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Commentary: Downtown road decisions cause turbulence

According to the National League of Cities there are 7,646 Main Streets, or Main Avenues, in America. Think of one and in an instant come the endurable images and memories of small town America and American values—images of shops and businesses and leafy neighborhoods, church steeples, golden sunsets, fall bonfires, Norman Rockwell paintings, Sinclair Lewis and Thornton Wilder. Locally, we call it “a small town feel.”

Look in vain for these images and memories in Prior Lake if county highway planners, city officials, and the Economic Development Authority (EDA) have their way with a proposal to close Main Avenue at Highway 21 and punch a road through to Pleasant Street, destroying the oldest neighborhood in the city and homes going back to the turn of the 20th century—sacrificing them to a 40 mile per hour highway and more of the noise, traffic, and sprawled development, that degrades the environment and diminishes our quality of life.

I attended a public meeting on October 15 hosted by the EDA to show off a plan and vision for the downtown. I was joined by upwards of 50 residents from the adjoining neighborhoods and downtown business owners. Mayor Hedberg, as chair of the Authority, presided over the meeting with Councilman Keeney, City Manager Frank Boyles, other city staff, and members of the Economic Development Authority and Advisory Committee. It was a turbulent meeting. There were no pitchforks and ropes, or tar and feathers, but the EDA and city officials heard no support for the plan, just unequivocal opposition.

It’s said there are no new things under the sun. The EDA plan has been around in one form or another for 16 years. A few years ago the city authorized an expensive consultant study that recommended diverting Highway 21 through the Pleasant Street neighborhood taking out dozens of homes. It was rejected by the city council after intense neighborhood and business opposition. Thereafter another plan, offered by a developer, proposed extending Arcadia beyond Pleasant, across a wetland, all the way to Highway 13. That failed, but city hall, ignoring opposition, extended Arcadia to Colorado taking several homes, creating a road to nowhere at a cost of several million dollars. Now the county, the city, and MNDOT have come together with a revision that calls for a rebuilding of the Highway 21-13 intersection, the closure of Main and Duluth at Highway 21, and the routing of all traffic from Duluth to Pleasant Street and Colorado via an Arcadia extension. Construction would commence in 2019. The cost is reportedly upwards of $16 million. That’s a great deal of money just to manage peak traffic congestion for 60 minutes during morning and afternoon, weekday rush hours.

This isn’t about criticizing the Economic Development Authority, its members, or city and county officials. It’s about a bad plan and idea that has no support among downtown businesses and the adjoining community together with a growth and development mindset, which, as the song goes, would “pave paradise and put up a parking lot.” Right now there is no traffic problem. There may be in the future, but solving it shouldn’t mean destroying existing businesses and a neighborhood for a 2040 vision that’s all about spreading sprawl, when there’s another vision that prioritizes homes, neighborhoods, downtown businesses and people over cars and development.

For starters the city council should drop the Arcadia extension from the Capital Improvement Plan and go on record with Scott County and MNDOT that it will not give municipal consent, and will oppose any plan to close Main and/or Duluth at Highway 21, or agree to changes at the Highway 13-21 intersection absent community consensus. Instead, It needs to engage all the stakeholders and start over with fresh data that includes twenty-four hour weekday and weekend traffic counts and an origin and destination study that determines who is using Highway 21, and when, and where the traffic going.

Changes should include a reduction in the speed limit to 30 miles-per-hour on Highway 21 with a quiet zone between Franklin Trail and 154th Street. An earlier, 2000, plan showed Highway 21 as a landscaped parkway through the downtown. What happened to it? Perhaps it’s time to return to that vision. The same 2000 plan called for a traffic signal at Main and 21—not closure. A traffic signal should also, be installed at Duluth and Highway 21. Both signals should be synchronized with the signal at the Highway 21 and 13 intersections to smooth traffic flow.

Traffic engineers and highway planners will object and call it an imperfect solution, but remember their objective is to move vehicles at a high rate of speed through—not to– downtown Prior Lake and adjoining neighborhoods. Congestion will persist, but even highway engineers and MNDOT acknowledge, “You can’t build your way out of congestion.” That won’t happen unless, or until, we rethink our expectations, priorities, and long range plans for growth and development.

Recalling Joni Mitchell’s refrain, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, they paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

That doesn’t have to happen here.


John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)