Traffic controls installed temporarily in a core area of St. Louis Park are forcing turning motorists to drive in circles.
Ahead of a pavement management project planned for the Elmwood, Brooklawns and Brookside neighborhoods next year, the city is trying out a series of temporary traffic circles designed with tall, orange-and-white road cones and sand bags at five intersections. The traffic circles are intended to slow driver speeds and deter certain traffic movements. Additionally, the city is trying out curb extensions at two intersections, two-way traffic on Oxford Street near Fire Station No. 1, the closure of a private road by Aldersgate United Methodist Church and a center median at Cambridge Street and Brunswick Avenue.
The city installed the temporary traffic circles, road barricades at the Methodist church, signs and other measures in late August and will keep them in place until they are removed in November. The traffic circles, which have already been made smaller to accommodate large vehicles, are at Oxford Street and Brunswick Avenue; Goodrich Street and Brunswick Avenue; Goodrich Street and Zarthan Avenue; and 39th Street and Zarthan Avenue.
A curb extension to minimize pedestrian crossing distances is at 36th Street and Alabama Avenue while a curb extension at 37th Street and Brunswick Avenue is intended to direct truck traffic to use 37th Street to access Alabama Avenue, according to a city staff report.
Oxford Street has gained a center stripe in front of the fire station to indicate that the roadway now contains two lanes. The segment that had been one way is between Zarthan Avenue and Wooddale Avenue. An all-way stop is at Oxford Street and Zarthan Avenue.
One of the city’s goals has been to collect feedback from residents, and city staff members have gotten their wish.
Signs against two-way traffic on Oxford Street, against the replacement of stop signs with yield signs at traffic circles and against the addition of sidewalks in the area have cropped up in the Elmwood Neighborhood.
Resident Brad Benson, a member of the Elmwood Neighborhood Association’s board, has taken photos from his porch of vehicles using the intersection at 39th and Zarthan incorrectly.
“It’s so chaotic – so insane,” Benson said.
His photos taken on a tablet include shots of a school bus and Metro Transit bus making turns by going left around the temporary traffic circle instead of circling it from the right-hand side to make a left turn, as required.
“They’re short-cutting and going around the roundabouts the wrong way with the path of least resistance,” said Benson of the vehicles trying to navigate the traffic circles.
He and some other neighbors oppose removing the stop signs they petitioned the city to install at the intersection with yield signs. The city kept the stop signs in place at 39th and Zarthan during the study, although yield signs have appeared nearby at Goodrich and Zarthan.
Benson and some other neighbors also oppose the change to Oxford Street, although Benson acknowledged that some nearby condo owners support the change as it could decrease traffic on some other streets. However, he said many neighbors are concerned that if the change becomes permanent, map-routing applications would send people from Highway 100 to Oxford Street and through the neighborhood to reach Excelsior Boulevard.
“It’s just a quiet street that they built their property on initially, and now the city would like to test to see if it would be better two-way,” Benson said.
While he pointed to a traffic circle on Brunswick that he said he believes is working better than the ones on Zarthan, Benson said of the overall traffic experiment, “We had a nice, quiet neighborhood and they’re shaking it up.”
An experiment with traffic circles
However, city staff members said they are responding to direction from the city council to study changes designed to improve livability, including impacts on bicyclists and pedestrians.
City Manager Tom Harmening said, “That’s really what this is about is to make the Elmwood Neighborhood even better than it is today.”
Engineering Director Debra Heiser said, “When you build a traffic circle, you are physically putting something out there that changes behavior.”
The city can start with what a textbook says before making tweaks, Heiser said.
“We have to see if it actually does what we want it to do,” Heisesr said.
She acknowledged, “This is really the first time we’ve been this extensive with a traffic study in a neighborhood.”
About 40 people attended a neighborhood meeting in February about traffic issues and concerns in the area, Heiser said. Attendees discussed speeding, truck traffic, cut-through traffic and drivers failing to obey stop signs, Harmening said.
