The new (context) sensitive MNDOT

The Great MNDOT

This week, I attended a workshop on Context Sensitive Solutions led by MNDOT.   Since when is MNDOT sensitive to anything, let alone the community context in which the road lies?  How many times have we heard “You just can’t work with MNDOT” in response to questions about whether something related to a state highway or state aid road might be changed?  Have we ever heard anything different from city staff?  MNDOT, indeed, has seemed rather like the Wizard of Oz – pay no attention to that man behind the curtain who controls everything, explains nothing, and cannot be challenged.

The perceived insensitivity and unchallengeability of MNDOT (and other engineer/planner types) to context, sensitivity, and (developing rather than imposing) solutions has bugged me for a long time.  Finally, I’ve had the opportunity to pull aside the curtain and peek inside MNDOT and engineer culture.  As an elected official, I was not the primary audience for this event (although the flyer for the workshop indicated “local government” should attend).  Rather, it was continuing education for transportation planners, mostly MNDOT engineers from around the state and that’s what made it so illuminating.

The overarching theme was shifting transportation planning culture at MNDOT from imposing a fixed technical solution to having planner develop context sensitive solutions using the CSS

collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in providing a transportation facility that fits its setting. It is an approach that leads to preserving and enhancing scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and environmental resources, while improving or maintaining safety, mobility, and infrastructure conditions.

To me, coming from Northfield’s Planning Commission and trying to work towards smart growth and complete streets in Northfield, the CSS approach is common sense.  To have MNDOT working toward implementing CSS in their projects is to feel like we’ve all gained a powerful ally.

10 thoughts on “The new (context) sensitive MNDOT

  1. This is a very interesting perspective… Does this mean that MNDOT’s basic philosophy has changed ( move automobile traffic as safely and efficiently/quickly as possible) or was that an incorrect presentation of their basic goal? That is certainly what was heard in the open house meetings with MNDOT reps during the rebuild of HWY 3.

    If this a totally new position from MNDOT, then it is really a welcomed change.

    But what does it really mean for their Hwy system when it goes through a small town like Northfield? How would Hwy 3 look if built under this new CSS philosophy?

    • My sense is that MNDOT’s basic philosophy has been changing – the context sensitive solutions “movement” has been building since the 1990s at both the state and federal level – but that it is not simple or quick transition. Right now, I also get the impression that there is a concerted top down push to implement context sensitive design across the state. On the other hand, most of the engineers were very young and they reported that context sensitive design was something they’d grown up with, so to speak. Most interesting was the focus on communication and how transportation planners need to learn how to consult stakeholders and listen to concerns (even those issues which are outside the transportation planners control or influence).

      I’ve been thinking a great deal about highway 3, since MNDOT, as represented at this workshop, is now quite aware that its trunk highways run through many small towns in the state and have both arterial and local street qualities. One telling comment was the observation that transportation planners need to plan for “across” as well as “along” the project in question…what difference would that have made to TH#? Or considering how to reduce the design speed through town – another idea discussed at the workshop. I suspect the section of TH3 from Woodley to Greenvale would look significantly different under the CSS planning process.

      Another bit of information – I spoke to Ethan Fawley of MN Complete Streets who will be speaking to the Council on Tuesday and he reported that one of his jobs is helping cities identify what they’d like their state highways to look like through town, adopt guiding policies which express this, and be able to share that with MNDOT. The idea is that MNDOT will be more receptive to change if the community is ready with their hopes and plans for their highways/streets. Makes me with TH3 was about to be reconstructed rather than recently rebuilt.

      • I find it odd that you say Woodley to Greenvale. While there are certainly issues downtown, I think Woodley to Hester St is the most egregious portion. From a NoMo perspective, the ped/bike crash statistics back this up. But even for motorists, that particular stretch manages to be ugly, dangerous, and — remarkably — slow. I did some DIY timings from County Road 1 to 5th St, my average speed of travel was 30-35 mph after 20 runs. That is, of course, including lights; in between the minutes of going 0 mph, I manage to get up to 55 just long enough to be deadly, but not long enough to get anywhere.

        This particular portion of Hwy 3 is problematic from a City perspective, too. Somehow it seemed sensible to go from a two-lane undivided highway without even turn lanes to a four-lane, divided monstrocity — all to serve a traffic count that was about the same as today’s downtown Division Street. I don’t the exact story, but my understanding is that a large push from this change came locally, not from Mn/DOT: like many other small cities, Northfield has engaged in the falsehood that bigger, scarier streets mean progress and economic development. This attitude is still being spewed out at the county level. I’m glad that Mn/DOT’s changing, but I’m even more glad that (I think) Northfield’s changing.

        • Sean,

          I agree that the section of TH3 I selected is pretty limited and the entire section of the highway in the urban area of Northfield and Dundas could have been better. I was not part of the process and have only heard from the folks who worked hard to try to make the highway more pedestrian friendly and cross-able through the downtown.

          I’m certainly aware of the “grow your way to success” viewpoint…and my posts on the proposed business park and other infrastructure issues should tell you where I stand on that one. Change at MnDOT seems to be happening from the top down and it’s encouraging. Change at the local level is probably still an election by election issue – we’ve got some clear vision on the Council now, but it’s not unanimous. Keep up the pressure on us, Sean

  2. I understand that the Garden Club, or maybe another ‘beautify NF’ group is applying for a grant from MNDOT who will plant trees… quite a lot of trees … south of the Hwy19/3 intersection, and the club members will take the responsibility of watering them for the first two years.

    That sounds like the sort of enlightened MNDOT we’d all like to see, and as a matter of fact a great partnership, as I’m sure the labor costs of MNDOT watering the trees would be a big negative to successfully implementing such a tree planting program.

    Was there any talk of going back and improving recently built sections of highway, like our Hwy 3? I guess those would have to be aesthetic improvements only, but the additional trees sounds like a good beginning…

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