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Light Rail Bringing Long-needed Repairs to University Ave

September 13, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

University Avenue in St. Paul is five miles of four-lane cracked pavement, uneven settlement, potholes, patches and puddles after a rain. No one at the city, which maintains it, or Ramsey County, which owns it, remembers when this busy artery between the Twin Cities was last rebuilt.

"It was due for work a while ago," said St. Paul City Engineer John Maczko. Meantime, added County Engineer Ken Haider, "the street did kind of go to heck."

Now it's about to get a long-overdue overhaul, a little-acknowledged benefit of the Central Corridor light rail project that will lay 21st century transit down the avenue's median. It's a terrific bargain for local taxpayers, too.

With state and federal funds covering most of the costs for both new rail and completely rebuilt roadway, business properties along University stand to pay only residential-rate city assessments for new sidewalks, streetlights, and street furniture. And the county will pony up only $350,000 toward the tens of millions required for the street reconstruction. "It's absolutely a good deal," Maczko said.

But businesses and residents along the corridor still worry about the effects of years of street construction on their lives and livelihoods before the trains start running in 2014. Although the improvements will greatly enhance the avenue's long-term business climate, their concerns are well-founded.

The blame for all the disruption, however, tends to be placed solely on the transit part of the project. That's unfair, another reflection of autocentric thinking that takes roads and streets for granted and deems any other surface transportation mode a distortion of the natural order of things. And it ignores the reality that any business that draws in its customers and employees via streets, sidewalks or transit (try to name one that doesn't) is truly a public-private partnership.

In fact, rebuilding University Avenue was necessary to keep that partnership healthy, regardless of light rail. Roadbed and pavement don't last forever. Fixing the street just for cars and trucks would have stressed the adjoining properties for years, too, and probably at a greater cost to local taxpayers.

That's what happened when 
it took Hennepin County three years to rebuild Lake Street in Minneapolis with no transit add-ons. And it's happening now amid a $10 million two-mile Chicago Avenue reconstruction south of downtown Minneapolis.

The street has been totally shut down since May, forcing at least one new enterprise out of business and severely strapping those that remain. They're left with many fewer customers and special assessments of as much as $15,000.

Transit has nothing to do with the Chicago Avenue project except for small design modifications to accommodate possible streetcars in the distant future. But the work had to be done anyway. Last reconstructed in 1957 and 1962, Chicago Avenue was falling apart just the same as University, multiplying ongoing maintenance costs and compromising motorists' safety.

The biggest difference in the two projects is in who pays. Commercial property along Chicago has been hit with assessments that run 2.6 times the residential rate. Taxpayers throughout Minneapolis will be levied for years to retire long-term bonds sold to rebuild the street. Only a sliver of state gas tax money - one-third the share that county roads like University Avenue get - will go to the Chicago Avenue project.

With transit's help, the University Avenue reconstruction will impose a far lighter financial burden on those along the corridor and residents of St. Paul and Ramsey County in general. At least two driving lanes will remain open throughout the project, maintaining a lifeline for businesses. And the increased access by both rail and auto when the work is done will boost the economy along University and across the Twin Cities as a whole for generations to come.


photo credit: Meet Minneapolis, creative commons

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  • Riordan Frost says:

    October 25, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Great article. It’s good to hear that we are not only getting a new light rail, but also an upgrade to the existing infrastructure as well. It will be interesting to see how developers respond, and if University Ave. businesses change at all.