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Midway soccer stadium site could provide plenty of transit options — and plenty of headaches

MinnPost photo by Marcus Ekblom
Snelling carries 36,000 vehicles a day, while another 24,000 vehicles a day share University with the Green Line.

One of the virtues of the designated location for a new Major League Soccer stadium in St. Paul could also be its biggest challenge.

That virtue — a location just north of I-94 near the intersection of Snelling and University Avenues — is easy access to transportation options, better yet its recent incarnation as a center of  “multi-modal transportation.”

Cars had long been kings on Snelling and University, at least until recently. In 2014, Metro Transit started service on the region’s second light rail route, the Green Line, on University. And in the spring of 2016, the Twin Cities’ first bus rapid transit service, the A-Line, will begin servicing Snelling. Meanwhile, pedestrian improvements were part of last summer’s rebuild of Snelling between Pierce Butler Route and Selby Avenue.

As such, it’s hard to find a mention of the so-called Bus Barn site as being ideal for a soccer stadium that fails to include those transportation investments, suggesting that soccer fans would have multiple choices to get to and from games starting in 2018.

There’s just one problem with those merits as it relates to the stadium: The piece of ground where all that transportation infrastructure comes together is already one of the region’s most congested and complicated intersections. Snelling carries 36,000 vehicles a day, while another 24,000 vehicles a day share University with the Green Line. Both arterials are fed in part by I-94, where 150,000 cars pass by each day.

Add in increases in daily volumes that might come from a 25-acre mixed-use redevelopment at the nearby RK Midway shopping center and 20,000 or so soccer fans arriving to and departing from 25-to-35 games a year, and an obvious question arises: Can the area handle it?

“The existing Snelling-University intersection is busy, unsafe and confusing,” concluded the Union Park District Council is its just-released Midway Center Community Visioning report. “Some neighbors report feeling unsafe and fear increased criminal activity while others are concerned with simply crossing the street.”

Said Eric Molho, co-chair of the community advisory committee examining the issues arising from the stadium plan: “Like much of our infrastructure, it wasn’t built for all of our modes to be successful and now we’re going to layer in some new challenges.”

Big expectations, many challenges

There are high expectations for transit in the vision for the site laid out by both St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Bill McGuire, the primary owner of what would be the stadium’s main tenant, Minnesota United. Both men predict significant transit use by gameday fans, and say existing parking could be supplemented by any parking added for the RK Midway redevelopment. But neither are talking much about significant new stand-alone parking ramps.

“One of the cities we compare ourselves to — sometimes with envy — is Portland,” McGuire said at the October pep rally/press conference where the team and the city announced their official betrothal. “Seventy percent of the people go (to Portland Timbers games) on public transit; there is no adjacent parking.”

Added Coleman: “I really believe that we can achieve 50 percent of those coming to this facility taking the Green Line, taking the A-Line, biking, walking.”

So how would the existing infrastructure handle 10,000 soccer fans sans cars? A three-car light rail train can carry 600 passengers at so-called crush load. The new 40-foot BRT vehicles on Snelling can carry about 80 sitting and standing though the A-Line platforms are big enough to accommodate larger, 60-foot buses.

Those numbers suggest that fans will have to wait as trains and buses fill and depart every 10 minutes. Unlike platforms near existing stadiums that were in place or in planning when the Blue Line and Green Line were designed, however, no one expected those types of loads at Snelling. And the two platforms on either side of Snelling are already among the most-popular on the Green Line, according to Metro Transit, with 2,000 to 2,500 daily boardings.

Overview of proposed soccer stadium location.
Overview of proposed soccer stadium location.

The number of soccer fans using the stadium could also increase over its lifespan. McGuire has said the stadium being designed by Populous will be engineered to accommodate future expansion, pointing to inaugural-season crowds of 32,847 in Orlando and Seattle’s league-leading average of 44,247. (The Orlando attendance numbers have already led team owners to bump capacity of its new stadium by 6,000 seats —  to 25,500 from 19,500.)

And then there’s the problem of getting to those platforms. In addition to the light rail tracks in the center of University, the intersection has through lanes, right turn lanes and left turn lanes — giving pedestrians plenty to watch for.

“The safety (and perceived lack of safety) at the Snelling/University intersection and the Snelling LRT station are a concern for numerous residents,” said the Union Park District Council report, which requested a safety plan be developed for the area. “This could include redesigned station platforms and connections between bus stops and transit stops that do not involve at-grade navigation of University Avenue.” The community group also suggested better sidewalks, better signage for pedestrians and bike riders, better lighting and changes to policing.

Brian Funk, director of rail transportation for Metro Transit, said the agency has already begun thinking about what it can do to live up to the expectations for transit use to the stadium. Relying on lessons learned from serving fans at TCF Stadium and Target Field, Funk said he thinks there are ways to accommodate game-day crowds with existing infrastructure.

