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Coleman takes on the ‘third rail’ of St. Paul politics

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Originally called Short Line Road, after the rail line, Ayd Mill Road was once envisioned as a freeway-to-freeway connection.

The recurring debate about what to do with St. Paul’s Ayd Mill Road might never have started if not for a politically driven quirk of highway engineering three decades ago.

When I-35E finally intersected with I-94 between the state Capitol and downtown St. Paul, it lacked a ramp connecting its northbound lanes to westbound I-94 – and vice versa, a ramp connecting eastbound I-94 to southbound I-35E.

The reasons are complex. Freeway opponents, for one, succeeded in limiting plans for I-35E in order to reduce the ill effects of a major highway running through the middle of St. Paul. It’s one reason (the others being its 45-mph speed limit and a ban on big trucks) why the section of I-35E through downtown is sometimes called “the practice freeway.” 

But the accommodations to opponents also forced drivers to find their own way between the two freeways. And one of those ways is via a diagonal stretch of roach that runs from I-35E northwest to I-94 along the Canadian Pacific Railroad right-of-way: Ayd Mill Road.

Short road, big passions

Originally called Short Line Road, after the rail line, Ayd Mill Road was once envisioned as a freeway-to-freeway connection, which is why some highway advocates have long eyed it as a solution for easing the transition from I-35E to I-94. It’s also why freeway opponents, including some residents of the neighborhoods along the road, have long resisted any attempts to do just that.

“I have spent most of my career as a city planner trying to not know anything about it, for fear of getting assigned to it,” joked Nancy Homans, policy director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.

But Coleman had other ideas. Last year, he asked Homans, who until recently was doing double duty as acting public works director, to see if there was a way to resolve the seemingly irresolvable: creating a long-term solution to alleviate traffic that was also acceptable to residents who live along Ayd Mill Road.

“It’s a not very long road that generates a lot of passion,” she said. 

A ‘test’ that became permanent

While some think most of the cars that use Ayd Mill are pass-through traffic — drivers from south suburbs on their way to and from Minneapolis — Homans said traffic estimates have found that about 60 percent are St. Paul locals using it as shortcut to make their own way to the freeway.

The current options for Ayd Mill are: to leave it as it is (a city road that looks like a divided four-lane highway); to finally connect it to I-94 by way of the St. Anthony frontage road north of I-94 via a new overpass; to reduce it to a two lane road with bike and pedestrian pathways; or to close it in favor of a linear park.

Each option has its fans, and each had its detractors. Which is why nothing has changed since 2002, when then Mayor Randy Kelly reopened the connection to I-35E at the south end of Ayd Mill — a temporary “test” opening that has lasted more than a decade. 

Development creates urgency

So why bring it up again now? Traffic and congestion. Those reopened ramps at the south increased pass-through traffic using Ayd Mill, but because the north end connection to I-94 was never built, traffic gets dumped onto city arterials like Hamline, Snelling and Selby Avenues. From there, drivers seek their way to I-94. The pattern is reversed during evening commutes.

Already congested, the Selby and Snelling intersection has become more so due to construction of a large project by Ryan Companies. When completed in 2016, The Vintage on Selby will hold a 40,000 square foot Whole Foods as well as 210 apartments and townhouses. Adding to traffic pressures, the Snelling Avenue bridge over I-94 will close for rehabilitation this summer, during which time the city and state will take the opportunity to improve the streetscape on Snelling between Selby and Pierce Butler Route.

“There is sort of an urgency about it,” Homan said of the increasing traffic in the neighborhoods. “Everyone has their own favorite,” she said of shortcuts to and from I-94. “When we close Snelling, people will find others.”

The Vintage under construction
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
When completed in 2016, The Vintage on Selby will hold a 40,000 square foot Whole Foods as well as 210 apartments and townhouses.

The ‘third rail’ of St. Paul politics?

So, have sentiments changed? Have those opposed to the new overpass softened out of sympathy for the neighborhoods affected by traffic? Sort of. Homans said she found some who want the Ayd Mill issue resolved. Still, when she told the community newspaper The Villager of her assignment from Coleman and indicated the I-94 connection was likely, there was swift reaction. 

“I sent her an email right away,” said Mike Madden, of the community organization Neighborhoods First. He said she replied that no decision had been made but that she felt people were ready for the I-94 connection.

Madden isn’t. Sure, there is traffic congestion on the approaches to Ayd Mill, he said. But connecting it to I-94 will not solve the problem, according to Madden; it will only increase it. “My thought is, no matter how much capacity you have, it’ll fill up,” he said.

The reaction to slow traffic is to “switch modes,” Madden said. That is, use transit or other means of getting around.

