, and even though they didn’t have to, redesigned the project to include bike and ped improvements in what would have been only a simple maintenance project. That seems pretty responsive to me.

        • Submitted by Scott Shaffer on 01/02/2014 - 05:14 pm.

          Some of my best friends work for Hennepin County

          I absolutely did not assert “that county traffic engineers cannot possibly understand or appreciate the complexities of getting around in the city using something other than a car.” I noted that, because their office is in Medina, County engineers are homogeneous in their transportation mode. That’s a fact, and I’d be interested to hear why you think this fact wouldn’t skew the experiences and opinions of the people who work in the department. I do not believe (and I did not write) that County engineers are incompetent or uniformly opposed to bike and ped facilities. I’ve heard Hennepin County present great, bike- and ped-friendly designs (the upcoming job on the Franklin Avenue bridge, for example).

          So you really think it’s “ludicrous,” “stupid,” “disrespectful,” and “parochial” to simply ask why Minneapolis manages its roads differently than other cities?

          • Submitted by Diane Spector on 01/03/2014 - 01:38 am.

            Well, so if your question is “why Minneapolis manages its roads differently than other cities?”, why bring up Hennepin County and the fact that Transportation moved from downtown to a new building in Medina several years ago? (It’s actually a really cool, very green building. Did you know that they moved?) What relevance does that pose? I live in Minneapolis and work in a far western suburb. Does that make me somehow unable to understand the urban issues I deal with in my work life on a daily basis? How is it that you assume that since Hennepin County traffic engineers must drive their cars to Medina that means they can only relate to moving cars? Does that somehow deaden their intellect? Do they ignore the sessions at conferences about transit and other dense urban transportation options because apparently they can’t relate? I stand by my “ludicrous,” “stupid,” “disrespectful,” and “parochial” descriptions. You’re making boneheaded arguments.

            Now the idea that Minneapolis can be a crippling bureaucracy with some people who can’t see very far beyond their own agendas I can get behind. I’ve dealt with that as chair of my neighborhood organization. You didn’t go there. Instead, you impugned people and a system you apparently don’t understand and don’t have experience with. I take it your subject header is a bit of a joke. I have actually worked with a number of Hennepin County traffic engineers over the years on various projects, and while I wouldn’t call them friends I have met with them and lunched with them at conferences and have a familiarity and a respect for them. There’s a whole lot of good going on, which you yourself admit. I worked in the Metro transportation system for 14 years, and it took some work but we accomplished some really positive things. I’ve worked in the public sector or for the public sector my whole 30 year professional life, and I believe strongly in the ability of government to make the world a better place. Each Metro area is different and you have to understand the unique history and quirks of the system in order to work best with it, What seems to work in Seattle, Portland, and Madison (btw, I was a bike commuter in Madison for 5 years) may not necessarily work in the unique politics and authorities here in Minnesota. It’s worth bringing up the issue, but understand the context and history before making accusations.

            • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 01/03/2014 - 08:31 pm.

              Very little

              ..green about a building located such that there’s a 0.01% chance of anyone arriving by bike, foot, or transit. Beyond that, the odds that employees drive more than 15 miles to reach this location is extremely high. Green materials, ultra efficient heating/cooling systems, etc are great, but miss the point. These very things can be done for a building that take advantage of a walkable and transit-served environment, while also utilizing district heating/cooling, shared walls/ceilings, community solar/wind installations, etc.

              I’m unsure how you can state in one breath that “It is the engineer’s job to ensure that each road is designed and maintained to perform that function and to protect public safety” and then state that “How is it that you assume that since Hennepin County traffic engineers must drive their cars to Medina that means they can only relate to moving cars?” When the entire system is designed and defined as moving cars, and the county itself reinforces that notion by locating in a 100% car-dependent location, what other outcome would one expect? I’m not disputing that Henn Cty engineers are very brilliant people, and fully capable of reading design practices for pedestrians and bicycles. However, when the system, politicians (including the majority of Hennepin County Commissioners), the population at-large (most of whom do not live in Minneapolis), MnDOT and their accompanying (outdated) standards, etc etc are all present and pushing for the definition of pretty much any street as “needing to accommodate car throughput,” the engineers often have to make decisions that are based on these factors and influences.

              I think we can also take a step back to not commend our system as it stands for safety, something you quickly jump to defend as a primary goal/measure for our county/state DOT. Compare our collision, injury, and death rates per capita and 100,000 miles traveled to other nations. Compare the bicycle/ped death rates to fully functioning and livable cities like Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Paris, etc. Compare the throughput of people rather than cars of 4-lane Minneapolis arterials to streets with dedicated bus and bike lanes. I don’t know for sure that Minneapolis engineers would be better than Hennepin County ones, but they would certainly be more responsive to the residents that live there. As you state, Bryn Mawr residents were forced to deal with a 394 cutting through their neighborhood to satiate the desires of other Hennepin County (and beyond) residents to live somewhere else while working/playing in Minneapolis. Ask the residents of Rondo how they felt about top-down infrastructure planning.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/02/2014 - 12:45 pm.

    This is a nationwide problem

    Traffic engineers have been trained to think only of moving cars along, not of how the cars interact with people who do not drive. Suburbanites in particular are incredulous when reminded that not everyone can or wants to drive.

    The reaction to the Star-Tribune’s article on the proposed redesign of Washington Avenue was interesting, in that most of the objections to it in the online comments came from people who don’t live in Minneapolis and probably belong to the skittish segment of the population that avoids downtown if it can.

    I only wish that the rehabilitation of Washington Avenue proceeded further with the removal of the tangle of freeway on-ramps and off-ramps that isolates the Cedar-Riverside area.

