Life, planning and Highway 280

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‘Life,” wrote John Lennon, “is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’

The limitations of planning are fairly obvious. For one thing, life doesn’t stop and wait while you plan for the future. For another, planning can become an excuse for inaction. How convenient, when asked why you haven’t started writing that paper yet, to reply that you “need to do a little more work on the outline first.”

But while the traps confronting the planner are evident, the dangers of not planning are even more apparent. There’s plenty of proverbial wisdom to that effect: Look before you leap. He who fails to plan, plans to fail. Measure twice, cut once.

Sometimes, poor or nonexistent planning bears fruit immediately. You didn’t bring your umbrella, and half way to the bus stop it starts raining. Other times, lack of planning takes awhile to show its effects. Such is usually the case with urban planning, a prominent example of which is road construction.

Consider the case of Highway 280.

As a Minnesota trunk highway, 280 is enshrined in the state’s legislative code, specifically Minnesota Statute 161.115, Subdivision 211, which describes it as “beginning at a point on St. Anthony Avenue in St. Paul; thence extending in a general northerly direction to a point on Route No. 63, at or near New Brighton.”

Although that sounds pretty definitive, 280 actually evolved over many years, according to highway historian Steve Riner. He says that Highway 280 was authorized in 1949 and that originally its southern terminus was MN-36, later Kasota Avenue, then University Avenue and finally I-94. Its northern terminus, originally U.S. 8 in New Brighton, is now I-35W.

Its piecemeal construction is reflected in 280’s patchwork of entrance and exit ramps, which range from long and leisurely to short and panic-inducing. If St. Paul’s network of streets could, in the words of a former governor, be attributed to the efforts of drunken Irishmen, then 280 can lay claim to a multiethnic legacy of inebriation unparalleled in the annals of road construction.

Highway 280 is an example par excellence of what poor planning will get you. And its defects have become all the more glaring in recent months as it has been obliged to pick up the slack for a missing bridge over the Mississippi River.

But, some might say, it wouldn’t be fair to indict the highway engineers of a half century ago for failing to anticipate the demands of serving as a link between two freeways — 94 and 35W — that didn’t exist then, much less the pressure that would arise from the necessity to close part of 35W after a bridge collapse.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the roadway architects of yesteryear. Perhaps we should grant that they did the best they could with what they knew at the time.

On the other hand, the whole premise of planning is that what you know at the time should be used to prepare for what you don’t know about the future.

For example, what if, a century ago, we had taken a page from New York City’s book and dug a subway. Yes, it would have been expensive and disruptive. But it would have been feasible. Now, of course, it’s too late for subways.

In the case of 280, it’s not too late for noise walls, or reconstructed interchanges, or better lighting. But those things come with costs — much higher costs if they’re implemented now rather than years ago.

There are some signs that we’re getting better at transportation planning. We’re talking more about various forms of rail travel in and around the metro area. We’re asking what the best route for a Central Corridor LRT line should be. We’re pulling out our crystal balls and trying to predict what the future holds.

This well and good, but in all this deliberating we would do well to remember the colloquialized words of the poet: “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”

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