Roadway’s four lanes become three with bike-pedestrian trail

By Jane McClure

It’s final. Ayd Mill Road will be rebuilt this summer and fall as a three-lane street with an adjacent 12-foot trail for bicyclists and pedestrians. A sharply divided St. Paul City Council approved the $7.5 million project on April 22 on a 4-3 vote after more than two hours of debate and despite the objections of the three council members who represent the neighborhoods on either side of the 1.5-mile roadway.

Council members Rebecca Noecker, Chris Tolbert and Dai Thao all voted against the project. They also supported Noecker’s unsuccessful bid to set aside the project and instead mill and overlay Ayd Mill Road’s existing four lanes at a savings of about $2.2 million.

Noecker had several reasons for opposing the $7.5 million plan. She cited the lack of space in some areas between the traffic lanes and the bike and pedestrian trail, saying the plan does not live up to the city’s expectations for safety. She questioned spending so much on one bikeway when such projects as the citywide Grand Round and the Capital City Bikeway downtown must wait years for completion. Another concern was the looming fiscal crisis facing St. Paul due to the coronavirus pandemic, she said.

Tolbert agreed, saying the current plan has had little public engagement given the controversy and years of debate over previous plans for rebuilding Ayd Mill Road. He said the plan brought forward by Mayor Melvin Carter drew on outdated studies and includes a “subpar bike lane” that lacks the necessary protections.

The planned Jefferson Avenue interchange at Ayd Mill Road’s south end, with all cars entering Ayd Mill by the ramp on Jefferson’s south side and bicycles and pedestrians using the ramp on the north side.

Thao and Tolbert both objected to the diversion of motor vehicle traffic into the surrounding neighborhoods that will likely result from reducing Ayd Mill Road from four lanes to three. Tolbert asked for more specifics on how the city intends to mitigate the expected traffic congestion. Thao cited concerns about increased air pollution as well as the accuracy of the traffic models used in predicting future traffic patterns.

The Ayd Mill Road project was supported by council president Amy Brendmoen and members Mitra Jalali, Jane Prince and Nelsie Yang. Jalali became emotional when Noecker proposed the mill and overlay project instead of the more extensive redesign, saying, “I could not be more opposed to this.” According to Jalali, thousands of people have commented on the reconstruction project and the majority support a three-lane Ayd Mill Road. She said that not going forward means “kicking the can down the road” when reconstructing the roadway is sure to be more costly.

One benefit cited by Jalali and other project supporters is the possibility that the Ayd Mill bike trail could be connected someday to Minneapolis’ Midtown Greenway bike trail. However, that connection may require the use of a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River, and permission for that has not been forthcoming from the railroad.

Prince, who criticized the city’s most recent round of Ayd Mill Road traffic studies for not looking at the congested intersection of Snelling and Selby avenues, said she had been on the fence about the project. What persuaded her to support it was the prospect of turning Ayd Mill Road into a transportation corridor for bicyclists and pedestrians as well as motorists.

The City Council gave its preliminary approval to the Ayd Mill Road project in February as part of the St. Paul Streets 2020 plan. However, the council asked the city’s Department of Public Works to engage the public in a discussion about the plan before bringing it back to the council. The COVID-19 pandemic forced that public engagement to the city’s website with two video presentations and an online survey.

“We reached many, many more people than we would have with in-person community meetings,” said Paul Kurtz, interim director of Public Works. He said the key takeaway was that the project has more support than opposition.

The project is expected to go out for bid in June with construction to begin in July or August and be completed in November. Ayd Mill Road will be closed to traffic during construction. When it reopens, it will have two southbound lanes and one northbound lane for motor vehicles and a 12-foot-wide trail for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The work will also involve new lighting and drainage improvements to address the water problems associated with underground springs in the area. The city currently spends about a third of its annual pothole patching budget on Ayd Mill Road, largely due to that seepage.

With the new Ayd Mill Road, many of the adjacent neighborhood streets are expected to be over capacity during rush hours, especially in the mornings when as many as 400 motorists confronted with Ayd Mill Road congestion are expected to take alternate routes. The city’s plan includes efforts to mitigate traffic congestion, such as changes to signal timing, turn restrictions and traffic lane configurations.

One issue left for future debate is the speed limit on Ayd Mill Road. Many people have advocated a lower limit. Kurtz said that while the 25 mph limit suggested by many may be too slow, a reduction from the current 45 mph is likely.

“I think we might land somewhere between there,” he said.