First Street likely ranks as one of the most confusing roadways in all of Duluth. Between Mesaba Avenue and 26th Avenue East, the flow of traffic on the street switches four times — alternating between one-way and two-way repeatedly.
Jody Nelson, an office administrator for Uncle Dunbar's Auto Body, 210 E. First St., has witnessed the fallout.
"(Every day) at least one car goes the wrong way in front of our building. When we cross the street or pull a car out of the garage, you've got to look both ways. You can't just assume everyone knows it's a one-way," she said.
On Monday, the Duluth City Council will take up a resolution that could bring more consistency to First Street, turning the entire stretch in question into a two-way road.
The proposal has met with mixed opinions, as some have continued to advocate that it would function better as an entirely one-way street instead.
Mark Emmel falls into that camp. He is a partner and vice president of Labovitz Enterprises, a firm whose holdings include the Holiday Inn in downtown Duluth. The hotel's parking ramp was designed specifically for the one-way traffic on First Street, with an entrance ramp on the left side of the exit ramp.
Reversing the flow of traffic in and out of the structure can be done, but it will require some physical modifications.
"We've made our peace with it pretty much because the city was determined it was going to go to a two-way," said Emmel, noting that city staff have been helping them look at how best to revamp the ramp.
Deliveries to businesses located on First Street present yet another challenge. It's not uncommon to see trucks double-parked on the road, as they deliver supplies. That could present more of a challenge with traffic moving in both directions.
Adam Fulton, Duluth's deputy director of planning and economic development, acknowledged the problem and noted that "It had been a number of decades since we've looked at loading zones."
In the meantime, the mix of businesses on First Street has changed dramatically, and Fulton said it was high time to take another look at the placement of loading zones.
"We need to make sure that loading zones are available, but we also are trying to maximize the amount of available parking so that people can easily get downtown to do business or to get a bite to eat," he said.
Mark Bauer, Duluth's parking manager, said he was initially concerned that establishing new loading zones would require the sacrifice of a substantial amount of on-street parking. But his skepticism was transformed into support for the conversion, when he learned that just three parking spots will be lost under the proposed plan.
Marvin Krogerson, general manager of Erbert and Gerbert's at 234 W. First St., said one of the proposed new loading zones is located right in front of his business, potentially simplifying deliveries. He also took encouragement that making First Street into a two-way street would make it easier for customers to directly access his restaurant coming from Mesaba Avenue. He said the change could make for speedier delivery service, as well.
"I really don't know how it will impact our business to be honest, but I don't see how it could hurt it either," Krogerson said.
Fulton described the one-way segments of First Street as a throwback to a previous era.
"This segment of First Street through the city of Duluth was a really important artery, pre-freeway, to help move traffic through the city and get it to the North Shore. But when the freeway was built, traffic patterns in Duluth changed pretty extensively ... because all that traffic that used to go through the city on Second and then back south on Third and First moved to the freeway," he said.
Kris Liljeblad, Duluth's senior transportation planner, agreed, calling First Street "a relic of the pre-I-35 situation, when the downtown was the preeminent retail-financial business district of the whole region." He said there's no longer a need to move as much traffic through the area at a rapid rate of speed.
The city is recommending that traffic signals at Fourth and Fifth avenues west and at First and Second avenues east be replaced with four-way stop signs, based on traffic levels that fail to warrant continued stoplights.
Members of Duluth's Disabilities Commission have expressed concerns about removing the traffic signals, and Liljeblad said he is trying to arrange a meeting with the commission Monday to discuss the matter and the city's rationale.
He predicts First Street will become safer if the proposed conversion is approved.
"One-way streets really encourage people to drive faster," Liljeblad said. He said average travel speeds on First Street as a two-way street are expected to decline by 5-10 mph from current levels, significantly reducing the risk of fatal collisions. He noted that the risk of a pedestrian being killed by a vehicle traveling 40 mph is eight times greater than the risk of death for someone who is struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph.
Fulton said both Essentia Health and St. Luke's are onboard with switching First Street to two-way traffic.
In a letter to city councilors, Mike Boeselager, vice president of support services for St. Luke's, expressed strong support, saying: "Consistent two-way traffic helps reduce driver confusion and aids in slowing traffic — which is a much safer environment for vehicles and particularly pedestrians. Two-way traffic also helps to provide better access to our numerous facilities located within the four-block area of the St. Luke's campus."
But not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for the plan.
Rick Dunbar of Uncle Dunbar's Auto Body has expressed concern about the ability of tow trucks, delivery trucks and garbage trucks to continue to serve his business safely. He also worries that the new configuration will make it tougher for customers to get in and out of his shop.
But Nelson doesn't hold out much hope those concerns will register with the city.
"At this point, it's kind of being shoved down our throats. So, now it's just a matter of seeing how it goes," she said.
If approved, by the Council, the project is expected to go through this summer. The work will involve restriping the road and installing new signs, but no major construction will be involved.