Ramping up tensions

Did public group sign off too quickly on more 35W lanes?

They gave up without a fight.

That’s what some community members are saying after a group of Minneapolis neighborhood and business representatives voted to go along with a plan to put more lanes on I-35W.

Opponents of the project worry that a 16-3 vote taken last month by the I-35W Access Project Advisory Committee (PAC) may falsely signal public endorsement of a controversial Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) proposal to add a new lane in each direction for buses and carpools. MnDOT pledges the new lanes will not be built until 2015, but said retrofitting of the highway must begin now.

Opponents of the vote said the PAC was not formed to boost the highway’s car- and bus-carrying capacity. Instead, the group was set up to review plans to move and add 35W exit/entrance ramps and to help neighborhood-level economic development on either side of the highway.

"I think it is a very weak vote," said former 11th Ward Councilmember Dor Mead. "It’s a very preliminary thing that doesn’t necessarily have buy-in from the community."

Those who support the vote say they had no choice, that MnDOT has the authority to override any municipal-level objections to interstate highways. By accepting the inevitable, the PAC could also bargain for $25.8 million to mitigate negative effects.

Tom Johnson, a consultant with Smith Parker who serves as project manager for the I-35W Access Project, has misgivings about MnDOT’s expansion proposal, but said that the goals of mitigating the access project are too important.

"We need gateways, traffic calming and bridge design," he said. "This is our chance to get them."

Access project aims to revitalize Lake Street corridor Forty years ago, when I-35W was built, it divided and cut off many neighborhoods around Lake Street. Businesses declined and with it employment opportunities and housing stock, while crime increased.

The original concept of the I-35W Access Project, which started in 1998 as a joint project between Allina and Abbott-Northwestern Hospital, was to increase access to and from Lake Street, thereby revitalizing surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.

The meat of the project involves adding northbound entrance and southbound exit ramps at Lake Street. Later, it was determined that the 35th/36th Street ramps should be relocated to 38th Street because the tension of weaving traffic would get worse in the short merging distance between 31st and 35th Streets.

Community representatives who have been brainstorming to reduce the negative impacts of the access ramps on nearby neighborhoods — possibly through landscaping, pedestrian-friendly crossings and neighborhood gateways — were thrown for a loop in late November when State Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg stated that any access project along 35W must accommodate new HOV lanes.

Capacity versus access "I think it’s beyond our jurisdiction to decide capacity issues," said 8th Ward Councilmember Robert Lilligren, a member of the PAC who voted against the proposal to accommodate HOV lanes. "The capacity issue is a separate issue and a separate process needs to be established. To yoke the capacity project with the access project gives the appearance of capitalizing on three and a half years of careful work."

Lilligren added that the proposal is not fair in light of the "huge history on exactly this issue and policy decisions that were made prohibiting the HOV lane in the past."

To vote on the HOV lanes indirectly endorses them and muddies up the access project, said Jeanne Massey (see Profile, page 2), the PAC’s Kingfield Neighborhood Association representative. Massey also voted against the proposal.

"I was quite taken aback by the level of, and speed with which, the PAC was willing to support this action," she said. "I quite honestly did not expect it.

"It may weaken communities’ hands at negotiating the future of HOV lanes on 35W because the expansion is, if only indirectly, endorsed by a widely represented community group."

Johnson objects to the idea that MnDOT’s expansion plans have been aided by the PAC vote. "Their life has not been made any easier," he said. "The vote doesn’t help MnDOT one inch, and anybody that says that is just not correct.

"We are not proposing HOV lanes or even accommodating them. We are essentially getting out of the way for them. MnDOT still needs to and will go through their environmental and public participation process. What we’re doing doesn’t shortcut MnDOT’s process at all."

Johnson said that MnDOT can discard city-level objections to interstate highways design.

"We would have submitted original design plans for the access project, and they would have rejected it because it did not accommodate HOV lanes."

Instead of voting not to support the proposal just to make MnDOT look like a bully, he said, the PAC decided that the access project is more important.

