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Saturday, 13 June 2015

Legislature passes budget bills after dramatic special session

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Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk
It looked like the setting for a mock legislative session: Instead of desks and nameplates on the floor of the Minnesota House, there were theater-style seats assigned by slips of sticky paper, while a small lectern stood in for the Speaker of the House's usual podium. There was a gallery for the public to watch, though it only had 20 seats. And there was a version of the Abe Lincoln portrait that usually hangs at the center of the chamber and watches over proceedings, though it was a miniature one.
However it seemed, though, it was all very real: the setting for a historic, one-day 2015 special legislative session.
The usual Capitol chambers were closed down in the midst of a messy restoration project, so legislative staffers retrofitted a ground-floor hearing room in the State Office Building to look like a miniature version of the Minnesota House. Down the hall, a similar room had been set up for the Senate, where they imposed the same strict dress code and rules of decorum that senators are required to follow in the Capitol chamber. 
"Members, we are making a bit of history today,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt said at the start of session, noting that this is the first time in 110 years a special legislative session has been held outside the halls of the state Capitol.
In the end, though, the odd setting of the proceedings was almost more notable than the final outcome — despite the hours of drama involved in getting to a resolution.  After weeks of negotiations, lawmakers sealed the deal early Saturday by approving three budget bills.
While there was uncertainty throughout the day about passage of an agriculture and environment budget, lawmakers ultimately passed a bill that honored their leaders’ original agreement on a 38-29 vote, after ping-ponging the bill between the House and Senate chambers throughout the day.
Legislators also passed a $17 billion education budget that spends $525 million more on schools over the next two years, as wells as a jobs and energy bill. All together, the three budget bills account for roughly half of the state’s $42 billion two-year budget. A bonus: Legislators rounded up enough votes to pass a Legacy amendment funding bill and a $373 million total package of construction projects, two non-essential budget measures that ran out of time on the final night of the regular session.
The whole affair stretched from Friday morning into early Saturday morning and averts a partial government shutdown. Nearly 10,000 state government workers had already received layoff notices in the mail in case legislators didn’t reach a deal by June 30, the last day of the fiscal year. Saturday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton said he will sign the final bills.

Rifts in the DFL

But the back-and-forth drama of the session exposed serious rifts between some Democrats — and left much business unfinished.
Tensions were particularly high in the Senate, where a majority of DFL members opposed the final agriculture and environment bill that was negotiated by their leader, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk. Those senators were upset with provisions in the bill that rolled back long-time environmental protections and eliminated the nearly 50-year-old citizens’ board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The first attempt to pass the bill, on Friday afternoon, failed in the Senate by a single vote, with very few DFL votes and fewer Republicans votes than had originally supported the bill. Bakk went back to the drawing board — and to his caucus — and emerged with a new plan: offering amendments to the bill that could win DFL support. 
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, the lead opponent of the agriculture and environmental budget, amended the bill to restore the MPCA’s citizens’ board and eliminate a provision that would exempt mining sulfide waste from solid-waste rules. The bill passed, garnering many of the Senate DFL votes the previous version didn’t. 
But Republicans complained that Democrats were backing away from a deal they had made with Dayton and other caucus leaders: to not support any amendments to the budget bills. 
In the House, Republicans quickly took up the new bill — and amended it back to the way it was under the original deal, before sending it back over to the Senate for a final vote. “We are honoring the commitment we made to Minnesotans with the four legislative leaders and the governor,” Daudt said. “Now the Senate has the opportunity to do the right thing and send this bill to the governor.”
The final vote in the Senate ultimately passed, but not without Bakk having to make a deal with Senate Republicans behind closed doors to give them “significant, specific tax reductions” in a 2016 tax bill, Senate Minority Leader David Hann said. 
“The new agreement calls for substantial Republican tax cuts to be added to already-planned reductions in the existing bill,” he said.  “We’re very satisfied with the concessions made by Democrats to deliver significant tax cuts in the next legislative session.” 

Much to do

The conclusion of the legislature this year leaves much up in the air for next session. Legislators left nearly $1 billion of a $1.8 billion budget surplus on the bottom line to deal with those tax cuts, as well as a long-term transportation funding plan sought by Democrats. Those topics failed to gain traction in divided government this year.
Dayton also didn’t get his number one priority, universal preschool education, and plans to continue his push next year.

