The first sextet of Minneapolis electeds to vote on the issue of redesigning 3rd Avenue S. in downtown  Minneapolis deadlocked Tuesday on whether to put the majority of the street on a lane-shrinking road diet.

The infrastructure-focused panel punted the issue to the April 15 City Council session without a recommendation. About all its members could agree on was to tell staff to try harder to free up more space for pedestrians next to City Hall, which has been a sore point with an advisory committee.

The 3-3 split came after debate in the Transportation and Public Works Committee over the proposed redesign, which is intended to offset the recent loss of bike lanes or bike-friendly routes thought downtown's core.

The redesign adds protected bike lanes to the avenue's 15 downtown blocks, but the debate is how many car lanes to keep. The original staff proposal cut the southern nine blocks from four lanes to three--one in each direction plus a shared left-turn lane--allowing two lengthy raised planters in the median to be retained.

But after businesses howled over the loss of lanes, the Department of Public Works returned with keeping four lanes without the median to accommodate the protected lanes. But it also dropped the idea of using planter boxes to separate bike lanes from motorists, subbing the more prosaic white plastic tubes used for other protected lanes. The planted space would move to the curb area or to business property

The crux of the debate is whether three lanes can handle traffic in the more lightly traveled section of the street. The more heavily used northern six blocks would have four lanes, no medians and post-buffered bike lanes.

Council Members Lisa Bender and Cam Gordon floated examples of arterials in their wards that have been trimmed from four to three or even two lanes with higher traffic than 3rd.

Bender cited Lyndale Avenue S. at W. 35th Street, which has an evening peak of 2,360 vehicles per hour, with just two through lanes bolstered by turn lanes. Gordon cited three-lane Riverside Avenue's 1,403 cars in the peak p.m. hour. In contrast, the highest rush-hour volume on 3rd, which has four through and some turn lanes, is 1,326 cars per hour.

But city engineers responded that 3rd is part of a more complicated and therefore more fragile downtown street network. That means traffic signals every block, more pedestrians, curbside pulloffs and ramp entrances and exits, Don Elwood, director of transportation planning and engineering, told the council.

"I think there are more competing interests here," said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who voted with Blong Yang and Kevin Reich for the four-lane option. Bender, Gordon and Elizabeth Glidden voted for the mostly three-lane approach.

Bike advocates favor a four lane to three conversion. One 2007 study of seven such conversions in Minnesota presented to the Transportation Research Board found a 37 to 46 percent crash reduction. One Federal Highway Administration touts crash reductions, better conditions for bikes and walkers, and livability benefits.

A traffic analysis by a consultant to the city found that the three-lane option would increase the drive time on 3rd through downtown but with mitigation measures that time could be reduced to current levels or below. City Engineer Steve Kotke said that means that normal conditions could be handled adequately but that disruptions from weather or special events could cause problems with three lanes.

Office tower owners along 3rd have told the city they're concerned enough about three lanes that they'd prefer to remove medians they paid for to keep both four lanes and protected bike lanes. Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, said that if there's concern about three lanes the most prudent course is to run a test with temporary barriers to see how it works rather than take the potentially unnecessary and irreversible step of removing the street's distinctive medians, which the businesses financed.

Mayoral aide Ben Hecker told the panel that adding protected bike lanes to 3rd means that the painted bike lanes on 4th and 5th avenues, which he said conflict with 35W exit and entrance ramps, could be reconsidered in the future.

He said that 3rd offers the advantage of giving bikes a north-south route through downtown that crosses the Mississippi River and Interstate 94. But once outside downtown, the city's bike master plan would leave them dealing without marked lanes south of downtown or lanes shared with buses in the East Side; a protected bikeway plan doesn't include 3rd north or south of downtown.

Kotke said he believes it's imperative to keep the project on schedule to complete installation of new lane configurations this year, with planting and final work next year.

(Illustration above: The original proposal for remaking 3rd Avenue S. in downtown Minneapolis included bike lanes protected by planters, one lanes in each direction and left-turn lanes for nine of the 16 blocks.)