Are USBR’s In MN Redirecting Our DOT’s Focus to Advance Bicycling

If you can remember my last post, I talked about the focused efforts to extend the long-stalled Bruce Vento Regional Trail. This is a rail-to-trail conversion, at least the part that is in place from Downtown St. Paul to Buerkle Road on the edges of White Bear Lake. BNSF did not abandon the corridor after Buerkle preventing an immediate extension of the same solution to the trail’s envisioned ending at the Ramsey-Washington County border.  Plan B is engineered, approved and out for Federal funding; at least a major part of it.

Regional trails like the Vento are one of the many layers that make local bicycle and walking connectivity really work. In this case, Ramsey County is working in concert with a range of stakeholders to provide a ribbon of walking and biking equity between Downtown and out-lying suburbs. The range of diversity, lifestyles and the like covered by this trail is immense. The Vento’s of the world become backbones to other local networks and when viewed in their totality a network for people of all abilities to use their bike for transportation and recreation or walk with friends in a secure place begins to take shape.

One more trip back to the previous post to make my point. The final line of my previous post offered to connect the regional trail above with the idea of walking or biking between St. Paul and the Canadian Border.  There is a connection. At the time I wrote that our state DOT was in hot pursuit of finalizing the initial alignment of USBR 41. US Bicycle Route 41 connects St. Paul with the Canadian border ( Grand Portage, to be exact). An earlier USBR, #45, follows the Mississippi, hence it’s marketing moniker Mississippi River Trail ( MRT). USBR 41 is being fast tracked. It’s initial alignment will be submitted to AASHTO in Washington DC this fall to acquire the official USBR 41 designation. The route will be added to the other 21+/- routes in the U.S. totaling over 11,000 miles in a network aiming to achieve 50,000 miles. All good, right?

Implementing a national highway for bikes is a big idea. Implementing federal and state non-motorized and equity laws at the project level state-by-state is an even bigger idea.  One has a lot of gloss, the other is a daily slog. But here’s the first twist, the glossy one can help the local one. By assigning the USBR designation to a local project like the Vento, efforts to fund its completion are enhanced. We will find out soon if the Vento, having been extended this designation, gets an advantage in the competitive world of bike/walk infrastructure funding. Why does this designation matter? Because the Adventure Cycling Association, the non-profit that manages the the USBR program, is a problem solver. The demographic for touring cyclists is a white guy 50+ who makes $75,000 or more a year. By extending the USBR designation to local projects to get needed federal funding, the ACA is increasing the odds that usable infrastructure for its national routes is built and these same routes will provide the training grounds for a more diverse demographic by providing a way to get to the store for milk, or ride a bike to a job. All good.

The other twist. The subtle shifting, or inclusion, of a  DOT’s focus to a state-based contribution for a national trails model might redirect state level bike and ped resources and slow a much more highly needed equity model to address infrastructure changes serving the requirements of diverse local populations. We’ve yet to see decades of painstakingly created federal and state laws, created to direct DOT’s in the building of an equitable and balanced transportation system, proactively used by them to shape our roads and intersections.

 

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Bruce Vento Trail Alt Alignment Is a Good Start

The Bruce Vento Regional Trail has been collecting dust at Buerkle Road since the end of the 1990’s. It was part of a larger and very progressive vision for biking and walking in the northeast portion of the Metro called the Lake Links Trail.

From St. Paul up to Buerkle it primarily occupies an abandoned railroad corridor except for a short stint on Phalen Parkway. But cross Buerkle and the rails are still there to store train cars and further down live tracks feather in carrying infrequent loads  over the county line into the City of Hugo. For close to two decades Ramsey County waited to see if the railroad would abandon the remaining tracks or would allow a Rail with Trail. Finally, with demand rising for the trail to be completed, the County hired a civil engineering company a few years ago to create an alignment that did not require running the trail down the heart of the railroad right of way. I’ve had .pdf’s of the trail plan since March, but only recently saw the entire plan with callouts of details at Open House events. Even this alternative alignment uses the outer most edge of the railroad ROW for a good portion of the route and required negotiation and consensus from Burlington Northern Santa Fe ( BNSF). The final price tag for what has been laid out in detailed engineering drawings and elevations is not known. The project is to be costed out and appropriate grants…Federal or otherwise…..sought and applied for.

As grateful as I am for the work that has gone into preparing to get the trail into White Bear Lake, I’ve continued to advocate for a similar engineering analysis of the final few miles of county controlled roads to bring the trail to its envisioned completion at the line between Ramsey and Washington County. The reason is a few-fold.

First, the current trail extension is scheduled to dead-end at the intersection of a County Highway (#96) and a State Highway ( #61). The pent-up demand for this trail is great and its higher volumes of riders and walkers will come to an intersection with multiple turn lanes, multiple though lanes and 45+ MPH traffic and inadequate and unsafe ways to cross in any direction. It’s a situation ripe for someone to get frustrated and make a bad decision.

