Cities turn to a new, green path for street designs

  • Article by: JIM ADAMS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2011 - 10:42 PM

Despite low costs and other benefits, some residents object, fearing snow hassles and traffic tie-ups.


Cities are trying to slim down streets to make lanes for bicyclists like Michael Hanson of Eden Prairie, who has a 34-mile round-trip commute to his job.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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A growing number of metro area cities are taking a broader, greener view of street repairs.

Instead of just rebuilding worn roads, cities such as Bloomington, Richfield and St. Paul are narrowing streets to provide space for bike lanes and sidewalks. St. Anthony has added rain basins and retention ditches to filter and re-use runoff for irrigation, officials said.

But despite little additional cost, health and environmental benefits and lower traffic speeds that improve safety, some residents have objected loudly enough to stop their streets from going green.

"They are somewhat controversial when initially proposed in a neighborhood," said Metropolitan Council member Steve Elkins, a former Bloomington council member. "But once they are put in, we have never had a neighborhood ask us to undo the bike lanes."

Some residents are concerned that narrower streets will cause congestion, while others object to shoveling snow from newly laid sidewalks.

About 18 Minnesota cities, including New Hope and St. Louis Park, Rochester and Duluth, have adopted such "green" street plans, says the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition. Others, such as Richfield and Elk River, have been shrinking streets and adding stormwater filtering devices without having a formal policy.

Bloomington, one of the first to adopt a plan in mid-2008, completed a bike route across the city from the Mall of America to Hyland Lake Park last summer. Five-foot-wide bike lanes and center turn lanes were added by narrowing several east-west streets from four to three lanes, said Elkins, who voted for the changes as a City Council member and is a complete-streets committee member for Hennepin County.

Speeding curtailed

The narrowed roads reduce average speeds by a few miles per hour, mostly slowing super-speeders, he said.

Because the narrowing occurs as part of the normal repaving program, there is no additional cost other than neighborhood information meetings, Elkins noted. Bloomington requires 75 percent of residents affected to approve the changes.

So does St. Paul, which has been narrowing streets since 2003, said city traffic engineer Monica Beeman. She said traffic studies on Lexington Parkway and W. 7th Street a year after narrowing showed average speeds dropped by several miles an hour, closer to the 30 mph limit.

Bike, pedestrian and transit improvements on complete streets serve the one third of citizens nationally who can't or don't drive, said Scott Bradley, a manager of complete-streets programs for the state Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

The Legislature passed a law last year encouraging MnDOT to use the complete-streets approach.

In January, North St. Paul approved the most specific and comprehensive green streets plan for repaving projects that he has seen, Bradley said.

The city website includes a Living Streets Plan manual, estimating that shrinking 30-foot-wide residential streets by 8 feet will save 15 percent in pavement costs, enough to cover the cost of adding rainwater gardens, trees and other green improvements.

The narrower street would cut maintenance expense by about 25 percent, which could save up to $1,000 a mile per year, the manual says. The rain gardens filter runoff before sending it into streams and lakes. More walking and biking instead of driving creates healthier residents and cuts air pollution.

But the city's first green street proposal, for 15th Avenue, met with resident objections about, among other things, new sidewalks that bothered homeowners who would have to clear snow off them, said Assistant City Manager Nate Ehalt He said the City Council postponed the $1.9 million project a year to allow more neighborhood meetings and comment.

"We want to take time to educate them so they understand" the benefits, Ehalt said. He said resident assessments will be the same whether the five-block stretch received normal repaving or the reworked streets.

Adding new sidewalks is difficult, said Ethan Fawley, coordinator of the state complete streets coalition. "From St. Paul to Albert Lea to North St. Paul, that is a big challenge."

Richfield is taking advantage of a major sewer upgrade along 75th and 76th Streets paid almost entirely by the Met Council. The streets are being slimmed from four to two lanes to make space for bike lanes, trees, a trail and to complete missing sidewalk segments. The project, about half done, costs about one-third less than repaving all four lanes, said project manager Jack Broz, of H.R. Green Co.

Broz said resident comment was sought and the city pressed the Met Council to begin as soon as possible.

"This shows the power of engaging the community to identify their vision. The sidewalks, trees and biking all comes together," Broz said.

Jim Adams • 952-707-9996

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