Listening to Rather than Talking at MNDoT Might be a More Productive Approach

Highway19Region.pngOkeh, I will begin by “revealing” that I am the brother-in-law of Ray Cox. However, Ray isn’t running for elected office now, so find something else to get you excited.

Ray had a letter to the editor published in the June 24, 2008. It was unfortunately titled,”Widening not best Hwy. 19 plan”. A more accurate, if not better, title would have been “Widening not only Hwy. 19 plan”.

In it, Ray stated, “I believe it is more important for our city leaders to deal with traffic flow issues within the City of Northfield and in the adjacent planning boundaries than to call on MnDOT to rebuild Highway 19 as it exists.” This is crucial, and often repeated, advice that, I believe, must be heeded if we are to make progress on the east-west connection(s) between Interstate 35 and Northfield.

I think that Ray’s comments came in response to the front page article, “Lawmakers plead for state to widen Hwy. 19“, in the June 21-22, 2008 Northfield News. The article was illustrated with a picture of out-going City Administrator Al Roder with his quote, “It’s not good enough to be on their list. We need this to move forward.”

My first involvement with Highway 19 came about four years ago. The NDDC, at the request of then Chamber of Commerce President Robert Bierman, had agreed to support local efforts on achieving long-discussed improvements to the road. When I admitted that I had no background on the subject, Robert suggested that I get my hands on a copy of the Northfield Industrial Corporation’s July 2000 study, “A Recommendation for Improvements in Safety, Access and Quality of Life Issues for Northfield Transportation”. After striking out with a couple of prominent organizations in town, I finally got a copy…from Ray.

It is, in my opinion, an extremely valuable collection of information. I have brought it up, and distributed summaries, at two or three Comp Plan work sessions and at least one of the Transportation Advisory Committee meetings. Of particular interest to me is the fold-out map that is appended to the report. It illustrates the top twelve priority transportation projects for Northfield. But more on those later.

After educating myself thanks to Ray’s copy of the NIC Transportation study, I ended up having meetings with a number of people, including then State Representative Ray Cox, then Council Member Dixon Bond, and a small conference room full of MNDoT folks. All of them said, repeatedly, that any progress on Highway 19 would have to be part of a plan that encompassed all of Northfield’s transportation network, including connections to and from Highway 19 as well as northern and southern alternatives to Highway 19.

The twelve priority transportation projects in the NIC study are all about those connections and alternatives. When we discussed them as part of a Comp Plan work session, at best you could suggest that we’ve addressed one and half of the twelve. At that rate, it will take far more than ten years to complete all twelve projects.

At the close of the article, Roder states, according to the Northfield News, that “being the squeaky wheel is a good start..but that if the city could help with funding, he believes MnDOT would give the project an even more favored status”. Based on what I’ve heard from elected officials and MNDoT staff, I think that instead of squeaks and funds for Highway 19, we might be more successful if we came forward with schedules and budgets for elements of the broader transportation network.

Steadily and systematically addressing long-identified local transportation needs would just be an added benefit.

26 thoughts on “Listening to Rather than Talking at MNDoT Might be a More Productive Approach”

  1. I appreciate your thoughtful comments Ross. Transportation planning is so very important to all aspects of life. We rely in it for vigorous commerce within and around our city, safe routes to schools and homes, and as part of comprehensive community planning.

    It is frustrating to me to see poor planning often end up in some critical situation. I ran into this some years ago as a State Represenative when I worked with Dundas to obtain signal lights at Hester and Highway 3. When Menards was constructed traffic increased to the point where there were deaths and accidents on a regular basis. Dundas turned to MnDot to secure permission for a light. The obvious solution to the issue would have been to create a frontage road between County 1 and County 20, and put the light at County 20. MnDot fought the light as it didn’t meet their guidelines. They said they preferred to close the median and make Hester a right in and right out only. That would work, but would impair commerce to Menards from the south….and probably would have created a situation where people would have gone through the K-Mart parking lot at speed, making things even more dangerous.