For example, the agency knows that fans must cross at least one busy arterial, University (and perhaps another, Snelling) to get to the Green Line. But it would not make pedestrians rely only on lights and walk signs. As with the other stadiums, local police and Metro Transit police likely would be on hand to direct drivers and pedestrians. Agency staff would be available to help fans find their trains.

“We need to maintain road access so we have to do it in a controlled atmosphere rather than let the traffic lights control the operation,” Funk said. “We’re doing it in a very orchestrated, very deliberate process.”

As with the other stadiums, the agency would probably develop protocols to make sure only a train load of passengers would be allowed onto the platforms with others held back until there is room. At Snelling, for example, Funk said large pedestrian walkways lead to the platform from Frey Street to the West and Simpson Street to the east. They are separated from the tracks with fencing and could be used to hold riders waiting to get on the platform.

Metro Transit also has the capacity to run extra trains for special events. Those do not stop at intervening stations and arrive at the platform empty, ready to load up with fans.

“We’re trying to use the experience we have,” Funk said. “We think we’re able to serve these large events effectively. If you’re not the first one out of the stadium you might not be on that first train but we try to provide as much service as we can and do it safely.”

The problem for pedestrians

Bill Goff, a project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said Snelling is better for pedestrians than it was just a few years ago. A 2013 study of multi-modal needs on Snelling resulted in recent sidewalk, lighting and beautification improvements that made the street more welcoming to those on foot.

The study, Goff said, was a reaction to an earlier analysis that focused mostly on motor vehicles. “Snelling was a concrete river, it was a concrete divide,” is how he summarized the viewpoint of neighbors. The purpose of the study was to answer the question: “How do we get across Snelling?”

Potential transit patterns in and around the proposed stadium site.
Potential transit patterns in and around the proposed stadium site.

But that study didn’t consider a sports stadium because it wasn’t on the table at the time. It did, however, have in mind the impacts of a new use for the shopping center. Goff said MnDOT will wait until the city’s transportation consultant, SRF Consulting, completes its study of potential impacts of a stadium and repurposing of RK Midway before looking into further improvements on Snelling.

What about bikes?

Coleman thinks bikes will play a role in the transportation story of the project. But one bicycling advocate thinks the solution might be to avoid Snelling and University. Mike Sonn, co-chair of the St. Paul Bicycle Coalition, said he thinks bike access to the site might be better placed on Pascal Street, the arterial to the west of RK Midway. It has its own bridge over I-94 and could be used to make safe connections to primary east-west bikeways on Marshall Avenue south of the freeway and Charles Avenue north of University.

“My perspective is to use a backdoor approach using Pascal rather than try to shoehorn a bike lane onto Snelling,” Sonn said. While that could serve the stadium and the shopping center repurposing, it would also provide a badly needed north-south bikeway in that part of St. Paul, Sonn said.

St. Paul city staff has no illusions that a new stadium and a major redevelopment of an antiquated auto-oriented shopping center can be plopped down at Snelling and University without improvements to the infrastructure.

“The redevelopment of the Snelling Midway site could potentially necessitate changes to existing infrastructure and also the creation of new infrastructure,” stated minutes from the December 17 meeting of the community advisory committee. One change could entail continuing through the site the street grid that exists around it. For example, Spruce Tree Drive could be an east-west street between Snelling and Pascal, staff has suggested.

The community advisory committee will continue to meet through March. A public open house will be held Tuesday, January 26 beginning at 7 p.m. at Concordia University’s Buenger Education Center.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/13/2016 - 11:13 am.

    “nobody will go there, it’ll be too crowded”

    There’s an almost paradoxical quality (see the above Yogi Berra quote) to the concerns. In a way, this corner becoming *more* congested might be better than the status quo, at least from a transit and pedestrian safety perspective. The “speeding car” era of Snelling and University was very dangerous and did not do much to encourage walkable development in this heart of Saint Paul. Instead, we might be transitioning to a Midway street environment with more congestion, slower car speeds, lots of transit and pedestrian traffic. It’ll look very different than it did 5 years ago, but if street crossings are done carefully (and the Charles Ave median is a good example), these streets could connect rather than divide their neighborhoods.

    Almost anything would be better than what was there before. Let’s keep open minds about the future.

  2. Submitted by Pat Berg on 01/13/2016 - 11:36 am.

    Pedestrians hit by trains

    Does anyone recall how many of the “pedestrian hit by train” incidents were on University and Snelling? I believe there was at least one, but I’m thinking there were more. And yes – it IS a confusing intersection!

