Councilmembers often play traffic cop

Dealing with cars is one of the most time-consuming tasks, many say.

City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) said when he took office he had no idea how much time he would spend responding to parking and traffic complaints.

Of all the parking and traffic issues he has worked on in his first three years, Karmel Square, a Somali market at 2936 Pillsbury Ave., tops the list, he said.

Around City Hall, people have a saying that "success generates parking problems" and Karmel Square is a great example, he said.

"It is a lot like Saturday night in a small town out in the prairie," Zimmermann said. "Everybody comes to town and hangs out on Main Street, and double parks and jaws with their friends. But [at Karmel Square] this happens every day."

The market’s popularity and lack of off-street parking has generated "intense anger" from residents who come home from work to clogged streets.

While the particulars of the Somali souk may be unique, the complaints pouring into Zimmermann’s office are not. Talk to other Councilmembers and they will tell you that traffic and parking issues generate a significant number of calls and demand a large chunk of staff time.

In addition to the time spent handling complaints, several Southwest Councilmembers have spent considerable time and energy working on traffic and transit design issues. In Southwest, major projects include: Lake Street reconstruction, the I-35W/Crosstown project, the I-35W Access Project (which would change freeway ramp connections in and around Lake Street) and the Southwest Corridor Study, looking at a rail link from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

Traffic: Tie-ups and tirades

Lane said the thorniest traffic issues on which he has worked have centered on the often-heated debated on restriping West 50th Street and parking issues around Southwest High, 3414 W. 47th St.

Traffic complaints are chronic, he said. "It is an issue that crops up around every neighborhood node, on every neighborhood street, regardless of whether you would drive up and down and think it is a busy street or not," Lane said.

Ask Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) about his most time-consuming and draining parking and traffic issues and he says, "There are so many. It is hard to know where to begin."

Residents living near Kowalski’s, 5327 Lyndale Ave. S., have complained about parking and early-morning truck traffic, he said. He has worked with Public Works to address the "horrendous number of accidents" near Cedar Avenue South, Nokomis Parkway and Edgewater (near Fat Lorenzo’s, 5600 Cedar Ave. S.), he said.

Further, residential "cut-through" traffic complaints are constant, Benson said. Drivers trying to avoid traffic lights on Lyndale Avenue South cut down Garfield to Diamond Lake Road. Drivers trying to avoid the lights on Portland Avenue cut down Clinton Avenue.

"People are requesting speed bumps all over," Benson said. "That requires a significant portion of the block to agree to it, and then they have to find a way to fund it. I am not sure it is a real solution for most blocks."

Councilmember Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) said his most common constituent complaint comes from residents along Blaisdell Avenue, a one-way southbound, which he said drivers consider "an urban freeway."

During the evening rush hour, "people are flying down there," he said. "You have the speed issue. You have the issue of people trying to get somewhere and running through red lights."

"One of the biggest issues is pedestrians feeling like they don’t belong on the road — when you are trying to cross the street and cars are not yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk."

Zimmermann said 6th Ward traffic issues included spillover parking for residents living near Nicollet Avenue’s Eat Street establishments. (Speeding along 1st Avenue South had been a problem until the city changed part of it from a one-way to a two-way street, he said.)

Parking and traffic issues also figure into economic development debates, such as the expansion of Karmel Plaza, he said.

"If you are putting in an new business or you are putting in a new housing development, whatever it is, the really last hard nut to get figured out is the parking and traffic," Zimmermann said.

What next?

In response to chronic traffic complaints, Councilmembers have a range of ideas, both for short-term and long-term solutions.

For instance, Benson said his office makes a lot of requests for "the speed wagon," the machine that tells drivers on a given street how fast they are going. He acknowledges, however, it is not a long-term fix.

Niziolek said he would like the city to lobby for a state law change lowering residential speed limits from 30 mph to 25 mph — coupled with more traffic enforcement.

"Look at the four states around us," he said. "Both the Dakotas, Wisconsin and Iowa — they have posted city speeds of 25 miles per hour. We have 30."

Niziolek is also interested in pursuing Public Works off-again/on-again "pedestrian initiative," which would look at everything from crosswalk markings, streetlights and sidewalk widths — things that could enhance pedestrian activity as opposed to a sole focus on moving-vehicle traffic.

Zimmermann has been pushing "Personal Rapid Transit" or PRT, an elevated pod-like system he says is a less expensive alternative to LRT.

For Lane, the traffic problem is one people can solve individually.

"Most of the people who are going through our neighborhoods are our neighbors," he said. "This isn’t the airport. This isn’t Northwest Airlines doing this or that. Most of these cars are our cars. How we manage them and how we use them in our neighborhoods is largely up to us."