Johnson added that the advisory committee’s support is contingent upon MnDOT agreeing to cover $25.8 million in the increased mitigation and enhancement costs associated with accommodating the HOV lanes.

"When you accommodate future HOV lanes, your bridges need to be longer and noise walls and retaining walls need to be placed differently," he said. "So, the cost goes up, and we think they ought to pay for it."

Community input usurped Johnson said that MnDOT must still carry out a public participation effort regarding the placement of HOV lanes on the freeway; however, some observers say that the PAC vote was rushed to avoid having to gather community input.

"I don’t think there has been enough community participation or community response to make a decision," said Lilligren, who initially joined the PAC as a representative of the Phillips neighborhood. "And, again, it makes me wonder if that isn’t exactly why we were moving so quickly on it — so I couldn’t have the opportunity to meet with more of my constituents and see where they were on it."

Mead said that eclipsing community input gets the "whole process off on the wrong foot."

"A major decision like that that’s made without adequate public input is very

vulnerable to being changed," she said.

"A lot of people are going to be feeling like, ‘Why are you coming and talking to us now that you’ve already made the decision?’

"It’s not how I would have handled it if I wanted public support."

Johnson maintains that the vote needed to be taken before the upcoming legislative session in order for the access project to maintain leverage relative to MnDOT.

"From what I’m being advised, the Legislature is favorably inclined to go with the [MnDOT] proposal," he said. "If they direct MnDOT to do that, why would MnDOT pay us $25.8 million for mitigation and enhancement costs?

"I laid this out to the PAC. It was to our advantage to vote and lock in from MnDOT the level of mitigation we needed because we have some leverage now. Our leverage is weakened once the Legislature takes control of the proposal. It’s not a 100 percent deal, but it’s a distinct possibility."

Mead says it is by no means a "slam-dunk" that the proposal will pass through the Legislature if it has no support from the people who represent the area, such as Reps. Scott Dibble and Neva Walker and Sen. Jane Ranum. "I don’t see where within the Legislature it’s going to come from," she said.

Dibble, for his part, said he doubts MnDOT’s intentions.

"I really think the MnDOT proposal is just a way to gain another general purpose lane, and I don’t believe they are really out for an HOV lane," he said. "Even if they were after an HOV lane, I think the Legislature would take it out of their hands pretty quickly and make it a general purpose lane.

"If they’re really serious about extending access and improving that vitality downtown, which I think we in South Minneapolis are, then we’ve got to talk about transit, transit, transit — and when we’re talking about transit, we’re

not talking about carpools, we’re talking about buses and light rail."

Ranum proposed taking potential funds for an HOV lane and launching a concentrated effort to increase bus ridership. "An HOV lane, by definition, requires at least two people in a car," she said. "Now, that could be me and a ten-year-old who doesn’t even drive.

"A bus has 45 people. Now, that’s reducing congestion — that’s taking people out of their cars."

Next steps Johnson said many PAC members were scheduled to sit down with Tinklenberg last Friday (after the deadline for this issue) to lock in design plans and mitigation money for the access project.

As for what the community should do, Mead, who first ran for public office because of the I-35W reconstruction project, and who thought that an agreement had been reached, said that communities should "do what they would have done anyway. They ought to have meetings and determine on their own whether or not they agree with this approach and then make decisions accordingly."

"A major decision like that that’s made without adequate public input is very vulnerable to being changed.

A lot of people are going to be feeling like, ‘Why are you coming and talking to us now that you’ve already made the decision?’"

Dor Mead, former City Councilmember (11th Ward)

Mead said that she is very discouraged about MnDOT. "The pain of watching someone break your trust, that is what these agencies are doing. They know darn well that promises have been made, and they are unabashedly breaking those promises that are the public trust.

"I got involved in early 1988, and we slugged it out for many years with our friends at the state, and I finally thought an agreement had been reached in 1996. It took eight years to come to an understanding, and now that they’ve already completed most of the reconstruction, it’s a more than a little maddening to seem them unwinding the deal piece by piece."