  3. Submitted by Monica Millsap on 01/13/2016 - 12:26 pm.

    It’s always been a busy intersection and the area has been a transit hub for many years, long before the light rail, so I’m scratching my head as to why no one would have planned for larger numbers of rail passengers at this intersection. The number of cars University serves has gone down by about 5,000 or so since the light rail was built, but, there is so much more going on in the middle of the street now which makes it more dangerous than it was pre-light rail to be here as a person walking, driving, or biking here. We now have a pretty fixed rail track and the BRT stations are already up, so it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll get a transit center in the shopping/stadium area anytime soon- that would have been ideal and what would have happened had people really been thinking ahead. The next best thing to try to increase some safety and lessen the congestion would be tunnels for pedestrians from the shopping/stadium area to the transit stops or tunnels/bridges for some of the auto traffic that is either just traveling through or that wants to just get to the freeway from the stadium. It’d also be really great if Metro Transit brought back the 94C, which stopped in the Midway between the downtowns. That would help ease transit congestion and spread out the areas where people are crossing/waiting for transit.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 01/13/2016 - 01:01 pm.

    What about Big Top?

    Don’t make me choose between discount wine and professional soccer.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/13/2016 - 01:09 pm.

    Let’s not forget the Ayd Mill Road connection.

    Traffic in this area is heavily influenced by motorists exiting I-94 at Snelling to travel south on Ayd Mill Road by way of Snelling and Selby Avenues, as well as those using Ayd Mill to access Hamline and Snelling Avenues in order to reach westbound I-94. A more direct connection between Ayd Mill and I-94, should it ever be built, is proposed for the area immediately south of the stadium site. Despite decades of controversy on this point, it does not appear to have been considered by city personnel during the initial decision-making on this stadium.

    • Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 01/13/2016 - 05:49 pm.

      the economics

      St Paul would be far better served by “downsizing” Ayd Mill Road instead of trying to expand it, which would be very expensive (many tens of millions of dollars), have little to no (to negative) economic development impact, and only marginally benefit folks commuting through the city from the ‘burbs. On the other hand, downsizing (or removing) AMR altogether would have big property tax benefits for the city, be much cheaper, and also alleviate some of the traffic problems that plague the area. Plus you could have a bike / walk route and public space down there.

  6. Submitted by James Jarby on 01/13/2016 - 05:00 pm.

    What about State Fair traffic, and pollution?

    Let’s not forget that the heaviest traffic in this area is found during the State Fair, with a steady line of cars exiting 94 and traveling north through the Snelling and University intersection to the fair grounds. As someone who lives somewhat close to that area, I avoid this gridlock at all costs by taking public transportation whenever possible. I wish everyone did! If we can continue to make public transportation attractive so that it’s the priority, instead of catering to personal (motorized) vehicles, one would hope that problems of congestion could be eliminated almost completely. Of course, this will probably become harder to do with talk of $1 a gallon gas that we could be seeing later this year – and with that there will be the related pollution and horrible air quality.

  7. Submitted by paddy martin on 01/13/2016 - 10:42 pm.

    State Fair Park and Ride

    There are like half a gazillion parking spaces on the south side of the State Fair.They should run shuttles/trolleys/gondolas to and from.

    For that matter its *only* like a mile and a half walk down Snelling (shudder). They could build a bike/peds bridge over the rail yard at Fairview and make it a pleasant walk (they should build it anyway) through the neighborhood to the stadium.

  8. Submitted by J. Kurt Schreck on 01/14/2016 - 09:00 am.

    Poor Choice of Location

    For all the reasons above, I’m utterly mystified how planners could have overlooked the more sensible (and flexible) location option of the current Sears property near the state capital. The backdrop of the capital grounds and the cathedral would have made it a gorgeous setting in a much less intensified light-rail and auto traffic environment. City officials owe it to their constituents to be investing in an optimal outcome, rather than the expedient one.

    • Submitted by Mary Gustafson on 01/14/2016 - 09:45 am.

      It’s all about money

      The Snelling site was chosen because it has been off the tax roles for 50 years. Therefore, it was an easy sell to City leaders/Port Authority to have the site remain off the tax roles. This was one of the perks offered by St. Paul.

    • Submitted by Ashley Bullock on 01/14/2016 - 03:14 pm.

      The Sears site is slated for housing and multi-use. That way it stays on the tax roles.

  9. Submitted by Ashley Bullock on 01/14/2016 - 03:13 pm.

    New Discovery?

    I find it amusing that folks who didn’t seem to think it was a problem to locate a surface light rail (can’t actually call it Rapid Transit) along a major street with a surface crossing at one of the Twin City’s busiest intersection, suddenly discover the problems with all this traffic trying to use the same physical space when there’s a soccer stadium involved. Wasn’t this sort of development exactly what the promoters were hoping for along the “Green” line?

    • Submitted by Mike martin on 02/06/2016 - 09:09 pm.

      What about the other 2 options for the green line

      Three routes for the Green Line were considered. The other 2 kept the Green Line off of University. If one of them had been selected we wouldn’t have this problem of cars, pedestrians, LRT and buses on University.

      Using University Ave. for LRT eliminated 70% of the on street parking in some areas. Which killed small businesses that relied on on street parking.

      Would you park on the other side of the street & walk 1/2 block to go to a shoe repair shop. Relying on only walkers, bikers & transit for customers would not provide enough customers to keep the shop in business.

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