The near death — and second life — of the North Star Bicycle Festival

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North Star Bicycle Festival

t took nearly 20 minutes for David LaPorte, director of the North Star Bicycle Festival, to weave the story of how close the event came to extinction. He laid it out on a sunny morning in Dinkytown earlier this week, at a coffee shop not far from his office at the University of Minnesota, where he has been a biochemistry professor since 1983.
This year’s festival, with four-time U.S. Champion Freddie Rodriguez heading the field in the men’s pro Grand Prix beginning Wednesday in St. Paul, includes a cycling coup — a special appearance by retired three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond, who lives in Medina and owns a bike-building company in Minneapolis.
Yet as recently as January, LaPorte thought he had a better chance leading a Tour stage through the mountains of France than putting on the festival again. It emerged without the usual women’s Grand Prix (a one-year blip, LaPorte hopes), but with an exceptionally long name reflecting its new sponsors: the North Star Bicycle Festival presented by North Memorial Health Care and Preferred One.
“When [former lead sponsor] Nature Valley pulled out, the goal was, we either wanted to continue the event or to know that we left no stone unturned, so we didn’t have to second-guess ourselves,” LaPorte said.
The festival has undergone name and format changes since LaPorte, with the lanky build and bearing of a marathoner turned cyclist, founded it as Tour de Wings in 1999. Best known as the Nature Valley Bicycle Festival, its six-stage pro Grand Prix — two in St. Paul and one each in Cannon Falls, Uptown Minneapolis, Menomonie and Stillwater — proved especially popular on the circuit. This year, the St. Paul Criterium, slated for Wednesday night, returns to Lowertown from the Rice Park area, where it relocated during light rail construction.
The whole thing is a massive undertaking that requires 400 volunteers and about $300,000 to put on. (Disclosure: I twice wrote for the festival web site, a paid position.) Profits benefit a designated charity — this year, Special Olympics Minnesota. LaPorte, who commutes nine miles by bike from his Roseville home to the U in all but the most treacherous weather has never taken a salary as director.
“People think I’m crazy,” LaPorte said. “They’re probably right.”
It still irks LaPorte that Nature Valley officials never told him directly they were done with the festival. In February 2013, after several fruitless months arranging contract extension talks before the deal expired in June, LaPorte said an executive from Nature Valley’s Chicago-based marketing firm asked to meet him for breakfast near Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Nature Valley had been stalling because it planned to drop all its sports event sponsorships. 
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work out and he had to tell me over the phone,” LaPorte said. “Because if I had to drive across town during rush hour traffic to be told they were out, it really would have pissed me off.”
The festival had enough cash reserves to put on the event in 2014, even without a new title sponsor. After that? Trouble.
“We had in the neighborhood of $250,000 in reserve, plus a number of smaller sponsors,” LaPorte said. “We cut a few things, but not a lot. The goal was to put it on in 2014 without it looking noticeably shabbier, because (we wanted) to bring in sponsor prospects and let them see what they were buying into.”
That didn’t entice any new sponsors. With no prospects by the August deadline to reserve the 2015 dates, LaPorte told USA Cycling — the sport’s American governing body — he couldn’t pay the $8,000 non-refundable bid fee. USA Cycling hated to lose the event and granted him a two-month extension.
“Who wouldn’t want a stay of execution? “ LaPorte said.
By October, LaPorte still had nothing and prepared to cancel. In stepped financial angel No. 1 – Jim Pohlad, he of the Twins-owning Pohlads, who LaPorte said attended the Uptown criterium four months earlier. Pohlad’s radio station, then known as K-Twin (now Go 96.3), was a festival media partner.
“Jim Pohlad paid the bid fee out of his own pocket,” LaPorte said. “He thought it was a great event and didn’t want to see it die.” (Pohlad did not respond to an interview request, but his support for various events and entities around Minneapolis is well known.)
When another potential sponsor fell through, LaPorte figured they were really, finally done. A colleague suggested hiring Jean Ryan of JRI Marketing, a small Minneapolis firm, to aid in the sponsor search. LaPorte approached similar firms from out of state throughout the process, but never found one he liked. In a month, Ryan lined up North Memorial Health Care and PreferredOne, the health insurance firm, as co-presenting sponsors.
“They got started in the middle of January.” LaPorte said. “I told them they had until the middle of February to get the money together. I figured no way, but at least we’re going to hit our goal of leaving no stone unturned. Damned if they didn’t pull it off.”
The festival appealed to financial angel No. 2, North Memorial CEO Dr. J. Kevin Croston, an amateur cyclist who takes his family on bicycling vacations. “So when I heard that the sponsorship was available, I thought …why not?” Croston wrote in an email. “I love that biking can be enjoyed by all ages — from kids to seniors — and after seeing the excitement of a big biking event it will inspire them to become more active.”
The uncertainty left one downside. Only 17 riders and two teams signed up for the women’s Grand Prix, which LaPorte reluctantly cancelled. (He hopes to restore it next year.) To replace it, LaPorte added amateur races at every site except Cannon Falls. And next Friday night before the Uptown Criterium, LeMond will lead local executives and Special Olympians on the new CEO Ride for Kids. Proceeds benefit Special Olympics Minnesota and the festival’s programs for children. Croston is recruiting CEOs as well.
LaPorte credited Kathryn Jensen, a volunteer and the mother of a 12-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome, with securing LeMond’s commitment. Jensen helped established Sanford Hype, a Special Olympics team at Sanford Middle School in Minneapolis. Jensen emailed photos of Hype athletes to Kathy LeMond, Greg’s wife, and invited the LeMonds to ride with them in the CEO race. A week later, after Jensen sent a follow-up email, Kathy LeMond responded.