    Dundas failed to plan for a full frontage road as part of the Menards work. So, a ‘temporary’ light strung on wood poles and wires was installed at Hester. Poor planning created a problem and the city turned to MnDot for a solution. It works for the purpose, but is an example of what I consider poor planning. The light is too close to County 1 and when the County 20 intersection is improved it would make much more sense to have a light there….but do you keep three lights in a mile?

    In a similar fashion, I really believe Northfield needs to do proper planning for transportation needs…..and then ‘work the plan’. We have to get proactive about securing funds for the plan that works. As I noted in my LTE, simply paving over the existing state highway does not seem to be an answer to anything other than fixing a bumpy road.

  2. When I was Chair of the Dundas planning commission we (Dundas and Bridgewater) pushed for a review of the CSAH 1 “problem” as we knew that the southern edge of Northfield was getting crowded. A wide range of parties contributed to that one study (money and effort) and we ended up with a solution that satisfied some but not others.

    Since then, the three planning commissions (Northfield, Dundas, Bridgewater Twp) had started an effort to do a single regional plan because we all needed to update our respective comp. plans to incorporate the findings of that corridor study. Unfortunately, that effort has stalled in part because there are simply too many competing studies being done. What happens to 19 effects CSAH1, Jefferson Pkwy, Decker, and other roads. Without support of staffs and politicians, these joint efforts will continue to stall for lack of resources, and we will continue to individually paste solutions together that are reactive to events rather than planned. It takes some of the fun out of being a planner.

    We need a regional transportation authority, and we need the state of Minnesota to come to its senses and build an easy structure to permit that. We don’t want to wait till MnDoT or the Metro council come to town to clean it up, cause they would bring money and bulldozers and fix it to their dream and our nightmare.

  3. I agree there is work to do at the local level. However, there is a chance to let MNDOT know what we as citizens think our region’s priorities should be over the next several years:

    MnDOT District 6 Office
    Room D6A East
    2900 48th St. NW
    Rochester, MN
    Wednesday, July 23
    9:00AM-12:30PM

    This is the public outreach for MNDOT’s 20 year plan. Do you think there should be more paved shoulders? Bike lanes? Is a safer Hwy 19 important?
    Here’s our chance as citizens…

    For more info:
    http://www.dot.state.mn.us/planning/stateplan/outreach.html

  4. I thought I’d comment here on this post because I felt bad for Ross in the previous two podcasts and, to be honest, I’m pretty interested in this transportation stuff too.

    I took a look at the map from the linked post and I have several thoughts on the proposed north/south alternatives. The south alternative is, unfortunately, predicated on finally building the Jefferson Parkway bridge across the Cannon, which seems more unlikely today then it was before. MnDOT seems to have their hands full rebuilding the bridges they have, let alone putting up new ones. I honestly think that’s a really hard sell, and I don’t know how receptive you’d find people. So as important as that south route may be, it might be the one least likely to be implemented.

    As for the north route, Thye Parkway is the best idea, and I think one pursuing. I say this because I think there already is a north route, but it’s a bad one: Cedar Ave and its insane connection at Greenvale and Lincoln. That’s a residential area and ought not to be used for a north route anymore. North Avenue east of Cedar is also a pretty bad route, because that’s an entrenched residential area now too. It’s a good extension for at least ambulances, however. Thye Parkway (a major part of the “ring road” concept), would solve many congestion problems and give a good link to the business park. It’s definitely worth taking a look at.

    Personally, however, I think the most important project is the proposed transit hub at Laurel Court. The city’s website says that it will be

    a multi modal transit hub to serve as transit hub/transfer station, park & ride location, intercity hub, and trailhead.

    That’s a pretty big job, and it warrants investigating whether Northfield could use the opportunity to dramatically expand Northfield Transit’s services to include more bus stops, shelters at stops with signage, and also consider adding out-of-town routes.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that Lakeville has just joined the Metropolitan area’s transit tax zone and is moving forward with two projects to expand Metro Transit bus service to Lakeville, on Cedar Ave. and I-35. It could be highly in Northfield’s interest to consider Northfield Transit links to these stations.

    Comments?

  5. Hey Gabe, thanks for commenting. I truly appreciate it.

    And, wow, in your quick glance at the map, you’ve already demonstrated a well above average comprehensiveness in your analysis of the situation, referencing both southern and northern alternatives to our primary east-west transportation link.

