A looming mistake on Hennepin Avenue

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The Minneapolis City Council will vote soon on the Public Works plan for the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue between Douglas Avenue and Lake Street. The plan may rival the former Kmart at Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street as a symbol of well-intentioned but failed urban planning.

Based on my 30-year perspective as a property owner along Hennepin Avenue with a background in transportation planning, this is a solution looking for a problem. The Lowry Hill and Uptown Special Service District Advisory Boards unanimously recommended that Public Works develop a new plan, and virtually every business on Hennepin Avenue is opposed to the current plan.

The plan starts with a simplistic assumption that by limiting left-turn options with freeway-style medians and signs one can reduce a busy two-lane road to one lane and not suffer the consequences. Public Works has projected that there will be significant volumes of traffic detouring through neighborhoods to avoid congestion on Hennepin Avenue. A review of the project by Loucks Engineering found that the plan will result in major congestion issues affecting users of Hennepin Avenue and the surrounding neighborhoods. Once the project is implemented, with traffic cutting through their neighborhoods and parking becoming harder to find, residents will likely ask who was responsible for it.

I agree with the need to consider and address climate change, which has been a key theme by supporters of the plan.

At the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting on May 19, City Council Member Elliott Payne stated in support of dedicated 24-hours-per-day, seven-days-per-week bus lanes that the “scale of the climate change requires a fairly significant scale of the policy solution,” and Council Member Robin Wonsley Worlobah expounded that “my office is a huge proponent of the Green New Deal.”

If these council members are truly sincere about the need to prioritize climate change and implement the city’s policy to address it, they should vote against the plan, since the Metropolitan Council reported, in Table 12 on page 31 of its draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan Amendment, that its proposed bus-rapid transit lines will increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

Public Works Engineer Alan Klugman referred at the Public Works Committee to the very large and detailed data set that Metro Transit has, but Public Works has never been able to answer the basic question of how much transit time the dedicated bus lanes are estimated to save and whether there are there other options that could achieve similar savings.

The city’s consultants prepared a detailed historical review of accidents and injuries on Hennepin Avenue but never analyzed whether accidents and injuries should increase or decrease under the plan. Loucks’ review of the plan felt that there were serious safety concerns and issues. Further, an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of emergency room visits found increased injuries from similar two-way bike lanes in other cities.

Reduced green space from narrower boulevards and concrete medians will make Hennepin Avenue feel more like a freeway than a neighborhood street that is comfortable for pedestrians.

It appears likely that the City Council will adopt the plan. In doing so, the city will have missed an opportunity to reconstruct Hennepin Avenue in a manner that could have improved it for its users and neighbors. The city will instead be saddled for 50 years with a design that will create unsolvable problems and neighborhood friction.

The least that the City Council can do for neighborhood businesses and residents is not to mandate the dedicated 24/7 bus lanes on Hennepin Avenue that Council Members Payne, Wonsley Worlobah and Aisha Chughtai voted to adopt at the Public Works Committee meeting. The council should instead follow the city attorney’s advice and past practice by allowing Public Works to have the requested discretion to determine how the use of the lanes should be divided between buses and parking in the future.

Tom Fletcher is a City Council-appointed member of the Lowry Hill Special Service District Advisory Board, and is president of Fletcher Management.

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