A walk in the woonerfs: rethinking a realm for bicyclists, pedestrians and cars

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Mill City Quarter woonerf

In my neighborhood of South St. Anthony Park in St. Paul, we tend to treat our alley like a woonerf. That’s not an autocorrect you’re reading, but a Dutch word for a “living street” designed specifically so that slow-moving vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians can peacefully co-exist. In our alley, neighbors will actually sit down and visit while playing with each other’s pets; bicyclists will congregate before heading off on a day ride; dog owners will walk their furry companions while sipping wine, coffee or beer.
When a car comes along, it must make room for us … although we do politely step to the side to let vehicles pass. In all of these aspects, our alley is an accidental woonerf, meaning it functions as a public realm for multiple uses — including for pedestrians. Still, alleys are designed principally to provide access for cars and service vehicles — in spite of our takeover attempts. Woonerfs, however, are catching on in cities across Europe, as well as in Seattle and in Minneapolis.

“There’s been an interest in woonerfs in the landscape architecture and the urban design communities for several years,” says Brady Halvorson, associate partner and head of landscape architecture at BKV Group in Minneapolis, “because they really function well for moving people, cars and bicyclists in a safe manner. Where roundabouts were in the engineering vocabulary 15 years ago, we’re now there with woonerfs.”

They work, Halvorson continues, “because woonerfs are first and foremost about designing an interesting place that treats the street as a public realm. The challenge is deciding how much of that space you give away to vehicles versus creating a space everyone can share. But anywhere you can push an idea like this, by creating public space useful for more than just cars, is good.”

Another example of an existing accidental woonerf is the service alley outside of Café Lurcat on Loring Park in Minneapolis. Here the entrance to The Third Bird, a dance studio, the back of Luna Lux letterpress studio, and doors to various art galleries open onto a brick-paved thoroughfare and courtyard that exudes an Old European ambience.

“It’s a service alley, but also a charming place for pedestrians to walk and gather,” says David Graham, principal of ESG Architects in Minneapolis. “While there’s controlled auto access, this is a space that people can and do share.” Years ago, ESG explored and included a woonerf-like concept — a pedestrian drop-off area — in its Excelsior & Grand project in the first-ring Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, Graham says.

But in the U.S., where cars reign supreme, designers “need to clearly understand how woonerfs are used and implemented in the Netherlands. You can’t just import a woonerf and drop it in.”
 
Rendering of the Mill City Quarter woonerf.
BLV Group
Rendering of the Mill City Quarter woonerf.
Some of the design characteristics that define a woonerf, Graham continues, include limiting vehicular access; eliminating distinctions between concrete sidewalks, drop-down curbs and bituminous roads by installing a uniform high-quality pavement used by bicyclists, pedestrians and cars alike; creating stone bollards that demarcate spaces and provide visual cues to auto drivers; and installing trees, plantings and lighting.

Many of these features exist in BKV Group’s woonerf for the Mill City Quarter, a apartment complex planned between 2nd Street, 3rd Avenue, 5th Avenue, and the River West high-rise and Mill Place building near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. Currently, the site is a surface parking lot. Halvorson and his team are designing a woonerf along a historic rail corridor running through the middle of the site; the corridor also connects to the West River Parkway.

