One small breath of fresh air at the DOT

Strong Towns recently highlighted this video from the Tennessee DOT which is worth 4 minutes for anyone who thinks about land use and transportation issues.

In the video, Tennessee DOT Commissioner John Schroer says: “A lot of cities did a poor job of long-range planning in how they did zoning and how they approved projects and took very little consideration into the transportation mode” and then the city call the DOT and ask for help treating this self-inflicted wound. Hearing a DOT official connect land use and transportation was surprising enough to be part of Sh*T DOTs Never Say rather than something a DOT Commissioner really did say.

Northfield’s Planning Mistakes

He’s right. Northfield has made some poor long-range planning mistakes which we’re asking MnDOT to help fix. Commissioner Schroer (who spent 13 years on his local school board) seemed eerily familiar with Northfield when he said cities will build a school “in the wrong place without thinking of transportation” and “put the building on the cheapest piece of property they can find and that usually has no transportation” rather than an initially more expensive location which is better connected and could save money in the long run.

Indeed. Northfield Middle School was built on 60.6 acres of farm fields at the southern edge of town in 2004, but the lack of “consideration into the transportation mode” went back decades. The fringe location was driven partly by Northfield’s planning; the 2001 Comprehensive Plan guided schools – because of their vehicle traffic impacts – to the edges of residential developments. But, state school siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students (these were rescinded in 2009) so the planning issue was not purely local.

Northfield Middle School
Northfield Middle School

Not only did the southern fringe location increase the distance to school for many students, but prior planning decisions make the Middle School hard to reach even for those living within sight of the school. The school sits on the west side of Minnesota Trunk Highway 246 which is the only continuous north-south route through Northfield except Minnesota Trunk Highway 3 (Northfield is not unique. Recent posts here on streets.mn tell a similar story in Mankato).

Northfield did make long-range planning mistakes by approving the residential subdivision to the west. The design with multiple culs de sacs radiating off a single loop of street make the only exit from subdivision is onto Jefferson Parkway which is the only continuous east-west connection. And, the City also made mistakes on the east side of 246 where any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway were also cut off by residential development. Add the 45 increasing to 55 mph speed limits on 246 and Northfield effectively prevented most pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing. All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).

Northfield's Middle School and how to get there
Northfield’s Middle School and how to get there

Northfield is now asking MnDOT for help to fix the problem intersection by applying for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant to study this intersection and determine the best, most cost-effective improvement at a total project cost of $477,250. Possible fixes for the intersection included in the 2009 Safe Routes to School Plan were signalization, underpass or overpass, and a roundabout; each of these solutions would bring its own price tag plus issues with wetland mitigation, right of way acquisition, and related issues, so costs will rise.

Could (or should) MnDOT have been able to save us from this? MnDOT might have been able to help Northfield address redesigning the intersection at the time of construction, but their concerns were limited to impacts to their highway such as the number of new curb cuts (limited to three), the degradation of the level of service on their trunk highway (to be monitored) and whether the intersection would meet warrants for signalization (no).

DOTs Planning Mistakes

On the other hand, while Northfield has approved projects like the Middle School without regard to the transportation issues (especially non-motorized transportation), MnDOT (and Rice County) have approved transportation projects without regard to land use which are also costing Northfield and MnDOT more in the long run.

Northfield's Highway 3
Northfield’s Highway 3

Trunk Highway 3 is the big mistake through the middle of Northfield, of course. Northfield was awarded a $1.1 million TIGER grant to construct a grade-separated crossing (plus a $500,000 local match), but engineering difficulties and increasing cost killed that project. On the plus side, MnDOT has begun to recognize the impact of their projects on the local landscape by agreeing to pay for some of the increases in the TIGER project before its demise.

MnDOT has another opportunity to share costs of retrofitting the highway this year as Northfield has applied for a Local Road Improvement Project grant to redesign the intersection at 3rd Street. The project is estimated at $273,647.00 ($50,000 local funds). Finally, a further improvement north of downtown at Fremouw Road has been penciled into the CIP at a cost of $280,000.

3rd Street and TH3 Northfield

Northfield is currently working to avoid the next DOT-imposed mistake. Woodley Street, also known as CSAH 28, is being planned now. Rice County’s engineer is insisting on 12’ travel lanes and resisting bicycle and pedestrian improvements to this county arterial road while Northfield is trying to work its Safe Routes to School plan and tailor the roadway to the residential neighborhood through which it passes. Perhaps Commissioner Schroer might take a conference call to lend some support to better local land use/transportation planning?

Rice County design standards
Rice County design standards

More Fresh Air Needed

Commissioner Schroer is a breath of fresh air which I hope blows all the way to Minnesota, but he only told half the story of the disconnect between transportation and land use planning. Perhaps retrofitting mistakes like the intersection near the Middle School and Highway 3 will cost enough to give cities like Northfield the strength and political to challenge MnDOT or our own engineers to work for more context sensitive solutions the first time. And, if cities like Northfield ask for enough money to fix problems, perhaps MnDOT will work with us when planning its own improvements to serve the local land use context better.

This post also appeared on streets.mn

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