How State DOTs Waste Money Bailing Out Local Planning Mistakes

Northfield, Minnesota built a school in a disconnected pastoral setting, then found out it was a logistical nightmare getting kids there safely. Image: Streets.mn
Northfield, Minnesota, built a school in a disconnected pastoral setting, then found out it was a logistical nightmare to get kids there safely. Photo: Streets.mn

A few weeks ago, we featured a video of Tennessee Department of Transportation chief John Schroer describing the reforms he’s applying at his agency. One problem he pinpointed — and this happens to every state DOT — is when local governments ask his DOT to spend big sums of money fixing transportation problems that could have been easily avoided in the first place.

For example, schools get sited on cheap land that is totally disconnected from transportation, then the locals ask DOT to build a new $30 million road so students can get there safely. Schroer said TDOT has been asked to do that “countless” times.

Betsey Buckheit at Streets.mn went and dug up a great example of that problem in Northfield, Minnesota. Buckheit’s case study is important because this type of thing happens all over the country, and it adds up to an enormous waste of resources. Let’s look at what went wrong:

Northfield Middle School was built on 60.6 acres of farm fields at the southern edge of town in 2004, but the lack of “consideration into the transportation mode” went back decades. The fringe location was driven partly by Northfield’s planning; the 2001 Comprehensive Plan guided schools — because of their vehicle traffic impacts — to the edges of residential developments. But state school siting guidelines at the time called for 35-40 acres for a middle school of 1000+ students (these were rescinded in 2009) so the planning issue was not purely local.

Not only did the southern fringe location increase the distance to school for many students, but prior planning decisions make the Middle School hard to reach even for those living within sight of the school. The school sits on the west side of Minnesota Trunk Highway 246 which is the only continuous north-south route through Northfield except Minnesota Trunk Highway 3 (Northfield is not unique. Recent posts here on streets.mn tell a similar story in Mankato).

Northfield’s Middle School and how to get there

Northfield did make long-range planning mistakes by approving the residential subdivision to the west. The design with multiple cul de sacs radiating off a single loop of street make the only exit from the subdivision onto Jefferson Parkway, which is the only continuous east-west connection. And the City also made mistakes on the east side of 246, where any continuous north-south travel or east-west connections across the highway were also cut off by residential development. Add the 45 increasing to 55 mph speed limits on 246 and Northfield effectively prevented most pedestrian or bicycle traffic from the east despite off street trails parallel to the road because there is no safe crossing. All school automobile traffic must funnel through the Jefferson Parkway/246 intersection so this logical crossing point is difficult at best and deadly at worst (there’s been one fatality during school rush hour).

Northfield is now asking MnDOT for help to fix the problem intersection by applying for a Transportation Alternatives Program grant to study this intersection and determine the best, most cost-effective improvement at a total project cost of $477,250. Possible fixes for the intersection included in the 2009 Safe Routes to School Plan were signalization, underpass or overpass, and a roundabout; each of these solutions would bring its own price tag plus issues with wetland mitigation, right of way acquisition, and related issues, so costs will rise.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Walkable West Palm Beach reports that the Florida Department of Transportation has implemented some promising reforms that should help make walking and biking safer. ATL Urbanist says that rather than taking a systemic look at its congestion problems, Atlanta is pouring $1 billion into an interchange. And Houston Tomorrow reports that a total redesign of the city’s bus network has been approved.

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