Pros and cons of Snelling median debated at meeting

By Tressa Versteeg

The Macalester-Groveland Community Council and transportation committee held a public hearing Nov. 26 at St. Thomas University to discuss the plan to construct a pedestrian median on Snelling Avenue. A board of MGCC members, transportation committee members and Macalester-Groveland grid representatives sought input from a full auditorium of community members regarding the possibility of the median.The history of the project and work done so far was consolidated into a report by Tom Welna, director of the Macalester High Winds Fund, and St. Paul Public Works engineers David Kuebler and Paul St. Martin.

The median, according to plans, would be 10 feet wide and run from Grand to St. Clair, serving as a pedestrian refuge while also calming traffic. The median would also feature an array of trees and plants to improve the aesthetics of the street.

Welna, Kuebler and St. Martin presented data on a traffic flow test done this fall. The effect of the median on traffic patterns was simulated with orange tubes in the middle of the street. The traffic concentration along the side streets perpendicular to Snelling, especially Goodrich and Osceola, where left-hand turns were permitted, increased. However, Kuebler pointed out, the traffic rates were still lower than or the same as average traffic rates of similar neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.

Comments from drivers were also collected during the study. Of 204 total comments, 79 percent supported the median.

The MGCC also took a poll of the audience by a show of hands. There were 63 people in favor of the median, 30 opposed and 11 undecided.

The many pros and cons of the median were questioned and debated throughout the evening by MGCC, the transportation committee and community members as well as Welna, Kuebler and St. Martin.

One main issue of concern was the left-hand turn restriction. With the median, left-hand turns would only be permitted at the lights at Grand and St. Clair, as well as at breaks in the median at Goodrich and Osceola. Some argued that this would inhibit the mobility of emergency vehicles, make it inconvenient for residents on other streets and make it more difficult for Lincoln Commons businesses and other Snelling stores to attract customers.

However, according to Kuebler and St. Martin, emergency response vehicles have not had trouble at a similar median at Lexington. Many community members also stated that they do not take left-hand turns into Lincoln Commons anyway, because of the danger. They also pointed out that U-turns around the medians are legal, and that once drivers adjust to the median, they will be able to reconfigure their route to reach these businesses and their homes without much hassle.

“Whether you have a left-turn lane or not, you are still going to have idiots,” a Laurel Ave. resident said. “The median system is functional, lovelier and safe. It’s very sane, sound and sensible to me,” he said.

Many people, both for and against the median, said left-hand turns at every street would be an important addition to the plans, but Kuebler and St. Martin felt that breaks in the median at every block would compromise pedestrian safety and defeat the purpose of the median.

Pedestrian safety was a topic of scrutiny. Some felt the median would greatly improve pedestrians’ ability to cross Snelling safely. Others felt there was no reason people should not cross at the stoplights and that cars will still ignore pedestrians.

Laurie Hamre, Osceola resident and Macalester Vice President for Student Affairs, pointed out that Macalester student accidents on Grand have gone from 12 to one a year with a median on that street. “Slowing down traffic is worth two or three students,” she said.

Another issue was the landscaping of the median. While some felt that the plant-life would enhance the beauty of the street, others were worried that it would make the street more unsafe by blocking the vision of drivers.

The projected increase in traffic in the neighborhoods off Snelling was indisputable. However, residents in the same areas had opposite views. Some felt that the new traffic would make their street unsafe for pedestrians, only moving the problem, as well as simply being annoying. Others said they would be willing to put up with the extra traffic for the benefits of a safer Snelling.

Lack of parking became another concern for many community members, as a Vernon resident felt it would be an “absolute disaster.” The street would remain four lanes across, but the side parking would be eliminated to compensate for the space taken up by the median. Welna pointed out that currently, the east side of the street is not used frequently and the west side parking which is used would be made up for in the new parking lot that will accompany the new Macalester Athletic Center. However, some were concerned that parking would be unavailable on days of athletic events.

The reduction in space will also affect Metro Transit buses as well as bikes. Buses would no longer be able to pull off to the side of the street, but have to stop in their lane and hold up traffic for a short time. There will be also even more of a limited space for bicyclists to use Snelling.

Flashing yellow-light crosswalks instead of the median were proposed by some community members. Kuebler said the effectiveness of these lights quickly wears off as drivers stop halting and pedestrians either forget to push the button or cross too early, putting themselves in danger.

Another complaint raised was that during the cone-testing this fall, speed was not taken into account. Since one of the goals of the median is to calm traffic, many felt it was important that whether cars would slow down or not be taken into account during tests.

Many people in favor of the median pointed out the success of similar medians on Grand and Lexington.

“The Lexington median first annoyed me, but after I got used to it, it is wonderful. Traffic is slower, there is less traffic on all streets,” a Laurel resident said.

At the end of the night, after three hours and two-thirds of the audience departed, the MGCC and transportation committee voted in favor of continuing with the median, but with the requirement that more research be done on all the issues brought up during the meeting as there were many concerns from both board and community members.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do on what is going to make Snelling safer,” a Sargent Street resident said.

The next committee board meeting, when the Snelling median will be discussed again, will be in January.