That dividing highway

Now that we are seeing the development of the resurfacing project that is Hwy. 61,it gives us a very real picture of the finished project. It will be very beautiful; we see trees going in, grasses planted, cement stained in interesting patterns and signage.
This is still a highway that divides White Bear Lake from itself, one side from another. Some of us wanted a more accessible highway, a highway that would slow traffic down, a highway that would be inclusive of bicyclists and not hostile to pedestrians. Beautiful and functional too.
Turns out that MNDOT has laws that agree with the basic tenet of shared roadways when those roadways are reconstructed. How is it that MNDOT seemingly has immunity from its own laws?

When You Reason with a Bureaucracy and No One Listens

 

Kudos to the inspired resident who, on a whim I am told, began a new Facebook page, ” Take Back Hwy 61 in White Bear Lake.” The response has been intense with several hundred “likes” in less than a week. None of us enjoy construction, but the underlying distain for the “beautification” of the road over a more inclusive use of available corridor space is rising to the surface quickly.

NE Bike Walk has been involved for sometime in trying to understand the decision making behind the road design and its car-centric disposition. Does City Hall value commuters more than residents? Why was over $2 million allocated for a project that requires on-going maintenance, uses precious lake water and places hard objects, like big welcoming signs, in the median?

The City/MNDOT plan for Highway 61 was unveiled to the public in the Fall of 2013 a few months before the project would close and no changes would be accepted.

Here is a copy of the letter White Bear Lake Bike Walk Taskforce members sent to the City Council in the Fall of 2013 looking to start a dialogue about how to design the road so the community of White Bear Lake would receive the best possible return.

To WBL Council Members

Connection – they did it in St. Paul

With the asphalt-shredders, cement and landscape contractors waiting close by, it is now time to say good bye to the old Hwy 61 that divides White Bear Lake literally in two and install the new Hwy 61 overlay. For the pedestrian, the bicyclist and anyone wanting to cross to the other side to enjoy amenities not found on the side they are on, it will still be a hostile go. But it will be a fine homage to our gasping love affair with the automobile; the speed limit will remain unchanged at 40 mph and the medians will be lovely. Hopefully no one will get hurt crossing at the new and improved pedestrian crosswalks.

Efforts  including a last-ditch round with a MNDOT ombudsman to get some safety for bikers and walkers have been stonewalled so far. Is it too late? Perhaps we need to take a lesson from some active and engaged St. Paulites. The “I-35E East Side Trail Extension”  at the Cayuga interchange agreement with MNDOT is for bicyclists, walking people and for those who use wheelchairs to get around.The old Gateway Trail/Soo Line railroad bridge across the interstate will not be reopened or replaced, as some had hoped but there is an agreement in place to connect the East Side with everyone else.

That effort took “tons and tons of meetings”. We would be happy with tons and tons of meetings…If enough citizens voice their opinion, perhaps the project could be delayed until these issues are fairly and honestly addressed.

Transition Stillwater

Things are starting to heat up in the NE region. Last week we posted for people we met at Mahtomedi’s Rite Of Spring event. Thanks to Dennis Lindeke for getting in touch with NEBikeWalk, on a tip from Dorian Grilley from the Bike Alliance,  and making room for us in the Bike Room.

I bumped into Sean Gosiewski from Alliance for Sustainability at the Rite Of Spring and he made the pitch for us to attend this week’s event in Stillwater. Sounds great. Sure, we’ll be there.

So, to those who picked up a little green piece of paper at the Stillwater Library with our mission statement and this blog address…welcome. This little blog is the tinder part of working together to get a really big fire going for safe biking and walking in the NE Region, which we have embraced as “the birthplace of the regional bike trail gap.”

If you attended the Rite of Spring event and came to this blog last week, you will now experience a strong case of deja vu.

The objective of the NE Communities Bike Walk is to create an alliance of people in surrounding communities who want to improve safe local and regional transit opportunities for those who bike, walk and run. From a website functionality perspective our hope is to grow our on-line presence as a resource for regional change and more effective communication. For example, we envision providing direct links you can copy to reach local, county and state officials. This will streamline getting our collective and individual messages out to those we have elected who can legislate and drive change….and make sure the laws in place are followed for bike and ped.

Maybe more manually than digitally to start…we think it is important for people to define their local routes…to map out their communities, find the best, and safest routes and share them openly. MNDOT resurfacing and reconstruction projects offer a once in 25 year chance to provide a greater community gain than simply fresh pavement. Understanding when these projects will happen and getting in touch early with the people designated by MNDOT to manage them  and ensure all projects  are scoped for bike and per facilities is key. State and local officials need to understand roads are for everyone. They also need to be educated on the laws surrounding bike and ped inclusion into road projects.