Second, there is no scheduled Phase Two and if we do not plan for completing the trail now we are merely resigning ourselves to making #96 the New Buerkle. Already Washington County and the city of Hugo have laid out a plan to pick up the trail at the county line and bring it to the established Hardwood Creek Trail and Sunrise Prairie Trail which run for miles up to North Branch, Minnesota.

Next post I will write about an opportunity for this same multiple trail alignment to get someone on their bike or wishing to go for a very long walk from St. Paul to the Canadian border.

 

Under the Guise Of Concern

I don’t know why I like the letter format so much for posting, but I do.

This letter below began life as a letter and not a blog post appearing to be a letter. It is about our friends at the one-car-fits-all agency pulling together like-minded people behind closed car doors to make a clever bicycle law decree that on its face sounds like it is a really good idea, but is not. In this case, their premise is that old laws need to be updated. Actually, once injected with a truth serum that would change to old laws that we never used because they made us do things we did not want to do….need to be eviscerated and set aside for the new model we have in mind. Yes, the shiny object approach!

Let’s see what my legislators respond with. They are great at sending a quick reply thanking me for whatever I’ve sent, but that’s typically where it stops. This letter was also sent to a number of people who are, or would appear to be, in positions or organizations  that might keep them from speaking up. I was hoping they might be able to help behind the scenes. Like the Legislators…let’s see what happens.

Dear Senator Chamberlain and Representative Dean,

A recent email blast to members from BikeMN tipped me off about the The Bicycle Law Advisory Task Force and their work to update key State bicycle laws.

Upon receiving this email I inquired about which laws and what changes were being suggested. BikeMN’s executive Director Dorian Grilley answered by email and forwarded to me the draft changes to 85.016 BICYCLE TRAIL PROGRAM and some other supporting information about the Task Force.The changes I read about would eliminate a key statute (160.265) and alter supporting rules (8810). Prior to receipt of the email I was unaware of the formation of the Task Force by MnDOT and its mission.

Having reviewed the Task Forces’ proposed changes and the language of the statues and rules being eliminated or altered, I am writing to ask that the State/Governor not accept these proposed bike law changes for several reasons.

1.The structure of the current Advisory Task Force does not adequately represent women / the female perspective on what makes bicycling safe and the related laws required. In short, the current advisory committee make-up, when compared to previous bicycling advisory committees, is going backward. For example:

Current Make-up of 2015 Task Force
18 Men
3 Women
0 Disabled, senior or people of color identified

1977 Advisory Committee for Bicycling
20 Men
9 Women
1 Disabled Person Identified
0 Seniors or people of color identified

I have to ask…how many of the people on the current Task Force are employees of MnDOT or are being compensated in some way by MnDOT?

2. There was a lack of transparency in the work of the Task Force. Minnesota Legislators have worked hard over the years to put on the books balanced laws to direct MnDOT and other agencies in the State’s pursuit to incrementally advance a more extensive alternative transportation infrastructure for everyone. These changes should be reflective of more public debate.

3. The Task Force is citing the age of the laws as a primary reason they need to be changed. It is difficult to trouble shoot or improve something that is not being used. Did MnDOT proactively apply 160.265 in 1977-78 when it became law? Did the agency integrate it into the planning of all of its projects? It would seem not. Because if it had, 39 years later we would be well on our way to a transportation system that routinely considered bicycles as an alternative means of transportation in its daily planning at the project level. The Human Element would have become part of the Transportation Department’s DNA decades ago starting the siphon ensuring consideration of non-motorized traffic in all state highway projects.

4. Regressive nature of the changes being suggested. Elimination of 160.265 and alteration of the 8810 rules erases huge strides made in State bicycling law and is actually counter productive to upholding and strengthening bike system development. Many of the Task Forces’ changes also do not not reflect the State of Minnesota’s values and mission of pursuing equal opportunity, open government, environmental stewardship and protection of vulnerable travelers in our state. Clearly, there is a reason that 160.265 is titled BIKEWAY PROGRAM. To remove this statute and substitute 160.266 MISSISSIPPI RIVER TRAIL is inconsistent with Complete Streets.

For the above reasons I ask that the State not pursue the current Task Force recommendations. If there is an argument for reviewing our current bicycles laws, do so with a new committee whose make-up reflects the demographics of the State and who are and are not current users of the bicycle system to better learn what is missing and how to build on successes. Measure the efficacy of the current laws against the needs in the market.

You may also wish to consider a different committee to take a different approach to the issue. A committee set up to review historical project records from the State Transportation Department detailing when and how the very laws cited for alteration or extinction were systematically integrated and applied to projects. From this data you should learn if the Task Forces’ suggestions are based on MnDOT’s experience and application of laws in question and why these laws are / are not accomplishing their objective of providing safe and more complete biking infrastructure in our increasingly diverse and very female state.

