What to do about Robert Street?

With a $7 million federal grant -- the largest the city has ever received -- West St. Paul is close to answering that question with a design aimed at taming the city's chaotic main street.

Half commuter route, half commercial strip, the five-lane Robert runs through the heart of West St. Paul from just north of I-494 to St. Paul.

Built 50 years ago when storefronts were smaller and the traffic quieter, the street today is outmoded and marked by two big problems: an astounding number of driveways -- 140 in 2.5 miles -- and a left-turn lane that runs down the center of the street.

The hundred-plus opportunities to enter and leave the street have been known to slow traffic and cause crashes. The center turn lane allows drivers to dart across two lanes of traffic to get to the many driveways and the businesses they serve. During peak times such as evening rush hours and Saturday mornings, the hectic scene can cause even confident drivers to quiver.

"We have had testimony from people who say they are avoiding the corridor because they feel unsafe," said Dave Hutton, a consulting engineer from SRF who is working with the city on the Robert Street revamp.

"There is no kind of traffic movement, no consistent movement at all with the traffic. It's a lot of stopping and starting," Hutton said.

All the starting and stopping makes rear-end collisions common. From 2008 through 2010, 430 accidents were recorded on Robert Street, one of the higher accident rates in the state.

That statistic won the city the federal money to rebuild the street for safety. By the end of the year the City Council is expected to approve a design that would reduce the number of driveways and replace the center turn lane with a median. The city is also rounding up another $6 to $7 million to beautify the street with decorative street lights, better sidewalks, landscaping and improved traffic-light timing. Work could start in 2014.

"I look at it as an investment in the next generation of West St. Paul having a viable commercial environment," said Mayor John Zanmiller. "I think about it just like you would market a house -- if the front door looks worn and the exterior looks worn you are not likely to go inside."

'First impressions matter'

As the main entrance to West St. Paul from I-494 and St. Paul, Robert Street gives the first impression people receive of the city, and "first impressions matter," Zanmiller said. What the city wants to show is a street that moves traffic efficiently, feels safe to pedestrians and works well for transit, he said.

The city is working through the proposed changes with affected businesses. Most reportedly are receptive to driveway changes.

Hutton estimates that it may be possible to reduce the number of driveways by 30 by making one entrance serve multiple businesses and re-routing some to the back of the properties.

"I think we have had a pretty positive response. They recognize that an unsafe roadway is hurting their businesses," Hutton said.

Building a median is, so far, a harder sell.

Dividing Robert with a center median would mean that drivers could only turn right to get into the business and turn right again when they leave. To go the opposite direction they would have to make a U-turn at an intersection or circle around on side streets.

Dave Moatz, president of the South Robert Street Business Association, said "almost every member of our organization is against the median."

He said he and other business owners are receptive to the idea of combining driveways, adding new sidewalks and decorative lighting, improving traffic-light timing, and getting rid of old, drop-down manhole covers. "I love the idea of improving Robert Street," he said.

But if a median were to replace the center turn lane, his business -- Plaza TV & Appliance -- would be harder to reach, he said. "Anybody going south from downtown St. Paul won't be able to take a left turn into my parking lot.

"If you make it tough enough for customers to come into a business," eventually they will find someplace easier to reach, he said.

Zanmiller said opposition to the median is coming mostly from the north end of the street where the lot sizes are smaller. "I get all those concerns," he said. "I tell them to be patient and let the engineers work out a strategy that is mutually agreeable."

The mayor said he already plans his own trips down Robert Street in a way that allows him to make all stops from a right turn.

In some cases, the street work will prompt redevelopment on the north end of the street like the redevelopment that produced Target, Lowes, Applebees, Starbucks, Noodles and Panera Bread on the south end, said Economic Development Director Jim Hartshorn.

The change will be an adjustment for people in the beginning, Hartshorn said. "Overall it's going to add a lot. I think it will dress up Robert Street to be very nice."

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287