So..if you believe in using existing road infrastructure for a greater community gain, and that organizing to establish new, safe off-road trails can enhance the vibrancy, livability and prosperity of our towns and cities, we want to collaborate with you or your group.

If we did not get your contact information at the Transition event, please email us at nebikewalk@gmail.com.

Thanks for stopping by

Mahtomedi’s Rite Of Spring

This post is being written especially for those of you who talked with April, Jim or I at Mahtomedi’s Rite of Spring event on Saturday April 26th. To save on paper we printed the smaller cards with our mission statement and the link to this blog site…which currently is our web-like gathering location in lieu of a website.

Our objective. We are looking to create an alliance of people in surrounding communities who want to improve safe local and regional transit opportunities for those who bike, walk and run. From a website functionality perspective we hope to grow our on-line presence as a resource for regional change and to more effectively communicate with each other. For example, we envision providing direct links to local, county and state officials to make it easier to get our collective or individual messages out to those we have elected who can legislate and drive change.

Maybe more manually than digitally to start… we think its important for people to define their local routes…. to map out our communities, find the best, and safest routes for all to see.  MNDOT resurfacing and reconstruction projects are a once in a 25 year chance to do something to improve the roads around us and it’s important to have roads scoped for bike and ped and local and state officials include these facilities in their planning.

So….if you believe in using existing road infrastructure in a more inclusive way, and that organizing to establish new, safe off-road trails can enhance the feel, livability and prosperity of our communities, we want to collaborate with you or your group.

The best way to communicate, add your name to the list, etc.  with us at this point is by sending an email to nebikewalk@gmail.com.

Thanks for stopping by

 

 

 

The Evolution of the DOT

Lat week I had a chance encounter with two men I had never met, MNDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle and Chief of Staff Eric Davis. It occurred after a scheduled event held at Century College on 12 December. Everyone had left and I was 20 minutes late and unknowingly asked two guys in the hallway if they knew the room the bike meeting was held in. They corrected me. It was a transportation meeting and pointed out the room. I asked them if they had attended the meeting and one of the men introduced the other as Commissioner Zelle, and then introduced himself. “You are Commissioner Zelle,” I exclaimed, tapping him on the arm. “Who are you,” he responded. “I am Mike Brooks,” I said. “Oh, you are Mike Brooks. It is good to have a face to connect to the name.”  Approachable guy the Commissioner.

We laughed and talked briefly. We only had a minute, maybe two, so my main point to him was about the Strongtowns  presentation made in White Bear Lake on 15 October  advocating for squeezing more local benefit from MNDOT projects. I also told him our Mayor, who attended the Strongtowns presentation,  was hesitant to suggest taking a new look at the project, slowing the approval process down,  for fear of MNDOT moving onto the next project leaving our highway without the refresh. The Commissioner seemed concerned at that and mentioned involving an ombudsman.

A street-level conversation with the head guy at our state DOT, what could be better. I think the Commissioner is built to listen, and he is taking it all in looking for implementable ideas with focus.

What follows is a re-posting of an 18 December blog (that’s today!)  from the Strongtowns site. It is entitled, “The Next Generation DOT.” It takes a higher level view of what faces  all DOT’s and suggests what is not working and what new approaches might be more prudent given their situation.

So, before we move onto the guest blogger….Commissioner, it was good to meet you. Eric, the same. Hopefully your ombudsman can come to White Bear Lake soon before the deal on #61 is closed-up tight to fit into the schedule. We have a great opportunity. It’s your road, but it cuts through our City and it is our City’s estimated $1 million to $1.5 million that is allocated for enhancements beyond the budgeted cost to resurface the road.  In frankness, we have not done a good job engaging our local and downtown business leaders…to let them see on paper what U.S. 61 could offer to bridge the core downtown from East to West…and MNDOT’s involvement in that discussion is key. We also need a little more time.  That’s not asking much for Christmas is it?

The Next Generation DOT

A Unifying Message

On Tuesday October 29th at about 5:00 p.m. Chuck Marohn and Jim Kumon of StrongTowns.org arrived in White Bear Lake. I greeted them at the door shortly after they pulled up outside Ingredients for an early dinner before Chuck’s presentation beginning at 6:30.  Seated at the table were five of us, including White Bear Lake Mayor Jo Emerson and local bike businessman Jim Muellner. There was no need for an ice-breaker. Chuck and Jim Kumon eased through hellos, and like doctors seeing a patient, assumed an even tone and asked how it was going. And like the dining patients we were, we ate salads and in between bites added and extended to each others comments piecing together a face to the malaise. The gentle frankness of that conversation set the tone for the rest of the night and Strong Towns’ matter-of-fact message favored no one, while pulling everyone in the room together.