    Furthermore, there are a number of “futurists” (although maybe the future is now) in the community who would applaud your thoughts on addressing the capacity issue through getting more leverage from existing infrastructure via the multi-modal transit hub.

    Perhaps you should consider running for office. Oh yeah, you just missed that opportunity.

    Maybe you could get appointed to a board or commission.

  6. Gabe, I’ll second Ross’ assessment of your comments–thorough and insightful. I agree completely with your view that the transit hub should be treated as a critically important part Northfield’s transportation future, and, as Ross said, should be used in a way that leverages the community’s existing transportation infrastructure and connects Northfield to inter-city transit options.

    One place I will offer a different perspective, however, is on “the northern alternative.” You say: <blockquote>As for the north route, Thye Parkway is the best idea, and I think one pursuing. I say this because I think there already is a north route, but it’s a bad one: Cedar Ave and its insane connection at Greenvale and Lincoln. That’s a residential area and ought not to be used for a north route anymore. North Avenue east of Cedar is also a pretty bad route, because that’s an entrenched residential area now too. It’s a good extension for at least ambulances, however. Thye Parkway (a major part of the “ring road” concept), would solve many congestion problems and give a good link to the business park. It’s definitely worth taking a look at.</blockquote>

    I think there’s a MUCH better northern alternative, which I will call Option 1: 320th St. W (Dakota County 96), a gravel roadway that is already built, and that connects Cedar to Highway 3. Dakota County already plans to pave this as a two-lane rural highway with paved shoulders in 2009. 320th Street is just one-half mile north of Thye Parkway, and provides the desired clear connection from Cedar to 3.

    Extending Thye Parkway east to Highway 3, which I will call Option 2, on the other hand, would require building a new roadway from scratch, including the following:

    • Crossing an existing rail line (just east of the existing Thye dead-end)
    • Skirting the southern edge of the the rich fen located in Hauberg Woods Park, east of the railroad.  The 2005 Natural Resources Inventory completed for the City of Northfield by the consulting firm Bonestroo and Associates had this to say about Northfield’s handful of quality natural areas: “Of special note is the high quality (AB Rank) rich fen found on the HaubergWoods site. In addition to its high ecological quality, rich fen communities are uncommon to rare in southern Minnesota, and this site may have regional ecological significance in addition to its local value”
    • Crossing the greenway corridor connecting to Hauberg Woods Park from the south, as identified in the December 2007 Northfield Parks, Open Space and Trail System Plan presented to the Park and Rec Advisory Board and to the public at an open house in January (status???)
    • Crossing a full mile of agricultural, residential and commercial land between the railroad and Highway 3
    • Crossing Dresden Avenue en route to Highway 3
    • Creating a new major intersection on Highway 3

    Comparison of Options 1 (320th St connector) and Option 2 (Thye Parkway extension):

    Cost to Northfield taxpayers — Option 1: $0           Option 2: Start at several million and go from there

    Possibility of compromising high quality natural areas — Option 1: none         Option 2: high

    Fit with existing greenway corridor and parks, open space and trail system planning for the community — Option 1: just fine            Option 2: big trouble

    Likelihood of major citizen/political opposition — Option 1: extremely low         Option 2: near-certainty

    Possibility of blood-in-the-streets level opposition — Option 1: essentially nil         Option 2: extremely high

    My conclusion: Thye Parkway extension: bad, bad, bad. Settling for use of 320th Street as the northern alternative: good, good, good.

  7. PS to the comments above: 320th Street, continuing to the west with Cedar, then onward to the west when Cedar again takes a 90 to the north, goes to the northern edge of the proposed bidness park…

    Dakota County, Northfield, and Greenvale Township, in the “NW Transportation Study,” which is already proving highly controversial, might want to look at the possibility of (dare I say the word?) roundabouts at the four existing intersections where Cedar jogs 90 degrees (at 320th St, twice, and at County 86, twice), and routing Cedar west on 320th to Garrett Ave., then south to 19 (instead of building a humongous new roadway from County 86 to Hwy 19 through farmland and folks’ living rooms so vehicles can zoom straight north/south through the posited?lusted-for? future NorthDakotaField). Then how ’bout running a diesel-electric hybrid bus up that sucker to the soon-to-be-built Cedar Ave. express busway? Just a thought.

