Snelling-University ‘tunnel’ proposal voted down

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Strong neighborhood opposition derails Snelling-University ‘tunnel’ proposal.

After encountering strong opposition from neighborhood groups and two St. Paul City Council members, the Ramsey County Board on June 10 voted not to seek $7 million in federal funding for a controversial plan to ease congestion at the high-traffic intersection at Snelling and University Avenues in St. Paul. The proposed plan involved building what has variously been called a “tunnel,” “viaduct,” “below-grade crossing,” and “cloverleaf,” intended to ease northbound traffic to the northern suburbs and State Fair. Plans for the project involved demolishing both the American Bank Building and recently completed CVS Pharmacy as well as part of the Midway Shopping Center.

County Board Chair Tony Bennett lamented the Board’s vote. “This is not something we needed to kill,” Bennett said. Pointing out that the funding can be applied for only every two years, he added, “We could have turned it down at any time if we decided to go with another plan.” Bennett also said that the federal dollars were attractive as a way to curtail the expenditure of local tax dollars no matter what solution is eventually adopted.

District councils and neighborhood groups opposed the plan, as did St. Paul City Council members Jay Benanav and Debbie Montgomery.

Area businesses were apparently not consulted in advance for input into the tunnel proposal. Midway Books owner and project opponent Tom Stransky likened the project to “building the Berlin Wall in front of our businesses.” Stransky said that thoroughfare of the type envisioned would be detrimental to area businesses since it would be more difficult for customers who drive to get to those businesses. “How does that help small ‘destination’ businesses (businesses that are unique rather than large, interchangeable chainstores)?” Stransky wondered.

While all parties concerned seem to agree that some action must be taken to address Snelling-University intersection congestion, the disagreement is on just what action to take.

Both Bennett and Stransky acknowledge the lack of northbound streets that directly connect areas on either side of University Avenue. Fairview and Hamline Avenues, two other major streets near Snelling both dead-end before taking traffic a significant distance from the area. Bennett also mentioned that although White Bear Avenue is another major north-south street, it is far from the area and is also highly congested.

Bennett says that the board will continue to seek solutions to the congestion problems at the intersection. “I have no preconceived notion of what we absolutely need to do, but we need to do something,” he maintained.

Meanwhile, Stransky is not convinced that the eventual solution will necessarily be beneficial to area small businesses. Referring to plans for light rail along University Avenue and other proposals, Stransky opined that developers and officials “don’t seem to want anything to do with cars on University Avenue. All their plans seem to make it harder for car traffic to reach ‘destination’ businesses in this area.”