But because the rail-corridor parcel is owned by a third party, who required the design team to retain a number of parking spaces for daytime tenants in his office building, “our goal was to create something more than a parking lot,” Halvorson explains. “We also wanted to be able to close off the site for functions and gatherings, and we designed the space so people on bikes or on foot feel comfortable walking down the middle of it.”

While the number of cars parked in the space “is counter-intuitive to a true Dutch woonerf,” Halvorson explains, other woonerf-specific design elements are included. Reduced speeds for cars will be posted. The space will include “a vehicular circulation area with bollards, lights, plantings and pavers,” he says, and the area will have distinctive uniform paving, planted islands and festival lighting strung across the space from poles along the sides. “We’re calling it ‘woonerf-lite’,” he says.
The Line

Underneath the woonerf, he adds, is a “large gallery of storm-water pipes to reduce runoff into the river. The space is currently all impermeable surface parking lot, so with this woonerf we’re bringing the whole parcel into compliance with new, more sustainable storm-water regulations.”

The addition of environment sustainability to woonerfs could be MSP’s contribution to the design concept’s seemingly expanding definition. So could the notion of “complete streets,” described by the Minnesota Complete Streets Coalition as streets “planned to be safe and accessible for pedestrians, transit riders, bicyclists, and drivers — all users, regardless of age or ability.”

According to an article in The New York Times, “In the United States, more than 400 cities either currently have, or soon will develop, “complete streets,” which are much more broadly defined than woonerfs, even allowing for the likes of sidewalks and the authoritarian stop sign.Yet, according to the Chicago-based National Complete Streets Coalition, the spirit of the woonerf inspired even the American movement.”

As woonerfs take hold in MSP, perhaps in collaboration with the complete streets movement already under way here, alleys will no doubt continue to function as accidental spots for community gatherings, car access, and pedestrian and bicycle right-of-ways. The time is always right for seeking out ways to share our roads and our space.

Well that was awkward: With trade-deal vote looming, Congressional Baseball Game gets political

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Sen. Rand Paul strikes out during the Congressional Baseball Game

WASHINGTON — One night every summer, Democratic and Republican members of Congress trade their suits and ties for cleats and gloves in a longtime D.C. tradition: the Congressional Baseball Game. It’s meant to be a way for lawmakers to mingle and engage in a little good-natured bipartisan bonhomie, free of partisan posturing and rancor…or something like that.
For the most part, Thursday night’s game lived up to its romantic expectations, but — this being D.C. — partisan politics weren’t kept at bay for too long.
This year’s installment — the 54th under the sponsorship of the Roll Call newspaper — saw the Democrat and Republican teams’ all-time records in the series tied up. The Democrats came into the night having won the last six games behind the arm and bat of Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, a former college baseball player. This year, though, Republicans said they had fielded their best team in years, and felt poised to break the streak.
Two Minnesotans — 1st District Rep. Tim Walz and 3rd District Rep. Erik Paulsen — played for the Democratic and Republican squads, respectively. Baseball isn’t exactly the specialty of either man. Walz — a former high school football coach — is a Congressional Baseball Game rookie, and Paulsen is a hockey fanatic. According to an aide, the Republican likes to join in because his D.C. roommates — including Republican Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana — play. It’s a prerequisite for living in their house.
As Republican and Democratic staffers trickled into Nationals Park just south of the Capitol, Walz and Paulsen joined their teams in warm-ups on the field. Walz, wearing the purple and yellow baseball uniform of Mankato State University, was, as they say, just glad to be there. “It’s really fun — I can’t believe it took me so long to do this,” he said. Paulsen arrived at the Republican dugout wearing the uniform of the Minnesota Baseball Association's Chaska Cubs.
While lawmakers were mostly fun and games, the consensus was that the environment surrounding the game was a bit more political than usual. It fell on the eve of the House of Representatives’ huge vote on Trade Promotion Authority and Trade Adjustment Assistance, and as lawmakers took the field, Obama and GOP leadership were furiously trying to sway lawmakers on both sides to vote for the package. Most Democrats intend to vote no on TPA, and may vote against TAA to block the package entirely.

