Road to Nowhere
Gridlock. A line of cars stutters down Interstate 94 in St. Paul, toward a vanishing point of steel and exhaust. Irritated and desperate, you turn off at Snelling in search of an alternative. You head left on Selby and follow the road down into what appears to be a ditch. A thin layer of grime blankets a slushy crust colored gray by the soot of the 10,000 cars that pass this way every day.
The Soo Line railroad tracks snake alongside the asphalt for a mile or so; then the tracks branch off and the road runs into an empty lot. You're only a block away from 35E, but you won't get there. You can't help wondering what happened to those 10,000 cars--whether they escaped, or whether they're rusting somewhere in the labyrinth of smaller streets, in an elephant graveyard for late-model sport utility vehicles.
Ayd Mill Road has been luring unsuspecting commuters since its construction in the early 1960s. At the time, a national drive toward expressways was demolishing neighborhoods in the name of speedy connections between suburbs and urban cores. I-94 bulldozed its way through St. Paul's Rondo area, and 35E cut a swath through the neighborhood adjacent to Ayd Mill. Perhaps wary of Rondo's fate, residents protested the building of a connection between the interstates. Ayd Mill's final construction phase was scuttled, setting off an impossibly tangled public debate that has divided neighbors and baffled bureaucrats for 20 years. Now the various factions are gearing up for what may be the final round in the fight over Ayd Mill. But with each new alternative, the debate looks more and more like the road itself: loud and going nowhere.
Earlier this month a city-sponsored task force released a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) detailing six new options for the contentious stretch of asphalt, including a parkway-style two-lane road and a four-lane highway with restricted speed limits and high-occupancy-vehicle ("sane") lanes. The city is also considering scrapping the road altogether and building a long, narrow park that would stretch for some 40 acres. After a hearing at St. Paul City Hall on March 24 and a public comment period which will extend through April 12, the EIS will make its way through a maze of municipal bureaucracy including the City Planning Commission, the City Council, the mayor's office, and the planning commission again. Construction of the designated option could begin by the end of this year, but after two decades of bickering and stalling, no one is expecting too much too quickly.
Neighborhoods First!, a citizen lobbying group that organized in mid-1997 in response to the Ayd Mill project, leads the opposition to a 35E connection. According to Andrew Scholl, a longtime member of the group, a larger Ayd Mill would bring more traffic to the area while only nominally reducing the flow of cars on parallel St. Paul streets. "For a six- to seven-percent reduction in traffic on Lexington, Randolph, and Jefferson," he explains, "you get a 100 percent increase on Ayd Mill, Summit, and Grand."
According to the traffic studies included in the EIS, a four-lane road would double afternoon peak-hour trips on Ayd Mill, but only 14 percent of the new traffic would come from commuters who now use Lexington to get from one interstate to another; the majority of drivers would be local residents traveling to or from the Midway business corridor. But Neighborhoods First! contends that the traffic patterns postulated in the EIS are inaccurate because they don't take into account induced traffic--drivers persuaded to commute and attracted to the area by a faster route. In a review of the draft EIS, Neighborhoods First! also suggested that if the state Senate lifts the existing truck ban on 35E, Ayd Mill could become a major truck route by 2020. "It's a wash," explains Scholl. "Any option but a park is just displacing traffic from one area to another."
Scholl and Neighborhood First! support a proposal to turn Ayd Mill into a "linear" park--even though a narrow ravine with an active railway line seems less than ideal for a picnic. With fences already in place to separate the road from nearby houses, Ayd Mill is virtually inaccessible to pedestrians. In addition, numerous overpasses block out much of the sunlight. Nevertheless, activists maintain that the spot could be used for bike and jogging paths, trees, and possibly even a meandering brook. Strollers will just have to ignore the freight trains.
During a recent Neighborhoods First! meeting on the campus of Concordia College, Second District City Council member Chris Coleman suggested another Ayd Mill alternative: A two-lane road with restrictions similar to Minneapolis's Theodore Wirth Parkway. The most vociferous reaction came from an infant in attendance, though it was not readily apparent whether the crying jag was intended as a response to Coleman or merely a show of solidarity with neighborhood activists. Regardless, the council member assured the anxious group that he would oppose a major highway expansion. "35E ripped the heart out of that Seventh Street neighborhood," he said. "It was a disaster for St. Paul. We can't build our way out of traffic problems. [But] we can't unbuild our way, either."
Like his fellow council members, Coleman is keenly aware of the potential price tag for any building or unbuilding that takes place. The city has not specified funding amounts for any of the options, but it's clear that if the council chooses a park, the money will come almost entirely from the city's capital improvement budget. If Ayd Mill is enlarged, however, the federal and state governments will pick up much of the tab. Opponents of the road suggest that the city may ultimately discount the park for that reason alone.
Dan Smith, legislative aide for Third Ward City Council member Mike Harris, says any decision on Ayd Mill will also carry a political price: "We might choose one option, then the community goes nuts, throws everyone out of office, and the new council will refuse to fund the option based on what happened." With local elections looming in November, no one at City Hall seems particularly eager to commit to any position on Ayd Mill.
The anti-road advocates, meanwhile, are working to turn the debate into a metro-wide one. They have enlisted the Sierra Club, which last year made Ayd Mill one of the stops on the "Tour de Sprawl" bike-ride-and-lecture circuit. Ginny Yingling, director of Sierra Club's Minnesota chapter, says her group opposes completion of Ayd Mill for the same reason it is protesting the Hiawatha Avenue reroute in Minneapolis: Interstate connections, she argues, promote commuting rather than mass transit. "A park is a bold idea," she explains. "It takes courage and leadership, which we don't see much of from our elected officials these days. The idea is that people are more important than automobiles."
In the case of Ayd Mill as in that of Hiawatha, however, not all the people are opposed to bigger roads, especially when they move automobiles into someone else's back yard. Lexington Avenue area resident Joan Nyberg founded the group Citizens for Safe Streets in response to fears that blocking Ayd Mill would add to the 40,000 cars that already clog Lexington every rush hour. "I'm real concerned about pedestrians," she says. "I'm a playground volunteer and I've seen a lot of near misses. It's nasty out there."
Nyberg argues that without another commuter conduit, Lexington--which runs past four schools, a public pool, and many homes--will become a de facto connection to I-94. As a compromise, she has suggested putting a deck over Ayd Mill, essentially creating one long tunnel with tons of dirt and a playground on top. "This is my media bite," she says. "There's already been one person killed this year trying to cross Lexington at the south end. Twenty to 30 million will buy a deck park, but no amount of money is going to bring someone back who's been killed....No one wants more traffic in their neighborhood, but the cars have to go somewhere."
To dramatize her point and counter the lobbying savvy of Neighborhoods First! and the Sierra Club, Nyberg has formed the Blues Mothers, an impromptu a cappella ensemble made up of concerned mothers. "We couldn't match their organization," she says, laughing. "But we could have more fun. What's a movement without a song?"
The song, to the tune of the theme from Gilligan's Island, is "Tale of a Fateful Street," and it goes like this:
The traffic started getting thick,
Pedestrians were lost.
If not for the lights at the major streets,
The road could not be crossed.
From Lexington, and Selby, too,
From Hamline and St. Clair,
We all look down at Ayd Mill and say,
"The traffic should go down there."
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