Jerome Johnson: Rethink Summit Avenue (and I-94) to save Summit

16 July 2023

St. Paul city council’s recent approval of the one-size-fits-all Summit Avenue bike trail was disappointing, as much for its flawed justification logic as for its puzzling failure to consider safer, more pervasive and more egalitarian trail network alternatives.

It defies logic that the approved off-street “on-boulevard” trail could be faster or materially safer for cyclists than existing on-street bike lanes when it will have just as many street and driveway crossings, where collisions occur, and just as many signalized intersections.   And how is replacing a Summit Avenue trail, functionally in-kind, deemed equitable while less affluent Rondo area locales remain conspicuously underserved by sustainable mobility alternatives?

Met Council can stop this charade by withholding regional trail network funding.  MNDOT can contribute by accommodating a true regional trail within its “Rethinking I-94” initiative.  And St. Paul can follow suit by “Rethinking Summit” into a less intrusive, more segmented trail ensemble that better preserves the thoroughfare’s unique historic visage.  A “rethought” corridor would include:


A 4.5-mile “Rondo Bikeway” over the I-94 footprint

This limited access trail, just a kilometer north of and parallel to Summit, would naturally extend the popular Midtown Greenway to the Ayd Mill trailhead, Allianz Field and downtown St. Paul while providing local Rondo users safe off-street passage to/from neighborhood activity centers. Its development would exploit the one-off design and construction leverage offered by MNDOT’s imminent rebuilding (or removal) of I-94.

And with virtually no street and driveway crossings to negotiate, the bikeway will also be a shorter, safer, non-stop alternative for those longer-distance riders for whom the stop-and-go Summit route is now a circuitous necessity.


Wider Summit sidewalks and a Median Promenade

Sidewalks widened from 6 to 10 feet between Dale and Lexington and a new 8-foot median walkway west of Lexington would minimize meet and overtake conflicts between walkers and slow riders while lending a timeless promenade look to the avenue itself.  Speeds would be limited to 10 mph through regulation, enforcement and guideway design.

Construction here would be to shallower, less costly, sidewalk standards and thus minimally intrusive to driveways and nearby trees.  User well-being and visibility would be enhanced with protected median street crossings and intersection bump-outs that also reduce crosswalk distances. Few, if any, trees would be removed solely for trail development west of Lexington.


Wider on-street bike lanes east of Lexington

Three feet would be added in each direction to match the highly effective 8-foot wide bike lane/buffer markings west of Lexington.  This will put the sightseers and local commuters remaining on Summit bike lanes safely out of open-car-door range while providing ample space for car and bicycle overtakes.

To preserve parking capacity and retain vital drive-up shopper, renter and church-going traffic, the street itself would be widened by 2 feet and driving lanes narrowed by 1 foot on each side.  The handful of mature boulevard trees potentially impacted here could be protected by intermittent mid-block bump-outs that, combined with intersection bump-outs and narrower traffic lanes, would serve as effective traffic calming measures.


A fully reconstructed Summit roadway

Most Summit Avenue sewer, water and pavement subgrade infrastructure is approaching 75 years old and must be replaced. This will take out trees whether the street is rebuilt in 2028 or 2038. This is reality. To do otherwise, through cosmetic street repairs that leave aging mains and residential connections in place, risks sinkholes, recurring potholes and flooded basements to save about 20 percent of a disease-prone tree canopy. Is this how Summit wants to be saved?

Both this and the city’s plan will preserve trees not otherwise taken for street construction. But while the city would shoehorn 20-mph cycling enthusiasts onto the same 6-foot wide guideway as 5-mph slow rollers and 10-mph sightseers, the plan outlined herein will feature three speed-differentiated pathways through the greater Summit-Rondo corridor.  It will leave the street itself as-is west of Lexington while adding just cosmetic lane markings and passive traffic calming features to the east, ensuring that Summit’s unique and priceless streetscape is not unduly compromised or distorted.

Met Council needs to restore its reputation. MnDOT needs to make amends for Rondo. Compelling St. Paul to rethink Summit would be a good way for both to start.

Jerome Johnson is a retired transportation economist and Summit Avenue homeowner. 

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