  3. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 01/02/2014 - 01:59 pm.

    The author and Karen amuse me

    Apparently the only citizens with the “right” to determine traffic design are the people who live on the effected street. That “skittish segment of Medina workers” just doesn’t understand that only residents of Washington Avenue should be allowed to govern it. Pay no mind that the Skittish Segment actually pays taxes that go to repair and improve Washington Avenue, or that they use Washington Avenue to come down to sporting events, concerts, plays, Warehouse District, etc. generating revenue and employment for the Non-Skittish. If that’s the mindset of the condescending opposition, proudly put me in the Skittish Segment camp.

  4. Submitted by Scott Shaffer on 01/02/2014 - 03:07 pm.

    Businesses like the Washington plan

    It’s not just “people who live on the effected street.” Many local businesses and the Downtown Council itself supported the Washington Avenue redesign, after consulting with civil engineers. Do you think they forgot to consider their customers and employees? I think it’s more likely that they realized that calmer, safer streets will boost business — that’s certainly been the case in other cities. I believe local businesses and residents can figure out an appropriate balance between safety and livability on one hand and speed of motor traffic on the other that won’t strangle the economy or result in undue death and destruction.

  5. Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 01/02/2014 - 06:30 pm.

    I think some of the issue here is that the county has been less than cooperative in the past regarding local desires and concerns. People in the city have grown frustrated by being forced to deal with inhospitable streets better suited to suburbs for the sake of moving people who don’t live here through to somewhere else. Designing streets for maximum traffic capacity has plenty of externalities that the county either doesn’t consider or maybe doesn’t care about. Cities have had their structure chopped up with highways and pseudo-highways to facilitate through traffic for far too long and at some point have had enough of it. The success of suburbs has been paid for by center cities both financially and through externalities. Enough is enough already.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/03/2014 - 11:48 am.

      Let’s remember that the major “chopping up” of Minneapolis’s urban geography was not done by Hennepin County, but by the federal government’s Interstate Highway system in the 1950s and 1960s.

      Hennepin County originally planned and implemented a road system that, yes, tried to facilitate the movement of horses and carts, then early automotive vehicles. Yes, the county did want truck farmers outside of Minneapolis to be able to move their product to city markets on a daily basis, and Minneapolis warehouses to move their goods to county towns. Yes, those roads are still here and underlie a grid that efficiently moves cars and trucks around the county.

      County roads don’t cut Minneapolis up. They structure it. Freeways are also functional for suburbanites (and Minneapolis business and economy), but they eviscerated the central city.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/03/2014 - 09:58 am.

    I don’t know

    It doesn’t seem obvious to me at all that the city of MPLS would do a better job of designing or maintaining streets, the country does a better job of clearing the snow at least. I look at the map and I see a bunch of county streets that have bike lanes on them so I’m not sure why bikers would complain about being accommodated by the County.

    The move to Medina seems a little hinky, it’s less centrally located and only accessible by car, but being in the city hasn’t made MNDOT a champion of mass transit, pedestrians, or bicycles. Let’s not make too much of the office location. I would think the Medina location would be more of hassle for the employees than anything else. And Medina isn’t THAT far from MPLS, I’m sure engineers make site visits when they design or redesign this stuff.

    I think the problems we’re having with accommodating multi-mode transit are the same on any level in this country right now. I don’t think changing jurisdictions will necessarily solve problems. The Twin Cities are behind some metro areas is some ways, but ahead in others and I wouldn’t count on a city being more responsive than a county. Look at the stadium deal, the city flat out disregarded the will of it’s citizens there. Same with the Hiawatha reroute and design a few years ago.

  7. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 01/03/2014 - 04:46 pm.

    How Minneapolis and Hennepin County are different

    It is my experience that City and County approaches to streets are very different. It seems Minneapolis has realized they need to change how they design (and maintain) streets to preserve the quality of life and accommodate all the ways Minneapolitans travel. For that reason, they have invested heavily in educating their engineering staff in the latest design best practices. The City has also hired staff to focus on and coordinate bike/ped issues – and they are listened to. Finally, elected officials are consistently telling the engineering staff to make things bike/ped/transit-friendly.

    The County is light years behind that, something I believe is exacerbated by their lack of daily personal experience (say, carrying groceries home by bike, or walking to a neighborhood park with a three-year-old). Sure, they can visit project sites, but until you’ve hauled stuff down sidewalks or pedaled in snow-filled bike lanes, I’m not sure you can fully understand the experience. They also seem insistent on doing things their way (the old way), and to be ignoring significant changes in travel trends. While the outcome on Washington is pretty good thanks to a ton of advocacy, County Engineers ignored predicted vehicle travel miles which would have (according to their own engineering guidelines!) suggested even fewer lanes than they finally designed. On Minnehaha, they are making design changes that take out a few trees, slow buses, and speed up cars — again despite the context. In both, the additional pavement adds negative watershed impacts. I suspect they also have negative property value impacts — faster traffic certainly devalues residential property and probably devalues many kinds commercial property (hotels i.e. Aloft; entertainment i.e. Grumpy’s, retail, etc.).

    The City just seems to balance the competing interests better than the County.

    Re: maintenance, the City plows County streets, and the County reimburses the City.

  8. Submitted by craig furguson on 01/05/2014 - 11:48 am.

    An easy solution

    We can just turn over the county roads in Minneapolis to Minneapolis. Done. It would be a small recompence for Hennepin picking up from Minneapolis the jail, workhouse, HCMC and the Library. Then there was the Twins Stadium tax. Why was it that that happened again? Oh yes, they couldn’t manage (eg fund) them. Minneapolis will be coming by soon enough pleading poverty over the Vikings Stadium deal.

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