Ramsey County has unveiled plans to narrow Rice Street from four lanes to two through much of St. Paul, with the goal of increasing pedestrian and vehicle safety.
The $16 million road project also includes a dedicated center turn lane, a 6-foot-wide sidewalk on one side and a 12-foot-wide, shared path for pedestrians and bicyclists on the other. City and county leaders say it will transform the corridor from a shortcut for commuters into a modern "Main Street."
These lane reductions, called "road diets," typically lower vehicle speeds.
"It generally gets people down to the speed limit," said Ramsey County project manager and civil engineer Nick Fischer. "For 23 hours a day, it will function perfectly. There might be an hour a day when it is a little more congested."
The enhanced safety comes with tradeoffs, which some business owners say will cause problems. The new design could eliminate some on-street parking, though there will also be 50 to 70 parallel parking bays, Fischer said.
The roadway will be rebuilt for a 2-mile stretch starting at Pennsylvania Avenue just north of the State Capitol and extending to Wheelock Parkway. Utilities and infrastructure under the road, including stormwater systems, will be replaced and upgraded.
That stretch of Rice Street sees between 14,000 and 15,000 vehicles per day. It's more dangerous than roadways with similar traffic counts, city and county leaders agree.
"We found that Rice Street has one of the highest crash rates not just in St. Paul but in all of Minnesota, and our engineers say that is a direct result of the current design, which encourages high speeds and weaving directly in front of schools, churches, homes and businesses," said Ramsey County Commissioner Trista MatasCastillo, whose district includes Rice Street. "These changes will make Rice Street safer for people walking, biking, using mobility devices, transit and driving."
It will also make Rice Street more attractive, MatasCastillo said. The new design calls for 6 feet of boulevard between the roadway and the pedestrian paths, which will separate vehicles from pedestrians and make room for smaller trees, planters and green space.
The county has spent more than two years reaching out to the community, including hiring artists as liaisons and surveying people in the neighborhood, and has received about 200 comments via an online portal. Fischer said a majority of feedback has been supportive of a redesign; the biggest criticisms have been concerns about reducing traffic lanes and parking.
That's a worry for some Rice Street business owners, who say they need on-street parking for customers and deliveries.
"We would like to keep it the way it is," said Brian Yoch, whose family has owned Rice Street Do it Best Hardware for 41 years. "I think that it's going to create a mess."
Vito Sauro, chair of the North End Neighborhood Organization, said he understands business owners' concerns, but still supports the county's overarching plans.
"I know businesses don't see it yet, but it will be amazing for businesses," he said. "This redesign is going to breathe so much new life and accessibility into the neighborhood."
Reducing lanes of traffic will allow people — whether residents or visitors to the area — to cross the street safely, Sauro said.
"I know a lot of folks live on Rice Street. There are houses there. There are apartment buildings. There are folks living and working and shopping and frequenting restaurants and businesses in this area," he said. "They want to feel safe while they are doing it."
Ramsey County officials hope to finalize designs and approval in 2022. The county is now accepting public comments on the design, and has already received positive feedback from an important partner: St. Paul city staff. Though the county owns the road, it needs St. Paul's cooperation to move forward.
"City staff is currently supportive of this plan," said St. Paul Traffic Engineer Randy Newton. " A change is needed. It is a little bit of a chaotic corridor."
St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen also expressed support for the redesign.
"A re-imagined Rice Street will be a deal changer for the North End," she said. "I believe Rice Street will soon feel like a modern, walkable Main Street versus a high-speed commuter shortcut."