Changes to historic avenue deserve broader hearing, more intelligent study.
The debate over the construction of new bike trails along Summit Avenue has engendered considerable angst on both sides. On one side are the bike supporters headed by the Saint Paul Bicycle Coalition whose members seek safer routes. On the other side is Save Our Street, whose members are concerned about the loss of trees and the destruction of what historian Ernest R. Sandeen described as “the best-preserved example of the Victorian monumental residential boulevard” in the United States.
The city of Saint Paul’s current plan is to replace the existing on-street bike lanes with raised and separated bike trails at a cost of $12 million and the potential loss of from 200-plus (city’s estimation) to 1,000 (independent arborist’s estimation) mature trees to the overall reconstruction of Summit Avenue.
While some City Council members have taken positions on the issue, Mayor Melvin Carter’s administration has been curiously silent. Who in the city is providing the impetus for a quick adoption of the plan? Why is the city spending millions to replace bikeways on Summit while other areas of the city with limited transportation alternatives have no bikeways at all?
Few public policies under consideration this year would have more obvious consequences than the plan for the Summit Avenue Regional Trail. It would forever alter the appearance and usability of the most famous street in Saint Paul.
Few public policies under consideration this year would have more obvious consequences than the plan for the Summit Avenue Regional Trail. It would forever alter the appearance and usability of the most famous street in Saint Paul. Such a plan requires enormous amounts of sagacity and public input to ensure an outcome that maximizes the public good and reassures people that their views are being taken seriously.
What city leaders seem to have left unaddressed are answers to some basic questions about background and process. These concerns were recently echoed by Ramsey County District Judge Patrick Diamond, who in response to a lawsuit brought by neighbors seeking data and studies regarding the proposed Summit Avenue trail, issued an order that stated:
If the City Council were to conduct its May 24 meeting and approve the trail project while legitimate and unobjectionable data requests are pending, the legitimacy of the council’s decision on the trail project and its approach to governing in general would suffer. Similarly, if documents responsive to the data request were to appear in the public realm, but only after council approval of the project, the approval would be deprived of substantial legitimacy.
While we are not taking a position on the bike trail itself, we believe that good municipal policy is based on transparency and accountability. Therefore, we believe the city administration should address the following concerns.
First, by the time the city solicited public comments last February, 90 percent of the draft plan was in place, with the intent to have it move through committees in March, leaving little time for a divided public to react. Only now are news stories surfacing showing public reaction and the public’s need to know and understand more about this plan.
Second, while public comments are available online, it is not clear if the comments have been categorized or are reflected in any actual changes to the final draft document. Which begs the question: Why solicit public comments if they are not going to be used in any way, even as a basic calculation of the number for or against, and then shared with the public?
Third, most of the city’s video on the Summit Avenue Regional Trail plan focuses on its impact on the people who are designated as “users.” What that term appears to actually mean are bicyclists.
In any plan with substantive social, environmental and historical impacts, users should be defined more broadly to include walkers, residents, motorists, etc.—those from all backgrounds who enjoy what Summit Avenue offers. Given that all city residents will be paying for the trail, has the city conducted any research into how many walkers and bicyclists currently use Summit Avenue each day? Has the city projected how those numbers will increase or decrease with the proposed trail? Have any environmental studies been conducted to compare the change in carbon emissions resulting from the potential increase in biking and potential loss of trees?
We suggest that the city heed Judge Diamond’s reminder that “strongly held views, passion and a sense of custodial responsibility are critical ingredients for strong cities” as well as his recommendation that the city commit to these core values of good governance as it decides this highly charged and expensive project.
Elizabeth Dickinson is a former candidate for public office from the West Side. Andrew Rorvig is a trial lawyer from Summit Hill and board chair of Historic Saint Paul. Abu Nayeem is a former mayoral candidate from Frogtown. They are all members of the steering committee of Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving open and representative government in Saint Paul.
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