The city used information gathered on vehicle speeds, truck volumes and other data to consider when reviewing traffic calming and traffic management techniques.
Harmening said the city tries to do as much work as possible when performing projects like water-main replacement. The goal is to avoid disrupting the neighborhood again for projects that could be implemented at the same time. The experiment will indicate what the impacts could be of creating permanent changes in 2018.
He said, “It looks a little unusual when you drive through the neighborhood and see a temporary traffic circle. You don’t see that all the time. But it’s an inexpensive way to try things.”
Harmening said he recalled that some drivers navigated a traffic circle at Excelsior and Grand incorrectly after it was built. After the city added roundabouts at Highway 7 and Louisiana Avenue, the city manager said crashes occurred.
“People were going the wrong way,” he said, although he said no serious crashes took place.
Some drivers did not realize they had to yield to the vehicles already in the circle.
“There’s that whole learning curve,” Harmening said. “Are there still situations when someone who hasn’t been through a traffic circle is still tentative? Sure. But we’re getting very good feedback.”
Reasons for other changes
At Aldersgate and Oxford Street, Heiser said drivers have been cutting through private property at the church and on a private street through townhouses.
“It’s not really safe for that behavior to continue,” Heiser said.
She said fire department officials had expressed concerns about Oxford Street being a one-way street.
Harmening said, “From a public safety perspective, it requires kind of an exercise getting to and from the fire station. This is a very busy fire station.”
He later added, “Purely from a public safety perspective, they very much would like this to be two-way.”
The Oxford Street issue has arose during the Village in the Park project, Harmening added. Some people supported a change while others strongly opposed the change.
At Aldersgate, an agreement between the church and city for the city to plow the private road came to an end.
“At least a segment of the neighborhood uses this as a more convenient way to get out of the neighborhood,” Harmening said. “Rather than use public streets, people will drive on it. While it’s convenient and I understand why people like that option, it’s not a responsible way to move people in and out of a neighborhood. It uses private property for access purposes, which is not right. We’ve closed it and we’ll see where it goes with the traffic.”
Harmening said the changes could result in ripple effects and that there likely will be unintended effects.
“It might result in a different part of the neighborhood being disrupted,” Harmening said.
The city will use traffic monitoring devices to measure the impacts, he said.
Traffic patterns can take about 30 days to become apparent as drivers develop new habits, Heiser said.
City staff members working on the project have met with snowplow and school bus operators, prompting the city to make a course correction in the size of the traffic circles, said Engineering Project Manager Jack Sullivan, Sr.
“At this point, I’ve heard very favorable responses from our employees and the bus garage,” Sullivan said. “They’ve all been pleased.”
Fire department personnel tried out their biggest equipment on the affected streets.
“They felt very comfortable with what we had done,” Sullivan said. “They didn’t see any reduction in services they could provide to the community.”
Despite mixed reviews of the changes, Harmening said he appreciates that people are speaking out and sharing their thoughts on the traffic control methods.
“That means they’re invested in the neighborhood,” Harmening said. “These are things that are concerning to them.”
Heiser said the city staff members do not know yet whether they will recommend that any of the changes should become permanent.
“None of our minds have been made up,” she said.
The city will also consider whether to add or remove sidewalks in the area. The city is adding segments across Highway 7 in the Sorensen Neighborhood.
Benson pointed out that the construction along Wooddale Avenue has closed sidewalks in the area of Park Spanish Immersion School and St. Louis Park High School, prompting some students to walk in the street instead.
Heiser said she would raise the issue with the contractor.
“That project is wrapping up,” Heiser said. “We’ll see what we can do to get those reopened.”
For work to be performed in 2018, the council will consider approvals early next year.
Heiser said, “We’re never going to make everyone happy, but we definitely are taking the feedback seriously.”
To weigh in, call 952-924-2656 or email [email protected]