We all want smooth travel conditions. Everyone can agree on that. Where disagreements start is when we identify that some of us travel by car or truck while some prefer riding a bicycle and still others prefer, or have no other option than, going on foot.
On this National Bike to Work Day, it's important to address what St. Louis County is doing to balance the needs of all who use our transportation infrastructure.
Those who bike and walk often think we spend too much on roads and bridges and not enough on trails and sidewalks. Meanwhile, from the motorized vehicle-driving public (including trucks transporting everything we consume and buses used for transit and schools), it's a popular complaint to suggest we could solve the pothole problem if we spent less on bike lanes.
In St. Louis County, we have 3,000 miles of roads and 600 bridges to maintain. But we also see, mirroring national trends, an increasing interest in biking, running, and walking. Even those who use a vehicle for a majority of their travel typically walk for part of the trip.
The key for us is striking the right balance.
We can't neglect our roads and bridges, but we can look for cost-effective ways to add bike and pedestrian accommodations at the same time. Our mindset has changed in the last decade. Now when we design a project, we look at all modes of transportation and find ways to address them when it is cost effective. We also do standalone bike and pedestrian projects where there are known gaps in the system.
You will see examples in several upcoming projects.
In 2020, we'll be making improvements to the intersection of Arrowhead Road, Arlington Avenue, and Rice Lake Road. The finished project will better handle a higher volume of cars and trucks. But we also considered the "super sidewalk" already running along the lower segment of Rice Lake Road that ends at Arrowhead Road. Meanwhile, the North Star Academy School sits just north of the intersection on the upper leg of Rice Lake Road. As part of this project, we will connect the two, continuing the wide sidewalk along the north side of Arrowhead Road and around the corner to the school, along with other bike and pedestrian accommodations.
Another example is this year's Maple Grove Road project in Hermantown. The pavement needs to be resurfaced, but using our project-scoping process we looked at other elements that could be improved, too. The road already includes a nice wide sidewalk and shoulders in most areas, but not all. So from the soccer fields to Stebner Road, we're adding a super sidewalk that will eventually be part of the Hermantown Trail.
Meanwhile, the reconstruction of Woodland Avenue, which starts next week, from Anoka Street to Calvary Road, will incorporate a center left-turn lane for motor vehicles plus bike lanes and new sidewalks.
Recently completed projects include an added sidewalk on Arlington Avenue north of Central Entrance toward the Duluth Heights Community Center and rebuilt sidewalks and bike lanes on Fourth Street.
In addition, in rural parts of the county, we're improving shoulders to accommodate bicyclists. We have a lot of roads constructed in the 1960s and '70s. Back then, the norm was to include wide gravel shoulders. Now, as we work to resurface those roads, we also pave those shoulders to give cyclists a smoother, safer ride.
Both the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council have completed bike plans for our area. The St. Louis County Public Works Department was involved in the development of these plans, and we are committed to their implementation.
We recognize it can't be all modes for all roads. As good stewards of taxpayer resources, we can't afford that. So we target investments where we'll get the most bang for the buck. We also apply for funding sources, such as the federal Safe Routes to Schools program, specific to bike and pedestrian improvements.
Building and maintaining infrastructure is expensive; and change doesn't happen overnight. Like turning an ore boat, a shift in direction takes time. We are making changes on a project-by-project basis that are feasible and within our funding constraints. Systemwide change takes many years, but we are committed to making those changes, too, because all modes deserve smooth and safe travel.
Jim Foldesi is director of public works for St. Louis County. Carol Andrews is environmental project manager for the county.