Madden still thinks the I-35E ramps were reopened illegally by Kelly in 2002, being done before an environmental impact statement was completed. That act caused the congestion in the north section, and he belives closing the ramps again could resolve it. Neighborhoods First has even described a page worth of alternatives for making the transition between the two freeways, all centered around Kellogg Boulevard, Marion Street and downtown. 

The current position of the St. Paul City Council, as stated in 2000 and 2009 resolutions, is to reduce the capacity of Ayd Mill to a two-lane parkway and support a study of a two-lane connection to St. Anthony Avenue.

Neighborhoods First likes to quote a statement Coleman made during his 2005 campaign against Kelly, in which he endorsed that position. “The only way we are going to stop Mayor Kelly from shoving a four-lane highway and $45 million connection to I-94 down our throats is if we beat him in November,” Coleman said then. And this: “Connecting I-35E and I-94 will not solve our traffic problem.”

That was a decade ago, but the issues haven’t gone away. Homans said she would like to have some recommendation to Coleman later this year. Before making any recommendation, she said the mayor will consult with city council members whose wards abut the road. One of those is Council Member Chris Tolbert of Ward 3, who complimented Coleman for starting the discussion. 

Tolbert said that before Kelly opened the connections on the south, commuters would use Lexington Avenue to rush toward the freeway. “Parents would tell their kids not to go near Lexington,” Tolbert said. “It is much safer now.” 

But other arterials have taken on the burden, and Tolbert said he thinks something should be done for neighbors along those routes. And while he thinks the Ryan project is good for the city and the neighborhood, it will add to the congestion. “It’s not a good traffic situation,” he said. A solution, however, will not be easy. 

Of Ayd Mill Road, Tolbert said: “It’s kind of the third rail of St. Paul politics.” 

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Matt Brillhart on 03/02/2015 - 11:17 am.

    Two-lane “Parkway” plus I-94 connection

    “The current position of the St. Paul City Council, as stated in 2000 and 2009 resolutions, is to reduce the capacity of Ayd Mill to a two-lane parkway and support a study of a two-lane connection to St. Anthony Avenue.”

    This does seem like the most obvious and fair solution, though there are obviously opponents or it would have happened by now. It sure sounds a heck of a lot better than the status quo, which is a crumbling 4-lane quasi-freeway that dumps freeway-bound traffic onto Selby & Snelling.

    I’d tend to favor that option. I assume the two-lane parkway would have speeds of 30-35MPH or less (preferably the former if it’s a true “parkway”).

    I also assume that this option would preserve room for a bike trail and leave plenty of room for the existing RR tracks as well, given that this “short line” trackage would likely carry future passenger rail service, if through-routed to Minneapolis (from St. Paul Union Depot). If passenger service from Chicago were to use the BNSF trackage (along Pierce Butler) it would have to “back out” of Union Depot after stopping there to continue on to Minneapolis. Using the “short line” route along Shepard Rd and Ayd Mill would not require this silly maneuver. Sort of beside the point, but they should definitely save enough room for double-track high-speed rail here or else it’s not “future proof”.

  2. Submitted by William Lindeke on 03/02/2015 - 11:56 am.

    The 60% statistic

    I’ve been following this issue closely my entire life (my father’s house is a block off AMR), and you did a nice job of explaining a difficult issue, Peter.

    However, I have a problem with the oft-quoted ‘60% local traffic’ statistic that Homans uses here. In my conversations with city staff, that number comes from a time-consuming “origin and destination” study (where staff literally stopped cars getting onto the road and asked them where they were going) that was completed BEFORE then-Mayor Kelly’s “test connection” was done. The problem is that the traffic on the road has almost doubled since the connection was completed. I would guess (and my common sense might suggest) that the vast majority of this additional traffic is “cut-through” traffic from Southern suburbs to points west on I-94, not Saint Paul “local” traffic. I find the way that statistic is used in this debate misleading, and would prefer to see that talking point retired.

    (By the way, correct me if I’m wrong on this detail…)

    The issue matters because, with urban road design, there’s always a tension between what’s best for people living and traveling *in* local neighborhoods and what’s best for people traveling *through* neighborhoods. For decades, cities like Saint Paul and Minneapolis have widened roads, demolished buildings, and gone out of their way to make sure traffic flows freely through residential and commercial areas at the expense of quality of life and business prospects for the people actually living and working along these arterial and quasi-high-speed roads.

    AMR is a special case where Saint Paul has complete control (and responsibility for costs) over a linear public right-of-way. I believe the city should prioritize what’s best for the people of Saint Paul. We shouldn’t continue to sacrifice quality of life for residents in order to make small improvements for people driving through the city on their way to somewhere else.