Respectfully,

Mike Brooks
NE Communities Bike Walk

PS A few links to background about the reality of bicycling.

Link: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2013/05/surprising-diversity-american-cycling-community/5737/

Excerpt: “We wanted to dispel one of the major misconceptions, which is that bicycling is just for young, white, urban professionals,” says Carolyn Szczepanski, director of communications at LAB. “This report starts to shift that general misconception of who is riding.” ( LAB = League of American Bicyclists)

Link: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jul/09/women-cycling-infrastructure-cyclists-killed-female

Excerpt: Gil Penalosa, who runs Toronto-based consultancy 8-80 Cities, describes women cyclists as the “indicator species” for how bike-friendly a city is. “If there aren’t at least as many women as men, then usually it’s because cycling is not safe enough. It’s an indicator that you do not have good enough cycling infrastructure.”

Link: http://www.aarp.org/livable-communities/getting-around/info-2015/bicycles-bike-riding-older-adults.html

Excerpt: Bicyclists age 50 and over pedaled an estimated 2.6 billion miles on 830 million rides in 2009 (the latest figures available), according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey. That’s way up from 1995 when people in that age group covered less than 400 million miles on 175 million rides. Bicycle riders age 70 to 79 alone made 147 million trips in 2009; those 80 and over took 13 million trips by bike.

 

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

Carole

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.

 

Bike / Ped Mapping of White Bear Lake is Community Building, Not Special Interest

On 18 February we have a community event in White Bear Lake. Starting at 5:30 this evening the doors to the police safety room behind City Hall will open. Inside, smiling City Staff will have arranged colored and black and white map segments of White Bear Lake on tables. They will be ready to explain to a curious population the rules of engagement. Though residents will be asked to identify routes and destinations and barriers and parts of town where trails need improvement or do not exist at all, what attendees will really being doing with their colored pens, stickers and comments is letting the City Administration and City Council know that being able to get anywhere in White Bear Lake without a car…and feel safe when doing it…is a high priority.

“BIke Trails” are not a special interest expense. They are the proven foundation to a more livable and successful community. The interconnected infrastructure we are working together to build is what will attract young families because of safe routes to schools and our many parks, build real estate values and keep more business with local merchants. We are by history a resort community nestled in layers around a spring-fed lake, a destination to many in the Metro. With a broad geography and changing demographic, we need to adopt and implement a modern plan weaving together the civility that is White Bear Lake’s heritage with a welcoming and safe accessibility throughout the community, regardless of ability or age . Tonight is the first step.

The Clinic is Being Seduced Again

It’s another day at the Clinic.  And the Minnesota Department of Wheels (MDOW) is trying to cover-up their addiction; it’s a car-problem. The Clinic is confronting the MDOW with the facts, that people increasingly see “transportation” for what it can and should be. It’s an uneasy moment. The MDOW is a smoker in a room filling with non-smokers. It plays along like any addict being called out and quickly says it wants to quit, but the internal peer pressure is great. The Clinic is listening for more.

To show how hard it has tried to change over the years, the MDOW quickly tells the Clinic about having authorized millions of dollars of reports and studies to figure out how to integrate everyone into one big happy roadway. Hat in hand, stating its perennial inability to pay for improved or new bike or pedestrian infrastructure, the MDOW oozes smoke as it feels the buy-in from the Clinic. Able to morph into its true self, the Department of Cars, Trucks and More Cars and Trucks (DOCTAMCAT), it takes the state-sponsored stage and speaks glowingly of blue-sky, open-ended concepts like Complete Streets. Sincerely leans toward the audience bending ears about context-sensitive solutions and then, as it eases back from the podium out of view, leaves us in our white lab coats with the wink and a nod of upcoming multi-modal policies….cautioning while encouraging that maybe..next year… there will be a new form at the project level. It skillfully buys time to protect the addiction by presenting a willingness to change. The Clinic is impressed.  But the addiction is strong, and the promise of change becomes the perfect defensible window dressing. After all, change takes time.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964. The State Bikeways Act of 1977. Americans with Disabilities Act 1990. Complete Streets 2010. These are merely dates when the issue is formally recognized. If you are a government agency you are in the best possible position; public acknowledgement of the problem and control of the bureaucratic process to integrate it into your system.

Back at the publicly recognized MDOW, the dust builds on the shelved studies. Project managers pursue the STIP, preach Cost Participation to municipalities and set schedules to dollop a fresh coat of paint on rotten boards. Well-meaning social workers ( aka state legislators) enact laws to give hope to the non-motorized and to reform the smokers. But before they go to lunch they always seem to forget to include the instructions outlining and mandating implementation. The cycle is set back into motion and the addiction enabled.  “Here”, they say to the well-dressed, politically connected representatives of the MDOW, “we have a lot more money for you and we know you will spend it well.