Obama in the dugout

So when Obama showed up in the Democratic dugout in the bottom of the third inning — well, things got a little weird.
The Democratic side of the stands—where many held up “no to fast-track” signs — began cheering wildly when they got a glimpse of Obama, who’s arguably the face of fast-track. Chants of “O-ba-ma!” swirled around. The president then moved over to the Republican dugout to shake the players’ hands. This is not friendly territory for him, but that night, he was greeted by applause and chants of “TPA!”
President Barack Obama posing for photographs in the dugout
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Barack Obama posing for photographs in the dugout at the annual Congressional Baseball Game.
When all of that subsided, though, there were some genuinely nice moments and playful displays of trash talk. The GOP side of the stands, crowded with young interns and staffers and felt like a college student section, held up signs like, “Democrats can’t get to first base.”

Rep. Linda Sanchez ignites the crowd

On the field, after Richmond hit a double to center late in the game, the Republican pitcher, Mark Walker of North Carolina, gave him a pat and looked to congratulate him. In the final inning, when the game’s only female player — California Democrat Rep. Linda Sanchez—took the field, both sides cheered. When she crushed a line drive to right field, the ballpark was loud — major-league loud.
No matter what happens on Capitol Hill today, Democrats can at least say they still own bragging rights on the baseball diamond. After a close contest for most of the game, the Democrats opened it up late, and ended up winning 5 to 2, extending their streak to seven. Paulsen stayed on the sidelines, but Walz—an avid runner — got in a pinch run late in the game.

How Senate DFLers are becoming like Republicans

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Sen. Dave Thompson
Republican state Sen. Dave Thompson had been noticing it throughout the Legislative session: a growing fissure between urban and Greater Minnesota legislators in the Senate DFL caucus.
The urban-rural, moderate-conservative rift is old hat for Republicans, but this year it has beset Senate DFLers.
“One of the early signs that some of the urban core Democrats were not getting their way was the judiciary bill,” Thompson said. 
He was referring to public safety legislation, signed by Gov. Dayton, that legalized the use of gun silencers, referred to in the bill as “suppressors.”
“It demonstrated that the person running the caucus [Tom Bakk] is the more traditional conservative Democrat,” Thompson said.
But now, majority leader Bakk is facing something of a revolt from those urban Democrats, whose votes are needed to pass major budget bills in a special legislative session. Reports indicate that key DFlers such as John Marty, Sandy Pappas, and Scott Dibble plan on voting against the environment bill because of objections to policy changes, including elimination of the Citizens Board of the Pollution Control Agency.
The bill has even provoked an online petition asking Bakk to resign his leadership post.
DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff, chair of the senate's Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, finds the disgruntlement with Bakk puzzling. As majority leader, she says, Bakk is doing his job finding consensus. “He does a very good job of accommodating views and opinions,” she said. “I think he puts the interests of Minnesota first.”
Bonoff, by the way, represents Minnetonka, and is not a natural ally for Bakk. “You have to remember, he did not want me to be an assistant leader,” she said.
But Bonoff, like Bakk, is a pragmatist. She often refers to herself as a “caucus of one,” and has advocated a spectrum of policy and spending reforms that often run contrary to DFL special interest groups. 
Sen Terri BonoffState Sen. Terri Bonoff
The standoff between Bakk and urban DFLers, she believes, stems from a refusal by some in the party to accept that Democrats no longer control all three branches of government.
“In my opinion, when you have divided government you must compromise to the middle,” she said. “When we had three years of Democrats in control, policies leaned far left. They didn’t have the reality check it takes to come to an agreement.”
Bakk stayed in the background during the negotiations over a special session. Bonoff said the bills in contention were already a negotiated product between Senate Republicans and Democrats. “Why negotiate against bills we all passed?” she asked.
Bakk may stay in the background on Friday. He’s already told reporters that he was not going to “twist arms” to get votes.

The art and science of construction detours in Minnesota

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Three "sidewalk closed" signs around Minneapolis.
The word “detour” comes from the French, meaning “to turn away” or “change direction.” But it can also mean “evasion” or “excuse,” and as any driver knows, Minnesota’s contracted construction season can be synonymous with frustration.
Though it might seem like a simple matter of erecting orange signs, creating good detours can be maddeningly complex. How long will the road be closed? What kinds of roads are the nearest alternatives? What to do about unpredictable bicycles and pedestrians?
As technology starts to help with problems of getting good information to drivers, ensuring good detours might smooth out the messy reality of road construction.

