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Minnesota officials weigh Complete Streets

By Brian Johnson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — A mundane sewer-upgrade project could provide the impetus for the city of Richfield to turn 76th Street into a Complete Street.

The traditional way of doing the work — tear up the street, do the underground repairs, then rebuild the roadway as it was — didn’t appeal to area residents, who saw the project as a chance to make the roadway more suitable for cyclists and pedestrians.

The thinking is consistent with an emerging philosophy known as Complete Streets, which aims to make streets “safe and accessible for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists, and drivers,” according to the Minnesota chapter of the Complete Streets Coalition.

A bill in the Legislature would, among other things, adopt Complete Streets as a state policy, create more design flexibility for local communities who are interested in the approach and encourage local governments to consider Complete Streets policies.

Julie Skallman, state aid engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the department endorses the philosophy. But some cities and counties are wary.

“Some see Complete Streets as almost a mandate — ‘now we are going to have to provide for pedestrians and bikes on every street we own.’ What we are trying to say is, if you plan this right, you will figure out” what’s appropriate for each street, which doesn’t necessarily mean a bike path, she said.

Multiple jurisdictions can work together, she said. For example, a city can cut costs by making a road narrower and diverting traffic to another street, but that traffic still has to go somewhere. In some cases, another jurisdiction — the county or the state, for example — may end up bearing the costs, Skallman said.

“That traffic is still out there,” she said. “That is why looking at the system is the answer.”

In Richfield, construction is set to begin this year, starting with a stretch of 75th Street. When the project wraps up in 2011, the roadway from 11th Avenue to Interstate 35W will be narrowed from four lanes to two lanes, with the addition of bike lanes, green space and sidewalks.

Jack Broz, transportation group leader with St. Paul-based engineering and architectural firm HR Green, a consultant on the project, said going from four lanes to two is doable because traffic volumes on 76th Street have dropped in recent years with the diversion of traffic to 77th Street.

“The city envisioned something more community-based as a solution” for that area, Broz said.

Under current policy, cities and counties that want to go the Complete Streets route may find more roadblocks than green lights, according to Complete Streets advocates.

Local governments that receive state money have to follow state design standards developed decades ago and are — in some people’s view — biased toward automobile use. For example, if the road averages 15,000 car trips a day, a four-lane design may be necessary, Broz said.

“We have gotten to the point where we have added lanes and widened lanes and now we have some roads that are too big,” said Ethan Fawley, transportation connections coordinator for Fresh Energy, a member of the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition.

“Complete Streets is not every road is going to have a sidewalk or bike lane,” Fawley said. “We need to think about, ‘what do you need in that context?’ … It doesn’t have to take away from the car. It’s balancing things.”

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