County presents scenarios for Franklin/East River Parkway remake

This four-legged signaled intersection — with an added traffic signal at Thornton Street — is one of the scenarios being considered to ease traffic demand and increase safety at the now complex five-fingered intersection.

Photo by image courtesy of SEH and Hennepin County

Roundabouts, signals among alternatives

Prospect Park and Seward residents and area commuters got their first look last week at a number of early ideas for fixing the five-legged intersection at the east end of the Franklin Avenue bridge.

Jim Grube, project manager for Hennepin County, and consultants from Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. (SEH) presented a number of possibilities — from a no-build scenario to the introduction of traffic circles or tunnels and bridges — at the second of three open houses on the subject. Elected officials at the open house included Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, Ward 2 City Council Member Cam Gordon and representatives from the mayor’s office.

Attendees of the full-house forum at St. Francis Cabrini Church in Prospect Park had many questions and concerns for the facilitators. A common theme among attendees was doubt about the safety of traffic circles, in terms of drivers yielding to pedestrians and bikers, while Grube repeated often his own common refrain — that none of the scenarios was perfect or fully formed.

“We’re trying to winnow the field down,” Grube said. While he shot down attendees request for a vote on the various scenarios, Grube told the crowd “we’re listening” and asked them to provide comment where and how? Once planners sift through the recent round of comments, a third open house is expected in August or September to recommend an intersection solution that will go to the City Council in October.

The need and the scenarios

Project planners cited three broad objectives: to lessen traffic delays — especially during peak hours — to improve safety for walkers and bikers, and to make the complex intersection less complicated.

Planners are looking ahead 20 years, when they expect vehicle traffic to increase by 50 percent and bicycle and pedestrian activity to double. Traffic diverted from the Washington Avenue mall — to be created when Central Corridor light-rail transit come sin 2014 — is expected to impact the intersection, as could planned bike lanes on Franklin and 27th avenues and East River Road.

Before the formal presentation (download the PowerPoint presentation, which includes the various proposals), attendees viewed the different scenarios set around the room. Elected officials joined residents, bikers and others in attendance.

The possible scenarios fall into four categories: a modified five-leg signal and lane configurations, which would leave the current layout but apply technology to ease traffic; a four-leg conventional signal; roundabouts (three types are being considered); and a grade-separated pedestrian-bicyclist trail that would flow over and/or under vehicular traffic. (Pages 12–15 of the PowerPoint presentation show an overhead plan of each scenario.)

Some details of the scenarios:

Modified five-leg signal (no major reconstruction) — This scenario would apply technology to decrease the signal time to half its current level, theoretically “serving everyone twice as often,” according to planners. The plan would include some modification to the sidewalk on the northeast side of East River Road, and a “bike box” could be installed for bicycles to wait at the light as they come off the bridge on a dedicated bike lane.

Left turns onto East River Parkway could be prohibited during peak periods. (Note: talk at the meeting was of directing U-traffic along Fulton Street; a look at a map shows that would likely mean heading up 27th Avenue, left on Essex, left again on Huron and then right on Fulton. Concerns arose that drivers would shortcut through the residential area along Thornton Street and Yale Avenue instead.)

Mike Kotila of SEH said that this scenario “doesn’t get us to the 2030 demand; it’s a partial solution with limited life expectancy.”

Four-leg conventional signal — This scenario would eliminate (except for one southbound lane) traffic flow to and from Franklin and East River Parkway to the south of the intersection. Instead, traffic would be directed toward Thornton, where a second signal would be installed. This scenario would also include a bike land and box.

Roundabouts — These scenarios (single-lane, multiple-lane and hybrid traffic circles with no signals) drew the most discussion, with questions arising about the speed of through-traffic off the Franklin Avenue bridge continuing east on Franklin, as well as concern about traffic yielding of bikes and pedestrians, both of which would cross entrance spokes at several points.

Apparent differences are subtle between the three possible roundabout types; the “single-lane” would cause more conflicts with pedestrians and bikes, Grube said, while the hybrid features a smaller traffic circle with pedestrians and bicycles traveling around the outside on two separate paths that still cross traffic at grade.

Grade-separated pedestrian-bicyclist trail — This would be added in addition to one of the previous scenarios and would primarily serve trail users along East River Parkway, carrying them over or under Franklin Avenue.

Costs for the various scenarios range from $500,000 for the modified five-legged model (for new traffic controllers and a full mill and overlay reconstruction of the street) to $3 million–$5 million for the four-legged signaled intersection; $3 million–$4 million for the various roundabouts; and an additional $2 million for the tunnel/bridge scenario. No funds have been identified yet for the project.

Concerns and suggestions

One consideration was whether to complete the entire project in one step or to complete it in stages. While phased implementation might allow planners to gauge changes and need in the future, others argued that costs might be higher if it were built in phases.

“Don’t use a hatchet when a razor blade will do,” warned one attendee, recalling an old family adage and recommending a “practical, conservative approach in this era when money is difficult.”

Another attendee suggested that a lesser approach might be more prudent. “It seems an inordinate amount of money to spend when some clever traffic manipulation could solve it,” he said, mentioning traffic signals and cameras.

Attendees had many concerns with the project, including the impact of reconstruction on the recently remade bridge over Bridal Veil Falls on east River Parkway and the impact on houses in the area.

Some worried that an improved intersection would actually draw more traffic to the area, especially with the closing of Washington Avenue. Grube offered answers to some of the questions, reminding attendees that the plans were not yet perfected and that their comments would be recorded.

Two suggestions bordered on the Swiftian: One was a modest proposal to remove all traffic control from the existing intersection. “When those signals are out, that intersection functions fairly well,” stated one man.

While perusing the displayed scenarios before the meeting, the man who later suggested “clever traffic manipulation” asked the rhetorically loaded question: “Would one of the choices be to open up Washington Avenue?” implying a change in the well-laid plans for LRT to run through the University campus at-grade.

“That was another open house,” answered a nearby SEH representative.

There is much information about the project online on the SEH website.

last revised: September 23, 2009