As far as state highways go, Snelling Avenue stirs up a lot of passion. For many in the neighborhood it’s a perilous scab of asphalt. For others it’s simply a means to an end, and the faster one can travel along that means, the better. These competing visions of Snelling’s character have led to clashing opinions about a planned median to be constructed between Grand and St. Clair avenues.
“Snelling has been a contentious issue over many decades because it’s a very busy state highway that moves through the middle of a residential neighborhood,” said Tom Welna, director of Macalester College’s High Winds Fund, which serves as the school’s community liaison and is responsible for maintaining beauty and security in the area surrounding campus. “It’s fast. It’s dangerous. Nobody in their right mind would cross both directions of Snelling.”
The median, measuring ten feet wide, will be covered with grass, trees and a variety of other vegetation. Building the median will result in a loss of parking on both sides of Snelling, though two traffic lanes will remain in each direction. It will make crossing the street safer for pedestrians by enabling them to focus on traffic flowing in one direction at a time. Furthermore, it will potentially lead to calmer traffic because, according to Welna, anytime vertical elements, such as trees or planters, are added to a median, drivers begin to treat the street less like a freeway and more like a parkway.
According to Welna, public opinions collected by Saint Paul Public Works and the Mac-Groveland Community Council about the median were “about three-to-one in favor of moving ahead with a full, landscaped median.”
The majority of those opposed were dismayed that the median would block left turns at Lincoln, Fairmount and Sargent avenues. An employee at Coastal Seafoods said, “We are not fans of the median proposal at all. The plan should include a left turn lane into Lincoln Commons. Otherwise, we will lose business.”
Saint Paul Public Works is considering allowing left turns from Snelling onto Lincoln. This would require turning Lincoln into a two-way street. However, the two-way alteration would reach only as far as the alleyway behind Immanuel Lutheran Church, leaving the avenue’s residential stretch one-way. This proposal is under consideration by the Mac-Groveland Community Council.
“It’s at the city council level right now,” said City Engineer John Maczko. “There are some things that are being worked out.” Once the changes at Lincoln are made, the median resolution will be put to a final vote before the city council.
Welna indicated that Ward Three Councilmember Pat Harris was not entirely on board with the project. Harris could not be reached for comment.
There are also those who believe constructing the median would be a waste of taxpayer money. “What we need is more driver and pedestrian education,” said Joel Tracy, owner of Stoltz Dry Cleaners on the corner of Grand and Snelling. “The city can’t police us with a median—people are still going to be stupid.”
In addition to $197,000 committed to the project by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the fiscal year 2009 budget signed into law last week by President Obama contains funding for the median. Federal money was requested because it was a federal judge who disallowed truck traffic on Interstate 35E more than twenty years ago, turning Snelling into the de facto north/south route for trucks.
St. Paul itself will not pay anything, although the city government is contributing traffic and construction engineering to the project.
Should the city approve the project, it would have to break ground by June 30 in order to use state funds. Speaking about construction timelines, Welna listed a couple of different options. “They can shut down the road and do it in two weeks. Or, much more likely, they’ll do it over a six-week or two-month period, where they shut down a lane in each direction and work on it in pieces.”
In the future, Welna believes that the median could be extended further along Snelling. During the public comment period, he said, “we got a lot of comments from people just to the north in the Snelling-Hamline neighborhood, the Merriam Park neighborhood and to the south who said ‘This is a great idea, but why aren’t you doing it in our neighborhood?’”
Tim Lehman and Ellen Frazel are students at Macalester College and interns with the TC Daily Planet.