Using history as his backdrop, Chuck methodically described the evolution of infrastructure. His juxtaposed pictures of his hometown of Brainerd MN  as it formed and evolved. These were relevant to his story and personalized his message. He showed what thousands of years of civilizations building cities looked like and why. He talked about the post WWII experiment we are currently engaged in and why it is failing. For example, he gave an example of salvage value. He showed a Walmart and told all in attendance that Walmart structures their real estate deals for roughly 15 years. At the end of the cycle, the building is paid for and they can take advantage of changes in the town or the market. They may move out of town completely or just a block away and when they do they take everything with them. Shelves, signs, cash registers, lighting…everything… leaving a box behind. This is an example of high salvage value.  But when a bridge needs to be replaced, there is the cost to tear the bridge down and erect a new one. The rebar and cement has little value. This is low salvage value .

His expansion of this,  that infrastructure costs never really get paid but carry-forward like a Ponzi Scheme, gave a silent audience something everyone could clearly see. That miles of roads and bridges whose cost and repair cycles  exceed their financing plan and whose economic return is in the red and point to the failed business model we continue to fund. The States became addicted to Federal money to continue the experiment.  This faucet has virtually been welded shut.  With in-State monies receding like our spring-fed lake , it is the communities that are being asked to foot the bill.

We are now 2 hours into the Curbside Chat. Some, with positions that can influence change, and began the night with us, have had to leave for whatever reason and missed the meat and potatoes.  But three Council Members and the Mayor and several members of her planning staff sitting close to the front row have been writing notes and were here for the duration.  We were in the home stretch as we looked at a slide of a very wide, multi-lane road. Chuck pointed to the screen and said this is a “stroad”. It wants to be a street, but it is a road. It separates one side from the other and begs someone to use their car just to cross it. The room was very quiet as cars were whizzing by outside City Hall on U.S. 61.  Chuck deftly switched to a few slides of Memphis who is runner-up to Detroit for most likely to be used same day as shooting for an apocalyptic movie set. He showed ordinary citizens with cans of white paint creating bike lanes and defining parking places in a neighborhood that the city had forgot. When the city found out, they decided to leave it in place, clean it up a bit and see what happened. Happy ending….storefronts got cleaned up and more businesses moved in. Moral of the story…those cans of pain were a great investment. They addressed the needs of the local community and provided a solid return. This is the Strongtowns message. We need to change the model and how we fund it and use money and infrastructure to do more than what they have yielded us in the 50-year experiment. Wipe the road clean. Look at the economic and human issues then return to the road to design it for its original purpose, and leverage it where possible to solve the identified community issues.

It was a MNDOT engineer, who enthusiastically wrote to me later, who summed up the night best. He said, ” It’s truly amazing the effect public infrastructure can make in a community.” Bravo.

 

90% of Life is Showing Up

Sage words from Woody Allen that apply to everyone who had or made the time to come to White Bear Lake’s Open House on the U.S. 61 project last night. Kudos to the City for creation of the white-bear-lake-at-a-glance map that provided for several conversations. NE Bike Walk also was invited to speak at the Rotary meeting this morning to talk about the connectivity of speed to livable and walkable communities and economic development. No tomatoes were thrown, making me think the message was embraced and people will get involved.

The discussion this morning, and an exchange last night about speed, prompted this idea. Ready? Typically MNDOT will tell those of us who are new to the rules of the state transportation department that the primary way speed is decided is by an average of how fast people drive. 85% of whatever speed people drive on a road is what the speed limit is determined to be.

The State of Minnesota definition for “traffic” included pedestrians, herded animals, bikes…so every conceivable method of conveyance and mobility. Of course there are select roads, say 35E, that most people would only walk along if they were looking for a gas station or a hastily tossed engagement ring. But for our Main Street of U.S. 61 the State”s definition of traffic applies. So here’s the idea for the modern speed study…measure the speed of EVERYONE who is allowed to use the road and then take the average. Actually meld Complete Streets thinking into  the methodology for setting speed. What do you think?

Our Appeal to WBL City Officials

There is an open house in White Bear Lake on Tuesday the 15th. It will be held in the White Bear Lake Public Safety Training Room behind City Hall. It starts at 6:30. At that time the City will show its plan for using space on the U.S. 61 corridor through White Bear Lake. There is a piece being printed on the White Bear Press opinion page the same week, but it will come out after the meeting. People in the community need to know about this meeting and since the notice in the paper will come out too late, we’ve attached a copy of the letter we e-mailed to Council Members and the Mayor. Please forward a link to this blog to whoever you know in and around White Bear to get the word out and educate people before they go to this event.

To WBL Council Members