Transportation infrastructure is one of the most vital assets of any society. Our district faces several transportation challenges. Much of our highway system was built out decades ago, and is in need of both maintenance and upgrades. We have limited availability of public transit. Freight railways that pass through the district are being used by longer, more frequent trains. The interstate system cuts through the district in a way that inhibits pedestrian and bicycle travel.
In 2013 and 2014, we passed budgets that included over $5 billion for the 2014-2015 biennium in transportation funding. However, transportation funding has been seriously lagging behind the needs for some time. Federal funding is not keeping up with former levels, and we have a large number of ageing bridges in the system. One of the important sources of highway funds, the state gas tax, has not kept up with inflation because it is levied on a per gallon basis rather than on a cost basis. Unfortunately, although solving our transportation funding problem was a major priority for many of us in the Legislature for the 2015-2016 session, we didnot come to agreement on the strategies for accomplishing it. We need transportation funding that is sustainable, dedicated, and geographically balanced.
Because 35W, 694, and US10 run through the district, our district is home to over a dozen highway bridges. Some have recently been rebuilt (the 96/US10 interchange and some of the interchanges along 694)), but most are many decades old. Bridge reconstruction in Minnesota - as well as the nation as a whole - has been deferred. Everyone in Minnesota remembers the devastation of the collapse of the 35W bridge over the Mississippi. We can't wait to take care of our bridges and risk a repeat of that tragedy. In addition, traffic volumes have increased dramatically since the bridges were first designed, and the older bridges lack safe pedestrian and bicycle crossings - so that our highways act as barriers to travel much like rivers.
One of my most challenging accomplishments during the 2013-2014 Legislative sessions was to obtain funding for the replacement of the bridges carrying Highway 96 and Co.Rd H over 35W. The Highway 96 bridge was in bad repair, was congested at rush hour, and had no safe pedestrian or bicycle access. The new bridge, built in 2015, has a diverging diamond design, which carries traffic more efficiently than traditional diamond interchanges, avoids the problems of roundabouts, and accommodates a pedestrian/bicycle path safely. You can view a video simulation of the flow of traffic through a diverging diamond here. The rebuilding of these bridges is vital to the redevelopment of the Rice Creek Commons (aka TCAAP) property in northern Arden Hills.
The Co. Rd H bridge work is being rebuilt in 2016. In addition, the Co. Rd E2 and Co. Rd F (locally known as Lake Valentine Rd and 10 St NW in Arden Hills and New Brighton, respectively) are being improved. The Co.Rd E bridge over Highway 51 has been rebuilt as well. Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid familiar traffic inconveniences during road construction, given our short construction season. The state has missed the opportunity to spread these projects (and their financing) out over more years by deferring the inevitable maintenance and improvements needed in past years.
Although it lies outside our district, the Rice St. bridge over 694 is another traffic bottleneck. Rep. Isaacson, Sen. Scalze, and I have made this bridge a priority, but its project funding will depend on the outcome of transportation funding that has been tied up in the lack of progress in the 2015-2016 session. The current construction in that area along 694 is to add a traffic lane.
In the 2013-2014 Legislative sessions, we increased local government aid. This assistance from the state is vital to our cities and counties. Without adequate funds, local governments must defer needed maintenance. This is most notable in the worsening of potholes and other pavement problems. Small problems inevitably get worse with traffic and winter freeze/thaw cycles. The winter of 2013-2014 was particularly hard on roads throughout the state. I was the chief author of the "pothole repair bill", HF3267 which was incorporated (though the details were modified) into the final supplemental transportation finance bill.
Rep. Yarusso was instrumental in passing the funding needed for pothole repair after last year's harsh winter. — Rep. Frank Hornstein, Chair of House Transportation Finance Committee
We have rather limited availability of public transit in our district. The city of Mounds View has seen some of its routes cut back, and scheduled transit routes in Arden Hills and Shoreview are limited to a few commuter routes. We have no circulator routes, and service hours are limited. I have been advocating with the Met Council and with other area legislatures about the need to fill our "transit hole". One result is that the Met Council is now studying the potential to extend the Snelling Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (currently designed to end at Rosedale) out to the TCAAP area upon redevelopment. Interest in this project is a direct result of conversations I have had with Met Council planners, with support from area business leaders.
The only way we will ensure that our future public transit needs are addressed is to make our voice heard at the Legislature and the Met Council. I've been part of a caucus of suburban legislators that are advocating for equitable funding and planning of transit for our districts. I also convened a meeting of area legislators, mayors, council members, county commissioners, Met Council members, and MnDot staff from the suburbs that border 35W from Highway 36 to 694 to identify common interests that would benefit from coordinated efforts. Transit needs was one of the frequently mentioned items. We will be gathering the group again after the election to continue this work.
There are a growing number of senior citizens in our communities, and accessible scheduled public transit (as distinct from unscheduled mobility services for the disabled) can be a vital resource to enable them to remain in their homes and remain active in their community. We have many good jobs in our district (and will gain many more as the TCAAP area is redeveloped). In Arden Hills, there are more jobs than people, Shoreview has had a number of key business expansions and looks to add more, and Mounds View is seeing new development along County Highway 10. Employers have access to a larger pool of employees if public transit is available.
Pedestrian and Bicycle Access
With its beautiful lakes, creeks, and natural areas and well-developed systems of pedestrian and bicycle paths, our area is a haven for walkers and bikers. However, the freeways act as barriers to being able to take full advantage of our area's resources. For example, Long Lake Regional Park cannot be reached safely on foot or bicycle without very long detours, because of the lack of a safe path across 35W. In addition, for some people in northern Arden Hills, the closest bus stop is in downtown New Brighton, which requires crossing the Highway 96 bridge - currently an unsafe option. Similarly, bicycle commuters cannot reach Rosedale or either downtown area easily because there are no good crossings of 694 from Long Lake Rd to Lexington Ave. We need to take advantage of the cheap opportunity to build in pedestrian and bicycle access as our bridges are rebuilt.
There are several rail routes that cross through our district. In recent years, the volume of freight traffic has increased, and trains are becoming longer. This has led to conflicts with our communities because of noise - from train horns, starting and stopping, and coupling and uncoupling cars - and lengthy blockages of intersections. I was a coauthor of a bill that obtained funding for crossing improvements that will allow quiet zones (no more horns at all hours) - and also improve safety at the crossings. I was also a coauthor of a bill which would increase penalties for repeated blockages of an intersection that last longer than the allowed 2 minutes. Because it was proposed at the end of the session, we will offer the bill again next session. There is also a concern about the safety of rail cars carrying crude oil from the North Dakota oil fields. In the 2014 session we passed funding to provide for emergency preparedness and training for communities through which rail freight passes.