  8. On a related note, Dakota County is almost ready to publish their new draft regarding the Northfield Roadway Study.

    According to Dakota County’s Scott Peterson, and to the best of my memory, the preferred alignment is Option 3. Also, there were slight adjustments made to Option 3. This is the option that followed 23 and then when it reached 320th street it the road will jog south to Garret.

    The most effective draft will be published next week on the
    Dakota County Website
    , and there will be an open house to discuss these matters at Northfield High School on July 31st, from 4-7:00 pm.

    Option 1 was left behind due to farmland issues, I guess.

  9. Ross,
    Thanks for your encouragement. All I really do when it comes to transportation, however, is look at Google Maps and shout suggestions at it. As for the filing-for-office deal, that can surely wait until I have a college degree in hand. Let’s stick with folks like Mr. Etter (is Better) for now. (NICE website, Brendon!)

    Bruce, am I correct that the report you’re referring to is here?

    That report opens up a whole new can of worms, including a briefly mentioned realignment of highway 19 north of town, along that very paving of 320th street that you mentioned. That’s an idea that would seemingly solve the problem of the semis that do the zig-zag along highway 3 though town. Also a bit of a time-critical point on that note, however- the realignment proposal map shows highway 19 crossing the river on a new bridge just yards away from the site of the new Canada Ave. bridge set to replace the old iron bridge. How much traffic is the new bridge set to be able to handle? Because if it’s not enough to handle a highway 19 load… maybe it’s worth suggesting that change to MnDOT. That’s a bundle of money and time saved if done properly. I guess it might be too late; engineering work on that bridge is supposed to be finished soon.

    By the way, Bruce- I agree with you on your points about Thye parkway. It is a difficult route to get going and implement. My worry is whether people will even use the 320th street paving. I think that, given the choice between 1. 320th street, 2. Highway 19 west, and 3. above-mentioned (by me) Cedar Ave. connection to Greenvale and Lincoln, people are going to choose the latter two, simply out of convenience and habit. If, however, the point is that it’s a realignment of highway 19, you could get some congestion relief out of it, especially because it offers on the west side of town a choice between highway 19 to the freeway and cedar ave. (which also has some freeway connections).

    Another idea would be to redesign that cedar ave. section to look more like Jefferson Parkway, with medians and narrow roadways (+ bike and walking paths, of course- we’ve made that omission before…) to slow traffic and encourage it to drive elsewhere, and that elsewhere could be 320th St.

    And Bruce, you took the words out of my mouth with that diesel-electric hybrid bus idea. How can we get that started?

  10. Gabe –

    They’ve got the hybrid buses in Seattle: http://nddc.org/weblog/post/574/

    As I mentioned in my post, I took them to and from the airport. They are almost frighteningly quiet.

    My ever-dimming memory seems to recall that there is some discussion of the bus product on the transit company’s website (King County Metro Transit?) and links to the manufacturer’s site (GM?).

    Hope that helps,

    Ross

  11. I wonder if 19 and the new Cedar can become one for a mile or two, or would that cause traffic problems for those of us who would be traveling on Cedar, trying to get to town?

    Maybe that combo 19 and Cedar infrastructure would cost a lot more and be more invasive to build… although I like the idea of growth happening after a major road goes in. And business locations vs. homes near a big road.

    But if cost is a factor, perhaps the wide Thye parkway would be the best place for hwy 19 to head towards 3… take out the middle island (as planned).

    As for Hwy 19: I don’t like idea of Jefferson Parkway becoming a major highway, if that is in the picture at all. “No way” for many reasons. Number 1: Our children walk and bike that road. We added two more schools south of Jefferson. #2: We’ve already had pedestrian death there– not one of our children, but just an elderly couple trying to get across the street.

    I wonder if downtowners/Northfield businesses are concerned about major roads being routed out of town, and that is why Jefferson Parkway looks as it does. There’s that big middle island– plus I read something about the road being used for a new road that would connect to hwy 19 west of town.

