Last year’s temporary closing of the southbound lane of Mississippi River Boulevard to allow more space for pedestrians and bicyclists could become permanent under a proposal being studied by the Union Park District Council (UPDC) Transportation Committee. Almost 50 people attended an online session on February 8 to discuss the matter.

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A runner stretches his legs on the path along Mississippi River Boulevard during a much warmer winter than what’s been experienced around here lately. Photo by Andy Blenkush

Transportation Committee co-chair Barb Thoman said the idea of making the boulevard a one-way northbound street is something that deserves a thoughtful response. “This is a big issue and we need to see what the community thinks of it,” she said.

The ultimate decision is in the hands of the Saint Paul City Council after a study by the Department of Public Works.

Last spring, Mayor Melvin Carter ordered the temporary closing of the southbound lane of River Boulevard north of Ford Parkway so more people could safely walk and bike the area during the COVID-19 pandemic and still practice social distancing. The closing ended in June when previously scheduled sidewalk and utility work began.

In September, the Macalester-Groveland Community Council voted to recommend making that one-way configuration permanent. The Highland District Council’s Transportation Committee has discussed the idea, but has not taken a position.

The UPDC is seeking public engagement before making a decision on which stretch of the boulevard, if any, should be closed. Recently, 300 fliers were distributed to homes along the boulevard and adjacent streets. An online survey already has generated more than 200 responses, and more than 50 individuals and groups have weighed in with additional comments.

Last spring, Mayor Melvin Carter ordered the temporary closing of the southbound lane of River Boulevard north of Ford Parkway so more people could safely walk and bike the area during the COVID-19 pandemic and still practice social distancing.

Mississippi River Boulevard has a southbound on-street bike lane and a shared bike-pedestrian trail along the edge of the river bluff, both of which are heavily used. It also is a popular route for commuter and local traffic.

Some speakers on February 8 said making the boulevard a one-way street and providing more space to walk and ride bikes is needed, and that motorists could find other routes. However, with development underway at the sprawling Highland Bridge development, others said the proposal would put even more traffic on already-busy Cretin Avenue.

As a compromise, Desnoyer Park resident Peter Braude suggested making the boulevard a one-way street during warmer months and keeping it open for two-way motor vehicle traffic in the winter. “Last summer we loved having the southbound lane closed,” he said.

Another suggestion was to make only part of the boulevard one-way and possibly revert to two-way traffic north of Summit Avenue.

Sean Ryan, who serves on the UPDC Transportation Committee, said that when the boulevard was rebuilt years ago, the current configuration was a compromise.

Committee member Karen Cox said she opposes the idea of a one-way conversion of the roadway, citing the dangerous behavior of some bicyclists as “Tour de France wannabes.”

The online survey results showed 56.6 percent of respondents like the idea of one-way street traffic. Seven respondents live on the boulevard, 76 on other streets in Union Park and 121 from outside of the district council’s boundaries.

Feedback from the fliers that were delivered in the area produced 14 respondents living on the boulevard, of which 10 opposed a one-lane street. Union Park residents who do not live on the boulevard were more evenly split, with 47.5 percent against the idea, 40 percent in favor and 12.5 percent saying they needed more information.

The Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition supports the idea, as does the Desnoyer Park Improvement Association. Comments at a DPIA meeting on January 28 included that the current space is inadequate for the amount of pedestrians and bicyclists wishing to safely use the boulevard for recreation.

Mississippi River Boulevard was rebuilt in sections in the 1980s and ’90s as part of the city’s sewer separation and street reconstruction program. The final section between Pelham Boulevard and Emerald Street was rebuilt in 1994. 

In 1997, the Merriam Park, Macalester-Groveland and Highland Park district councils voted to support a proposed southbound bike lane on the boulevard. It won City Council approval that year following a lengthy and contentious review process. The city also reduced the speed limit to 25 mph. Parking was banned on the bluff side of the street, but retained in front of homes.

Tom Moss was on the Macalester-Groveland council during the bike lane debate and recalled he was among those proposing then that the boulevard become a one-way street. “I’m increasingly terrified to walk along the combined path because of the bikes,” he said.

— Jane McClure

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