Detours and induced demand

Probably the craziest detour in Minnesota history was the impromptu rerouting following the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. Needless to say, the 2007 bridge tragedy was completely unexpected, and forced state agencies to reroute 150,000 cars per day into other parts of the Twin Cities’ freeway system.
As it turned out, however, the detours worked surprisingly well. A University of Minnesota study determined that average commute times increased only marginally, less than half a minute on average.
Those unexpected results stemmed from two counterintuitive facets of detour construction. The first is the phenomenon of “induced demand,” or the dynamic relationship between road capacity and people’s willingness to drive. Simply put, the more available capacity on the road, the more likely that people will choose to drive; conversely, the less capacity, the less likely the car trip. That means that expanding roads might create more traffic, while reducing travel lanes might decrease traffic at the margins.
According to David Levinson, the engineering professor at the University of Minnesota who worked on the study, the I-35W bridge was a great example of “reduced demand” (the opposite of “induced demand”) where “about 1/3 of the trips across the river ‘disappeared,' and were either foregone or went to different destinations.”
The second conclusion is that the Twin Cities’ road system actually has a well-connected road network, relatively speaking. During a detour, most Twin Cities drivers are able to find alternative routes.
A traffic cop directing detoured traffic through Northeast Minneapolis
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A traffic cop directing detoured traffic through Northeast Minneapolis in 2007, following the collapse of the 35W bridge.

Two key rules for detours

Though many people find detours frustrating, there are a few simple rules for making a good one. The first is to minimize impacts. For short-term projects, detours should only take place on weekends or in the evening. For longer projects (like the bridge replacement at Interstate 94 and Snelling Avenue), timing is everything; Snelling is scheduled to be re-opened before the start of the State Fair.
“Take shutting down Hennepin,” Tim Drew, a traffic engineer for the City of Minneapolis, explained to me this week. “You don’t want to do that on a weekday when there’s a ton of traffic out there. You look for weekend, one with no events downtown, if that’s possible.”
A "men working" sign blocking a bike lane on Fairview Ave. in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A "men working" sign blocking a bike lane on Fairview
Avenue in St. Paul.
The length of detour time might also force changes with signage or traffic signals. As Drew told me, for the yearlong closure of Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis, the city tweaked traffic signals on detour routes by adding left-turn phases.
(One more wrinkle is matching detours with the construction schedule. There’s nothing drivers hate more than seeing a detour without any road construction happening!)
The second rule of detours is to use similar types of streets. You don’t want to detour traffic from a busy arterial road onto a quiet residential street, or vice versa.
“In general, we try to detour traffic onto a similar type of roadway,” Tiffany Dagon, the Metro Area Workzone Engineer for Mn-DOT, explained to me. “For freeway traffic, we try to keep traffic on a freeway. We do it the other way too; if you’ve got a signalized road, we’ll try to keep the traffic on that type of road.”
A corollary to rule two is that agencies try hard to keep detours on “their own” roadways. When forced to detour traffic onto annother jurisdiction’s roads, agencies like MnDOT actually compensate counties and cities for the added wear. Sometimes, as in the case of re-decking I-35W in Burnsville, if an agency can’t find a suitable detour it will simply not post anything. Sometimes nothing is better than something problematic.

Complexities of biking and walking

Detours can be particularly frustrating for people biking or walking, especially if they happen across a road construction sign in a bike lane or a sidewalk closed on a busy street. But as more people begin getting out of their cars and choosing active transportation options, cities are being forced to pay more attention to detours that accommodate “complete streets.”
A sidewalk closed sign in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A sidewalk closed sign in St. Paul.
“We don’t want to say ‘sidewalk closed’ if at all possible,” Tim Drew, the Minneapolis engineer, explained. ”We want to use the same side of the street. For pedestrian closures, we might set up jersey barriers in the parking lane, or use a moving lane to make sure pedestrians are safe. A lot of times construction companies have to pay a ‘lane use fee,’ so that’s one of the more challenging situations.”
While on quiet residential streets, cities can simply close the sidewalk; for busier commercial streets, pedestrians pose particular challenges. (In St. Paul, pedestrian detours are referred to as T-PARs, or Temporary Pedestrian Access Routes.)
“We review each project case by case, because each individual project has its different issues and challenges,” Paul St. Martin explained to me. St. Martin, St. Paul’s assistant city engineer, oversees many of the city’s most complicated detours.
Compared to a decade ago, thanks to better inter-agency regulation and more attention to nonmotorized modes, the city thinks more carefully about detours for bikes and pedestrians. (For the past year and a half, the city has signed an elaborate detour around construction on the Sam Morgan bike trail while a key bridge is reconstructed.)
But one wrinkle is that pedestrians and bicycles don’t always follow signed routes. Unlike drivers, people on foot often simply bypass signs, walk in the street, or hop fences. That unavoidable fact forces engineers to think more carefully about people’s actual behavior, rather than theoretical lines on maps.
A bike route detour on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
A bike route detour on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
For example, St. Paul made two separate detour accommodations around apartment construction at Snelling and Selby Avenues.
“Some folks don’t want to go that extra block to take that detour route [on Marshall Avenue],” St. Martin told me. “They’re going to cross at Dayton no matter how we sign. So we put some additional signage in at Dayton, adding one of those stop-for-pedestrian signs we have in the middle of streets around town.”
Similarly, for business owners, detours are often crucial. When commercial streets are under construction, St. Paul and Minneapolis require contractors to ensure access to open businesses during working hours, which can involve elaborate walkways and late-night sidewalk replacement. These detours might make a critical difference for small business trying to survive road construction.

