It’s All About Building Bridges

Dear Minnesota Legislature,

On March 8th, 2016 you will reconvene and the State Transportation Department will be smiling and pressing the flesh for more money. They will have statistics, stories and pictures of crumbling bridges. But they will not say a word about some of the most important bridges they are responsible for because they have not taken the time to build these bridges. These are the Civil Rights bridges to the diverse populations of Minnesota. And though MnDOT has been pre-paid by the Federal Government for decades to ensure that 50+ year old laws like Title VI and 25+ year-old laws like ADA are integrated into the state transportation plan at the project level, they can provide you no tangible, independently audited evidence of a high-level of compliance. Be prepared for something like this from the State Transportation Department:

We evaluated the agency’s compliance with Title VI, The Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as Complete Streets legislation and policy. The review of current policies, practices, state and federal law, and the case law affirmed for us this agency is in compliance or in substantial compliance with state and federal civil rights laws.

Sounds good, but you are smart people and you probably noticed they used the “we evaluated” line. Easy to get on the honor roll when you are grading your own work.

Pop quiz.

What agency in Minnesota is responsible for ensuring that MnDOT proactively pursues continuing education of communities on Civil Rights requirements. And, is it the same agency that we’ve appointed to make sure MnDOT understands and applies all applicable non-motorized laws to ensure every project has a human element and meets our professed vision of an inclusive multi-modal transportation system.   The answer is the same agency…MNDOT. Remember…they grade their own papers.

Don’t feel bad. Our state DOT spends something like 6-7 figures a year creating plans, studies, reports and staging public events to publicly build a good rep about how much a balanced transportation system and inclusivity means to them. With all the planning and publications I sometimes think they think they are Met Council, when in fact they are by law the State Transportation Authority, the Implementation Guys.

So don’t buy into the Powerpoint. When the lights come back on it is time to represent the people of Minnesota. Ask them about the $300 million  35E/Cayuga project. Tell them you know that this is a neighborhood with one of the highest incidents of poverty in the Metro. Explain that its homes and apartments are filled with people who speak one or more of over 12 languages. Then lean forward, maybe take your glasses off for effect, and ask how they did this without having a Limited English Proficiency Plan ( LEP). A way of communicating with the diverse people in the neighborhood about their lives so MnDOT would know what to build. How did you do that MnDOT? How did you complete such a large and expensive project without knowing what to build?  The room will be very quiet. It will be all yours when you say to the Commissioner of Transportation, Mr. Zelle, what are you doing with all of the money we already give to you? Get ready for a lot of extra words and more back peddling than a paddleboat about to go over the falls.

You can do this. It’s not like the Vikings Stadium. You have more money than they do this time.



Seasonal Sidewalks


This is Carole. She is 73 years-old. She cannot use her walker and get close enough to the cross-walk button to press it because of the ice and snow. So she has to leave her walker by the cross street ( 4th Street) and go unassisted to the cross-walk button, lean over the piles of snow and ice and press it to get the signal to recognize she is there and wants to cross the road. Once she hears the mechanical ” Wait”, she then inches her way back to her walker, which is what you see her doing above. She worries about having enough time to cross the wide highway that cuts through the center of town. She says she constantly is looking over her right shoulder because of the yellow turn signal. Cars are focused on getting through the light and often not looking for people in the crosswalk. A teenage girl was struck at this same intersection by a turning  car two summers ago. Her young body was injured, but she walked away. Carole would not have been so lucky.

The City of White Bear Lake and MnDOT spent close to $6 million dollars to repave and beautify U.S. Highway 61 in 2013-2014. Money was also spent on ADA compliant ramps and detectable warnings. But despite all of the by-the-book-engineering the crossing corners are designed with no consideration as to how they will be maintained in the winter, which is half the year. The perennial build-up of snow and ice erases the investment made into the ADA curbs, and the detectable warning is telling someone to cross and precious seconds tick away,  pedestrians and bikers contemplate how to get over a pile of icy snow to cross four lanes in 30 seconds.

So whose job is it to take care of this mess? In exchange for securing the rights to put rigid obelisks in a median adorned with hand-painted cast concrete, MnDOT saddled the City with Maintenance Agreement #05182. It clearly states that the City will be responsible for “all future maintenance of the Pedestrian Trails / Walkways, and Treated Concrete.” Two years into the contract, City Hall is claiming thatMnDOT is responsible for clearing the crossing corners. Hmmm. No language in the contract about that. But what about the sidewalk and trails? City Engineer Mark Burch ( with a straight face) told me that the City has always considered our pitifully incomplete sidewalk on the east side of the highway to be “seasonal.” A first for me. I even Googled it and to my surprise Bike Walk Twin Cities ran a piece called “Seasonal Sidewalk Disorder” . You might be thinking, “Doesn’t anyone at the Public Works Department know how to use a shovel?” Have you ever seen the manual to operate a shovel? Get real.

Bottom line is that Carole and bunch of other people’s lives are being interrupted because of  bad engineering and no leadership from either MnDOT or the City of White Bear Lake. Actually it is worse than that. Both entities are not in compliance with ADA law as per the Federal Highway Administration. Carole talked with me a bit and told me that several of her friends, who also have walkers, do not go downtown because of the crossing-corners and because the road is too wide and too fast. She called it “tricky.”  This decreases Seniors mobility, confidence and health. These people live two blocks off the downtown in an apartment building. They live there because the are close to services and stores.

White Bear Lake’s not-for-everyone-road-design and winter maintenance situation is not unique in Minnesota, or by other accounts, in any other state. As you move around your town take notice of crossing corners and if you are lucky enough to have full mobility think about how you would get down the sidewalk and across the street in a walker or wheelchair. Starting to see more obstacles? You might live in a seasonal community or state.