Senate vote on 'practice freeway' riles I-35E neighbors in St. Paul

Amendment would allow fines for speeding up to 10 mph over limit of 45, but leave citation off driving records.

 

It’s one thing for the Minnesota Senate to take on the federal courts. Picking a fight with Residents in Protest 35E (RIP-35E), on the other hand, may be a different matter entirely.

St. Paul neighbors who fought 30 years ago to make a hybrid parkway out of the 3.7-mile stretch of Interstate 35E that winds through the city’s West End — commonly referred to as “the practice freeway” — are making it clear they’re not amused by the Senate’s vote Tuesday to keep off the books any speeding tickets for driving up to 10 miles per hour over the 45-mph limit.

In fact, they’re annoyed. Even angry.

“They speed on that road as it is now and it’s like giving them a pass to break the speed limit, which is technically breaking the law. I don’t know how they would have a leg to stand on,” said Karen Avaloz, a founder of RIP-35E who still lives above the freeway on the bluff behind Summit Avenue.

Dozens attending Wednesday’s annual meeting of the West 7th/Fort Road Federation district council lost no time in unanimously backing a resolution calling on elected officials to maintain the road conditions set forth in a 1984 federal court decree: a speed limit of 45 mph and no heavy trucks on I-35E between W. 7th Street and downtown St. Paul.

“I don’t know if Judge [Paul] Magnuson would find it to be a violation of the letter of the agreement, but it’s most certainly a violation of the spirit of that agreement,” said Diane Gerth, a St. Paul attorney and former federation president who sponsored the resolution.

“I can tell you, it will wind up in court. This was not a temporary measure.”

Despite similar warnings from the two St. Paul DFL senators who represent the freeway area, the message from Republican senators Dave Senjem of Rochester and Dan Hall of Burnsville was: Bring it on.

“All I’m asking us to do is challenge this and allow some equity to happen,” Hall said Tuesday on the Senate floor, before his transportation bill amendment to raise the speed limit on that stretch of 35E to 50 mph failed on a narrow vote.

That was followed by Senjem’s amendment, hailed even by opponents as one of the craftiest legislative maneuvers of recent years. It would allow a fine for driving up to 10 mph over the 45-mph speed limit, but wouldn’t put the ticket on the driver’s record. The amendment passed 36-31.

In an e-mail Thursday, Senjem said he believed that the section of 35E in question was built for faster traffic, and that the 45-mph zone winds up being a speed trap. He said he frequently hears complaints about the freeway around the State Capitol and at downtown St. Paul restaurants.

“If the court made an ill-advised decision, I think interested policymakers have an obligation to work towards changing it,” Senjem said.

All of which drives people like Avaloz and Gerth crazy. Thirty years ago, RIP-35E protested a full-blown freeway because of the noise and pollution it would generate amid neighborhoods, schools and hospitals.

While it lost the war — the group preferred a 35-mph city parkway to the freeway section that was built, and didn’t want 35E linked to Interstate 94 — it won an important victory with the 45-mph limit, noise barriers, trees, ornamental overpasses and the prohibition on large trucks. The road design was so unusual that it drew highway engineers from across the country.

It was a struggle that occupied 15 years of her life, said Avaloz. For years since, she has watched as measures to change the road conditions have been introduced at the Legislature and rejected or tabled.

“It’s a silly thing,” she said. “It’s not only a matter of principle, it was a valid and intelligent compromise. Someone’s got a bee in their bonnet and they can’t let it go.”

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said he warned St. Paul House members to watch out for a similar provision. “I’m not sure how the Legislature can circumvent a very explicit federal order,” he said.

“I am sensitive to the actions of government that I feel are illogical or inappropriate,” Senjem said. “If speed-related sound was an issue, sound barrier walls could have been installed. ... Slowing down traffic to lessen sound was not necessary.”

 

Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035

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