    As to routing the majors through town for more downtown traffic– we’re pretty, pretty suburban, populated, and I believe we won’t dry up like some of those places in the movie “Cars.” We’re a destination town. We’ve got cows, too, and so we have a lot to see.

    As to the roundabout for north of town, here: It would have to be built for semis as well as for Smart cars (hopefully we’ll have more Smart cars and smaller cars like them). I wonder how safe that would be– and what the speeds have to be in order for those to work.

    I think we need a rail down here and wouldn’t it be nice to plan for that as we plan these roads.

    Hybrid buses are cool but those can be added later, presumably.

  12. Oh, and I believe the Cedar traffic won’t go along towards Greenvale/Lincoln anymore, since it will route to Garret, and then head towards the current 19, or head east along the new 19, and then connect up to Hwy 3.

    And, BTW, Cedar is a direct route right into the heart of St. Paul and the Capitol building. Just head north. Get rid of those stoplights in Apple Valley (route Cedar to the west a bit) and voila, lots of traffic heading down here, and less congestion up there. Add to that a widened 19… and traffic will flow nicely. But do we like that traffic…? And where should it go?

    Maybe, if they did make Cedar more traffic friendly– and it has speedy spots already, mind you– they could have it merge with 35W near the Elko exit. Never hurts to plan REALLY far ahead. That would be planning for more than 30 years in the future.

  13. Hybrid buses are also on the streets in the Twin Cities. I’ve seen them lately on my infrequent excursions into the Big City. I think Northfield should be aiming even higher. No doubt plug-in diesel-electric hybrid buses will be available soon. A Northfield bus (or small fleet) could be charged in a “solar grove” transit hub (funded by an “energy efficiency and sustainable energy grant or loan” from the US Dept. of Energy; see Sec. 471 of The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007).

  14. I guess I’m confused. A local panel of experts spent a lot of time designating and planning Jefferson Parkway as a major traffic route, and then other experts allowed residential, school and park development and a street design that would make it all but impossible to use it as a highway.
    Perhaps all the local experts should be talking to each other a little more.
    Given the development, it seems Hwy 1 is the best southern route. If that’s the solution, then plan development — or limit it — accordingly.

  15. Ray said;

    Transportation planning is so very important to all aspects of life. We rely in it for vigorous commerce within and around our city, safe routes to schools and homes, and as part of comprehensive community planning.

    As a business owner, I am wondering what you think about using Jefferson as a major traffic route? And what is your opinion about how to get 19 to Hwy 3 and then to connect with 19 on the other side of town?

    Should major roads go through downtown? What did you mean by safety and schools? Thanks!

  16. That’s weird. I would have agreed with Anne, but her post didn’t show before I posted mine. That’s happened before, too. It isn’t just my browser not refreshing. Anne, why does Hwy 19 have to route south of town? It makes more sense to route it north of town and, now that the old bridge is due for fixing, route it through there.

    I’d still like to hear from Ray…

  17. Holly, I get moderated to make sure I don’t lose my temper, so some comments sit for a while, even though I’ve been a very good girl for a long time. I’m from Chicago and even after 20 years I still don’t get this whole Minnesota Nice (passive-aggressive) fixation on civility, though I try to live by the rules here. The moderation throws some comments out of sequence and they sound a bit more odd than my thoughts usually do.-)
    In this discussion, I’m not talking about re-routing 19 north or south, necessarily. I just think using signs and existing roads could spread the traffic out so no one route is overburdened. That means 19 would stay where it is, and 86 would remain 86, but it would be a handy route for diverting some southbound Cedar traffic, and even some heading north. I live south of town, so I don’t really care whether I drive 86 or come in on Cedar and cut across on St. Olaf or Greenvale. People who live in that area, however, would find 86 takes them out of their way.
    I also would like to avoid creating a ring road or artery that ends up a residential street. Woodley was an artery that worked well for county access, but now is lined with so much residential development that last year’s design process for road improvements became a real nightmare. As I said, we have the same problem with Jefferson. Cedar also has been on the maps as a main north-south route for many, many years, so development should have been planned to accommodate that.
    If Hwy 1 is chosen as a truck/highway/rural access route, it’s important to limit driveway cuts, add frontage roads, increase setbacks, whatever it takes to make sure the road is protected as a traffic corridor. With development spreading that way, it’s an issues that needs to be addressed immediately. The stretch near Hwy. 3 already is a mess.

