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Bikes not in plans for Central Corridor on University Avenue

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Russ Stark
St. Paul City Council Member Russ Stark, crosses busy Snelling Avenue along Charles Avenue. Stark would like to see Charles Avenue turn into a more bike-friendly boulevard. As planned, there will be no bike lanes on nearby University Avenue, home of a future light-rail line.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

When Central Corridor light-rail trains begin to roll, bicyclists could find it difficult to ride beside them. That's because plans for the transit project don't include bike lanes along the route's main spine -- St. Paul's University Avenue.

Cyclists are rallying for dedicated space on the avenue. And in their fight for bike lanes, they're making an unusual push for more street parking for cars.

But project planners say there just isn't room on the avenue for everything.

University Avenue isn't what you'd call a scenic route. Russ Stark, a bike-riding St. Paul city councilman, says all the trucks and cars can make for an unpleasant ride.

"It's not my favorite place to be on a bike. It's pretty dirty, and loud, and hot," he said.

People might see it as radical. I just think it's the future.

But he does find a practical elegance in this wide, urban thoroughfare. It's the most direct street that connects downtown St. Paul to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. 

Stark is standing with his bike on University Avenue, near the western edge of St. Paul. Just north of him is an expansive rail yard where many other east-west streets come to a dead end. 

"So University is such a straight shot -- it goes right through. The people who are used to riding in traffic and who don't mind the noise, dust, and cars use it all the time," he said.

Two years ago, Stark floated what seemed like a radical idea: Cut the number of vehicle traffic lanes from four to two. That would make room for the planned light-rail trains, bike lanes, as well as street parking. 

But when that idea didn't meet federal funding standards that were in place at the time for light-rail projects, Stark backed off.

Others haven't let go.

At the Sibley Bike Depot, a community bike shop, University Avenue is the lifeblood that brings in cyclists for tune-ups and missing parts. 

John Finkle
John Finkle, board member of the Sibley Bike Depot, says he would like to see dedicated space for bicyclists on University Avenue when the light-rail line is built.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Up to 600 cyclists a day use the avenue, according to recent estimates from Transit for Livable Communities. 

The bike depot set up shop here a couple of years ago, in part because of the excitement over the planned light-rail line.

But employee Jason Tanzman said he was a bit miffed that even with all the focus on creating a billion-dollar transit system, planners couldn't find room to paint in a bike lane on University. He said a bike-walk plan recently adopted by the city of St. Paul seems to squeeze cyclists onto nearby streets.

"It's all about getting bicyclists off University Avenue. And I think we need to be thinking: How can we create University Avenue in a way that's friendly for bicyclists to ride on it?" Tanzman said.

Planners say cyclists can still ride on University Avenue after the light-rail line is built. But they'll have to share the road. City officials expect cyclists will take up the entire right lane for riding. That means motorists looking to pass them should use the left lane.

Central Corridor trains will run down the middle of the street. Planners decided to keep all four lanes of vehicle traffic on University Avenue but eliminated most of the street parking to make room for the trains.

Jason Tanzman
Jason Tanzman, volunteer coordinator at the Sibley Bike Depot, says bikes need dedicated space on University Avenue once light-rail trains begin service in 2014. But project planners say there isn't enough room for bike lanes.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Now, cyclists like Tanzman are trying to align themselves with the business community in their push for extra road space. And he's found himself in the unlikely position of advocating for parking for cars.

"Bicylcists aren't anti-car. Bicyclists want to have a space in the transportation infrastructure along with cars, along with light-rail. In think we sometimes get portrayed as a sort of fringe group," Tanzman said. "We just think that we've been building with only cars in mind for 50 years, and that gee, it's not that radical of a notion to say, 'We need space on University Avenue.'" 

But Tanzman's pleas for a bike lane and additional parking probably won't go far, at least not anytime soon. Planners have already received bids for construction, and crews will start work this summer.

Dan Soler, Met Council's traffic engineer on Central Corridor, says even after light-rail is built, University Avenue will still have about as many cars as it does today. Soler says it's not realistic to just wipe away two lanes of vehicle traffic, because the cars have to go somewhere.

"You're talking about stacking them up into one single lane, east-west, along University Avenue," Soler said. "That's a tough thing, to think a single lane can handle all the traffic that's there today and expected to be there in the future."

Sibley Bike Shop
Volunteers Mattie Vandersteen and Brian Fox pick out a used wheel at the Sibley Bike Depot, a nonprofit bike shop, on University Avenue in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Soler says the numbers don't justify turning University Avenue into a two-lane street. More than 20,000 cars travel on University Avenue each day, and Soler says traffic volumes on the avenue will continue to swell as the population grows.   

Two years ago, at Stark's request, Soler ran some models on what would happen if planners decided to cut the traffic lanes from four to two. He found that it would produce longer wait times at already congested spots along the avenue, including Lexington Parkway and Snelling Avenue. 

Soler's studies also found that cutting traffic to two lanes would increase travel times for motorists traveling east and west.

And that likely would have killed federal funding for the project, said Russ Stark, the councilman. At the time, the federal government considered travel times -- not only of transit riders, but of motorists in the corridor -- as part of a complicated funding formula that placed a project's cost-effectiveness above all other criteria. Stark backed off his proposal when he realized how much the traffic delays would affect the federal cost-effectiveness index.

While Stark realizes he's lost his battle for now, he says the idea of reducing traffic lanes to make room for bikes is inevitable down the road. 

"People might see it as radical. I just think it's the future," he said.

Stark says he's still exploring that possibility, but it will probably have to wait until after the light-rail line is completed. That's expected in 2014.