The Smallest Cog 11/13/2023 City Council Remarks

The waiting game.

One minute to the intersection and nearly five minutes into waiting for the green. About ten seconds away from what would have been certain serious/fatal injury by the driver who didn’t see the RED light.

I am here tonight to speak about MnDOT’s recent changes to our traffic signals on Trunk Highway 169. I learned of them in probably the same way you did – through social media and then later by television or the Mankato Free Press. To me, and hopefully you agree, this indicates a problem with our MnDOT relationship.

The signalization changes which went into effect today, promise to move vehicles through our city even more efficiently. Though the details of the actual changes are scant, one can surmise that this is a continuation of the changes MnDOT made in 2019 when it synchronized the three traffic signals in our downtown for a ‘green wave.’ That now means that all five of our traffic signals will be optimized for throughput of vehicles. An additional feature of this type of signalization is the use of queue sensors for our side streets which will hold a red traffic signal until enough vehicles have built up to trigger a green.

Since 2009, when Trunk Highway 169 was reconstructed in our downtown, every operational change that MnDOT has made to this road has been with the sole purpose of moving vehicles faster through our city. To review: in 2017 the speed limit on the north side was increased to 40 mph; in 2019 MnDOT implemented the green wave; in 2023 the Highway 22 South intersection was reconstructed and the green wave extended to all intersections; and we still have the north side median project to look forward to. Let there be no doubt in this room that when MnDOT does something to our road, its sole purpose is to take care of the people who spend 4 minutes passing through our city, while ignoring the needs of the people that live and the businesses owners that try to make a living on their road.

Why is this a problem? While none of you operate retail businesses, I think it should be evident that the goal of moving vehicles past my front door as quickly as possible is no strategy for my economic success. But whatever, I can take care of myself, and if I can’t make a living here then I will go somewhere where I can. The real problem is the expectation amongst drivers that is created by these operational changes: that they don’t have to stop, slow down, or yield when moving through our city.

This is already the reality. Let me share a quick story: Saturday, after the Art Stroll, at about 6 pm I got on my bike, turned on my headlight and taillight, and began my bike ride home pulling the kiddo trailer. I took the alley over to Nassau where I waited for the traffic signal to cross 169. The timer on my bike computer was running so I know exactly how long I waited for a green: almost 5 minutes during which the signals at Mulberry and Broadway cycled through twice. When I finally did get the green I proceeded cautiously as one cannot take for granted that the car speeding towards the red light will see it, and stop. As I approached the median and the southbound lanes, I noticed a compact SUV rapidly approaching the intersection. I slowed and then stopped. The driver blew through the red light despite my verbal warning. Her light had been red for at least 10 seconds. She pulled over in front of the Chinatown restaurant. With my bike pulling my kiddo trailer, I slowly biked over to have a chat. No words or hand signals were exchanged, but when we did make eye contact, we both acknowledged the gravity of what could have happened. Here’s the punchline: there were two green Gustavus parking permit stickers on the back of her vehicle. She was one of ours.

So it would seem that it’s not just the thru traffic which views St. Peter’s downtown as a place to pass through as quickly as possible.

Since moving here two years ago, and engaging on local transportation matters, I have heard repeatedly about our great relationship with MnDOT. Please pass me the barf bag. Does it feel to you like we are being heard? We seem to have accepted that MnDOT owns the road and we can do nothing about it. You can. Your consent is still required to plan and initiate projects within our city limits. Why would you say ‘yes’ ever again, given the disregard MnDOT has shown for our city already?

But I think the real problem regarding Trunk Highway 169 is that we, the people of Saint Peter, have never collectively asked MnDOT to slow it down. Permit me to suggest a course of action: 1) pass a resolution supporting the adoption of a complete streets policy; 2) officially notify MnDOT that its policies, plans, operations and maintenance is in violation of this body’s wishes; and 3) if and when MnDOT resists operational changes (e.g. retiming traffic signals to facilitate local trips) appeal to the MnDOT Office of Ombudsman. And while the Ombudsman’s decision isn’t binding, that still isn’t the end of the road for us, because the social, economic, environmental and health damage caused by high speed, high volume roads is increasingly being construed as a taking. Finally, let us remember that we are represented in the Minnesota House by a member who sits on the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee which has oversight of MnDOT. 

I personally pledge to do my part by pressing the WALK button every time I pass through an intersection whether (or not) I intend to cross the street. Doing that interrupts the green wave, and slows down traffic. (You’re welcome.) The bottom line is that we have many routes to achieve our objective of a better 169 – provided we agree that is a goal worth pursuing.

The consequences of standing up to MnDOT are not insignificant. They plow 169, they fill potholes, and they approve our local aid project applications. Look at Belle Plaine. But, honestly, screw them because I want a better Main Street. I want to be able to have a conversation in front of my shop. I want to be able to cross on the green without worrying that drivers will stop. I want to see people of all ages and abilities able to cross the street safely, even at the uncontrolled crosswalks. I want my customers to feel safe enough to park in front of my business without fear of having their door torn off by an 18 wheeler.

I have already gone the rounds with MnDOT engineers regarding the speed limit. I was told that ‘it is a balancing act’ and that ‘people vote with their accelerator.’ I have even heard from some of you that the numbers on the speed limit sign don’t mean anything to drivers. Let me ask you this: was that how you were raised? I’m not trying to be nostalgic here, I am trying to bring us back to the reason speed limits are set: higher speeds cause more injuries and deadlier crashes. Since implementation of the green wave in 2019, crashes have gone up. The 169 corridor is responsible for half of all crashes in our city, and nearly one third of all crashes in Nicollet County. In the corridor between Broadway and Mulberry, 161 crashes have been logged since 2016. We have 29 crashes so far this year, and we’re not quite done. That is a record, and the previous record was 2022 with 24 crashes. We are heading in the wrong direction. Please do something.