  3. Submitted by Matty Lang on 03/02/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    It’s not going to happen

    The $45 million cost estimate from a decade ago means it’s likely north of $60 million today. Where is that kind of money going to come from? Even if it were found it should not be spent on expanding freeway capacity and connections. We already have more capacity than we need and can afford.

  4. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 03/02/2015 - 01:40 pm.

    The I 94,….

    I 35E and Ayd Mill Road nightmares are prime examples of civil engineering and planning commission incompetence on display.

  5. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 03/02/2015 - 03:10 pm.

    Tough Options

    I’ll preface my comment with the fact that I am not (nor have I ever been) a resident of the area.

    It does seem like the best path forward for AMR depends on a few things. If a connection were made to I-94, at great cost to the city (and likely MnDOT), would the following things happen:

    – High quality pedestrian AND bike trail completed at time of opening
    – True 30 mph design speed on AMR to limit (reduce) impacts to neighboring properties from sound/safety/etc (for example, I-35E freeway-lite “parkway” 45 mph speed limit is a joke – people routinely drive 60 mph+ and face little retribution)
    – Preservation of rail right-of-way for future rail service as Matt B notes above
    – Significant calming of Snelling, Selby, Marshall, and Hamline thanks to a major reduction in cut-through traffic

    If the city can’t guarantee all of these at the time of re-construction, I’m not sure it’s a net positive for the residents of the area.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 03/02/2015 - 04:43 pm.

      Agreed to all points including

      Not living there but traveling on 35E. Plus the speed limit on 35E is utterly stupid. Having a speed limit which is NEVER policed just encourages more speed and a disrespect for the law

  6. Submitted by Tom Cytron-Hysom on 03/02/2015 - 05:39 pm.

    Ayds Mill

    I have lived within two blocks of Ayds Mill for 16 years, and use it daily for access to 35E and 94. I am frustrated by the pretense of Neighborhoods First! that they speak for our entire neighborhood, and that their position is somehow morally superior. I would gladly use mass transit, but this does not exist in our neighborhoods. Nor do I wish to drive my bike in subzero temperatures. Closing Ayds Mill will not make me stop driving; it will force all of the trips I and countless neighbors make daily using Ayds Mill onto St. Clair, Randolph, and Lexington, causing further congestion and safety issues.

  7. Submitted by Carl Michaud on 03/02/2015 - 10:34 pm.

    Ayd Mill

    I agree with Tom Cytron-Hysom comments. Ayd Mill is an important link as a service road to avoid congestion during all of those weekend events on Summit Avenue which restrict traffic. Secondly, this road relieves traffic congestion on Snelling, Hamline, and Lexington which makes my neighborhood more livable. Third, with an additional connection, there’s the potential for increasing economic development on Marshall between Snelling and Hamline, and north of I-94 at the old bus garage location. Finally, some connection to St. Anthony along Pascal with new traffic signals would reduce congestion at Snelling and Selby. I don’t believe an overpass from Ayd Mill to I-94 is reasonable, cost effective, or aesthetically pleasing.

  8. Submitted by Britter Ritter on 03/03/2015 - 07:54 pm.

    Be Sensible

    Millions were spent to construct this road, leave it as is and improve access at the north end. To reduce it in size would merely throw good money after bad, if it were that. As there is still a rail line, last time I passed through on a train, it is not a park, it is a transit corridor. Unless you want to build a waterway there. And it is part of St. Paul’s charm, to have roads like this and Pierce Butler Route, that you have to know about to use as an alternate route to the freeways.

  9. Submitted by Jack Fei on 03/03/2015 - 10:42 pm.

    Evaluation of Ayd Mill Options

    1. Connect to I-94
    2. Two Lane City Street
    3. Close / Linear Park

    Option 1 will increase traffic in MacGroveland and will NOT reduce congestion. Any attempt to add capacity will induce demand and traffic resulting in more congestion and traffic when it is done. Because car usage is projected to be flat or declining, it’s a waste of precious taxpayer money to engineer capacity to Ayd Mill Road. Ayd Mill is a city street, not ‘freeway’ lite.

    Option 2 will promote the design and use of Ayd Mill as a ‘complete streets’ city street. Reducing to two lanes and will slow down traffic for pedestrians and cyclists. Coupled with closing the Selby Avenue entry and exits, the volume of pass through traffic would be reduced.

    Option 3 is a silly idea. Silly because Ayd Mil Road is in a valley with a grade that makes it hard to access. A heavily used railroad track is not exactly the kind of place to bring a family with small children to play..

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