  18. Hi Anne,

    I read something where Hwy 19 was routed to Jefferson,

    and then I also read something where a major road (Cedar?) went through the area which is by Stan Boyum’s house (and the O’Neills and the Wees, what is that lane… is that called Edgebrook?) and then met up with Jefferson.

    Hmm, not sure what was the result, but those major roads all heading towards Jefferson = yuck. What is the latest comprehensive plan I wonder.

    Not sure what you mean by 86. We’ve got an 86 up here.

    I think the best route for 19 and Cedar is to route them east up here in an area which isn’t populated, yet. So, use 320th street, and make a major road, and make it so trucks and cars can merge onto new roads (rather than roundabout or stop sign).

  19. Holly, the map shows 86 is the same as 280th.
    I’ve only been down here three years, so I don’t know the background on all these options. I just drive through the entire Twin Cities area so much I see similar concerns in a lot of areas. And I see how other small communities leverage cooperation to make up for what they lack in population and financial clout.
    The key is to get a regional plan and have all the cities and townships pull together on all the projects instead of going it alone. That means hooking up with the rest of the Cedar Avenue corridor and lobbying for projects to the north so they’ll lobby for Northfield as the work creeps south.
    I also guess that with the economy down and so much vacant space available nearer the Cities and I-35, the likelihood of any real growth down here is at least 5-10 years out. That means using existing roads for quite a while. And you want to keep as much traffic as possible going through downtown and driving along tree-lined streets where drivers will slow down and watch for bikes. Lots of streets in town are underused.
    Much of retail and restaurant business is impulse-driven, so if people aren’t driving through downtown, they’re not thinking about it. That’s why you need to use existing streets and spread out the traffic load. Every time you widen a highway you make it faster and less personal and more likely to keep drivers from making an impulse stop. And bypasses are just that, ways to pass by a place instead of visit it.

  20. Hi Anne,

    Good idea to have widespread coordination. For example, I went to the Northfield Roadway study meeting held by Dakota County, and the consultant there said he hadn’t even heard of the idea to widen the area by Elko New Market (there is a four laner going in there, along with new sewer).

    Wouldn’t it be nice to coordinate things like:
    –traffic flow out of St. Paul
    –light rail all the way from Northfield to Elko, to St. Paul (there are vacant areas in Eagan and etc, so now is the time).
    — roads to Northfield.

    Drivers prefer the pathway of least resistance– and sometimes that means greater speed and no stop signs.

    I’d route major traffic away from the heart of Northfield and start planning for Northfield to have a greater population (which means all those routes will be needed– but not for major traffic.)

    In the ’70’s, the Burnsville Center was new, and there were farms in Burnsville. The population was about 35,000. Let’s look at traffic in that area and in Farmington and see what kind of roads we might need in 30 years. I think.

  21. A press release from Katy Gehler-Hess relating to this topic:

    Press Release

    Open House Meeting for City of Northfield Transportation Studies
    July 22, 2008

    An open house has been scheduled to present the recommendations of the three transportation studies underway for the Northfield Area. The studies include the update of Northfield’s Comprehensive Transportation Plan, the Northwest Northfield Highway Corridor Study and the Highway 19 Access Management and Safety Study. Representatives from MnDOT, Dakota County and Rice County will also be in attendance.

    The purpose of the open house is to preview the recommendations and gain public input prior to finalizing the studies. This will be the final open house for all three studies. The studies will be presented to the Council for consideration in September. Residents, property and business owners, and other interested parties are encouraged to attend.

    The meeting will be held on Thursday, July 31, 2008, at the Northfield High School, 1400 Division Street South in the Upper Cafeteria from 4:00 – 7:00 PM. The event is free and anyone can attend any time during the duration of the open house. No formal presentation is planned. Maps, exhibits and handouts will be available. More information about the studies can be found on the City’s website under the engineering projects.

    For more information please contact Katy Gehler-Hess, Northfield City Engineer, (507) 645-3006.

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