Upgrading Highway 280

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An August 15 Star Tribune editorial suggested permanently upgrading trunk Hwy. 280 to interstate status once the I-35W bridge is replaced. Most of us in the neighbor-hoods adjacent to 280 support the development described in the editorial, such as the proposed biotech corridor and University Avenue light rail, but we believe that higher-density development presents the opportunity to reduce traffic on highways like 280, not increase it.

Opinion:Upgrading Highway 280

First, upgrading highways to accommodate more auto traffic from the suburbs looks backward, not forward. The end of oil is at hand. Global warming threatens our civilization and the natural world that sustains us.

As a society, we need to move with all possible haste toward higher-density urban development and clean, efficient mass transit, instead of enabling continued suburban sprawl and its unsustainable automobile culture. More roads or “improved” roads don’t just accommodate increased auto traffic, they create it, thereby burning more oil and creating more greenhouse gases. If you build it, they will come.

A more forward-looking solution than upgrading 280 might be to enlarge the park-and-ride lots in the northern suburbs and replace one automobile lane in each direction with a dedicated bus lane that connects to the new light rail at the Westgate stop on University Avenue. This would be cheaper, have a positive impact on neighborhoods, reduce auto traffic and downtown congestion, and add riders to the Central Corridor rail line.

Second, highways cut city neighborhoods in pieces, dividing neighbors and institutions from one another, making walking and biking more difficult and reducing the quality of urban life. Like most central city neighbor-hoods, we are working to increase local connectivity within our community, which is already intersected by 280, I-94, University Avenue and the Burlington Northern railroad yards.

The development highlighted in the Star Tribune editorial lies both east and west of 280. Increasing the capacity of this north-south automobile route would almost certainly create pressure to increase the capacity of east-west connections as well, slicing local communities in yet another direction.

This familiar issue faces every city neighborhood when suburban sprawl spawns more commuter highways. High-volume highways work against the very things we need to promote: more compact development with greater density that still retains a livable neighborhood feel.

Third, although most Twin Cities residents are unaware of it, remnants of the old Bridal Veil Creek wetlands still exist immediately adjacent to Hwy. 280. These ponds and wetlands are habitat for dozens of species of resident and migratory waterfowl, as well as turtles and other aquatic animals and plants.

The surrounding communities have invested a great deal of time, money and energy in preserving and reclaiming these threatened wetlands, which are practically unique in the urban core of a large metropolitan area. Expansion of 280 into “I-435W” would probably finish them off for good.

The tragedy of the I-35W bridge collapse has touched us all, not just in Minnesota but throughout the United States, leading many of us to question how committed we are as a society to responsible development of our social infrastructure: transportation, energy, health care, the works. If anything positive is to come from this tragedy, it should be the opportunity to seek out innovative approaches to our continued urban development. We no longer have any excuse to keep recycling unsustainable solutions that should have been obsolete a generation ago.

It would be highly ironic if one of the legacies of the bridge collapse was the diversion of highway funds to building yet another counterproductive freeway, rather than repairing dilapidated and dangerous infrastructure or planning for a more rational urban future.