Drive 25? City officials ponder lowering speed limit

City traffic officials say speeding in Minneapolis is a problem, so they're exploring ways to slow down motorists, including a citywide residential-street speed reduction from 30 miles per hour to 25.

Minneapolis Police Lt. Gregory Reinhardt, a traffic specialist, said he's talking about how to slow traffic with Park Board and City Council members.

Reinhardt said there were 150,000 traffic accidents and18 fatalities last year, with an estimated 4,000 injury claims from accidents filed.

"A lot of people are getting hurt," he said. "The main reason accidents happen is that people are speeding."

The main council supporter of reduced speed limits, Dan Niziolek (10th Ward), said they would help. "We should be seeing a decrease in the number of accidents," he said.

While Niziolek hears numerous complaints about residential-street speeding, he said he does not think speeds should be reduced on main arterial routes such as Lyndale or Nicollet avenues.

Residents supportive

Randomly selected Southwest residents like the idea.

Kingfield resident Marianna Padilla said she likes lower limits. She said because she rides her bike a lot, such a move would make her feel safer. She said lower limits could help alternative transportation.

"I support things that move people in a more efficient manner than cars," she said.

East Harriet resident Glen Shackleford said, "25 miles per hour would be a gift to me, because I have little kids."

Shackford said he thinks many streets are too busy. He said having a fence around his front yard makes him feel safer when his children are out playing.

State, council support needed

Niziolek said the state currently does not allow cities to cut speed limits below 30 miles per hour. He hopes to get a council consensus to put the initiative on the city's 2003 legislative agenda.

Of his council colleagues, Niziolek said, "I think there's initial support. People are always complaining that cars are driving too fast."

Some councilmembers are skeptical of the initiative.

Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said people don't even follow the current 30-mile-per-hour speed limit on residential streets.

"We need something to make sure people obey the current law," he said.

Benson said he was undecided on Niziolek's initiative, but will keep an open mind. "I'd like to see if there's evidence that reducing to 25 would be more effective," he said.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) said she would support any efforts to reduce speed "but it's a very difficult thing to get done."

She said residents shouldn't hold out too much hope for lower limits. "We need to be realistic that this requires a change in state law," Goodman said. "If it were easy, it would have been done already."

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, according to Goodman, hasn't taken kindly to requests in the past.

In 1997, a legislative bill was introduced to overturn the under-30 prohibition, but it did not pass. Niziolek said he thought that if a similar bill were introduced now, it would be successful.

State Rep. Tom Workman (R-Chanhassen), outgoing chair of the House Transportation Policy Committee, supports allowing cities to lower speed limits. "I think it's a good bill," said.

He said that he feels the 30-miles-per-hour limit is a little high and makes him feel uncomfortable when driving residential streets.

Workman said there's "bad blood" surrounding this issue in the legislature, based on previous attempts. He said legislators' positions often depend on what power they believe local government should have.

Workman said local councilmembers "should be able to have a say about what they want in their towns."

Rep. Henry Kalis (DFL-Walters), another committee member, disagrees. Letting local governments choose their speed limit would be a "political nightmare," he said.

He said local politicians might change the speed limit every time there is an accident, "or the mayor gets a ticket."

Minneapolis DFL state Rep. Scott Dibble, who is also on the transportation committee, said he also thinks the next election will make or break this initiative. Despite Republican Workman's support and DFLer Kalis's opposition, Dibble said that if Republicans win the House, it will be "rough sledding" for any Minneapolis request.

"There's a real hostility to input in local public works, especially when it comes from Minneapolis," he said.

Despite the rough road ahead, Dibble -- who is also co-chair of Mayor R.T. Rybak's Transportation Transition Team -- said he thinks a 25-mile-per-hour limit is a marvelous idea. "I'll even chief-author the bill," he said.

Broader steps needed

Dibble added that reduced speed limits alone would not solve the problem, and must be coupled with education and strategic roadway design to slow traffic.

Niziolek agrees. He said painting crosswalks can cause drivers to slow down, as can increasing vegetation along roads because drivers perceive a narrower street. Niziolek said striping lanes would increase safety. "If there's no defining of lanes, people pass on the right," he said.

Gregory Finstad, the city's director of Transportation and Services, said that most requests he gets from residents involve high-speed traffic on local roads. He said not everyone adheres to signs. The main way to slow traffic, Finstad said, is increased policing.

"There's virtually no enforcement at this point," he said.

Police Lt. Reinhardt said increased traffic enforcement might lessen accidents caused by inattentive driving, failure to obey traffic-control procedures, improper lane use and drunk driving. However, he said, he doesn't have enough staff.

Another major problem: how will people know if the speed limit is reduced? Few residential streets have speed limit signs now, and in a tough budget climate, it may be impossible to buy new ones.

Niziolek also expressed frustration at the city's scarce resources. "One of my frustrations is we don't have a strong transportation component working with the community," he said.

Finstad recommends educating residents who live near speeding, because most offenders live in the area. He said a speed wagon (a roadside device that displays a driver's speed) catches drivers' attention and reduces violations.

Traffic engineer Jon Wertjes said that while there isn't any data about lowering the speed limit to 25 miles per hour, in theory it will give drivers more time to look at the road and more time to stop. He said in certain conditions, for example, at night, extra reaction time can be crucial.

Reinhardt said speed bumps aren't a viable option, because people just accelerate to clear them.

Although no meetings or immediate action has been set for the reduction initiative, Niziolek said future public meetings are a necessity.

Goodman said 18 accident-related deaths in the city mean action must be taken. She also said reducing speed limits is not enough. "This is more than state law change," she said. "It's getting to people's behavior."