Trends in detour technology

It might seem that detours are inevitably maddening, but compared to a generation ago, the advent of technology has shown promise in allowing drivers to take advantage of other routes. Some smartphone maps are now able to account for detours and road congestion, while technologies like “variable message signs” on freeways and shoulders offer drivers real-time information.
“About 12 years ago, we were just breaking out a handful of these variable message signs around the convention center,” Tim Drew told me. “We now have 84 of them and use them to facilitate detours. I’ve seen them work during a Twins’ game, and they’re real useful in guiding folks around a detour. The more detail you can throw out, the better people feel about it.”
Those signs seem like a great idea to me — just as long as you keep them out of the bike lane and off the sidewalk.
A detour at Raymond Avenue in St. Paul.

The new Mill City High will be unlike any other school in Minneapolis

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John Miller teaching a sample class at an information event.

John Miller had been teaching pretty happily for a quarter of a century when it occurred to him that he was in a position to fix the sundry small discontents of his professional life by dreaming up and opening his own school.
This fall, after nearly four years of planning, scheming, grant-writing and the completion of enough paperwork to obliterate a lesser vision, Mill City High School will open in downtown Minneapolis. It will be completely unlike any other school hereabouts, and if the reality lives up to the idea, it will rock.
It will also be one of five charter schools authorized by the Minnesota Guild of Charter Schools, an offshoot of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). The MFT is the first teachers union in the country to begin authorizing charter schools. Accordingly, the new programs are teacher-led.
Located in the shadow of the new Vikings stadium in First Covenant Church, Mill City will offer a novel, four-pronged approach with Global Classical Studies as a lynchpin. Up to 150 students, spread across ninth-, 10th-, and 11th-grades, are expected this year, with the school eventually serving grades 9-12.
Global Classical Studies might most easily be explained by returning to the topic of Miller’s desire to change things up mid-career. In 2011 when the MFT received state permission to enter chartering, Miller was teaching at Eagle Ridge Academy.
A K-12 school located in Eden Prairie, Eagle Ridge is one of a number of Twin Cities charter schools, most of them located in affluent suburbs, to offer classical education. The classics being, of course, the works of Western thinkers ranging from the ancient Greeks to the U.S. Founding Fathers.
The approach is rigorous academically, and the schools are among the state’s top performers. Though they have been located primarily in affluent areas to date, student bodies have diversified in recent years.
(Classical education has also been popular in households which, for reasons religious or political, are not crazy about the multiculturalism they believe is invading public schools. One of Eagle Ridge’s missions, for example, is to foster “an appreciation for the United States of America and her unique role in the world.”)
Miller loved Eagle Ridge’s “blend of rigor and friendliness.” Yet when it became clear the school was going to undergo some transitions, he mulled until it became clear that what he’d really like was to design his own program.
Consider one of his frustrations: Over the previous four years he had taught 16 periods of high school humanities, 15 of which dealt with the Western world.
“The one period that deals with the rest of the world was called ‘Eastern Thought,’ ” he recalls. “They crammed everything in there — including Islam, just to have it somewhere.”

Classical approach, but opened up

Miller wanted to move away from the Eurocentric curriculum but keep the approach, which he believes is fabulously suited to driving students to ever-richer levels of understanding and to teaching critical inquiry.
Students proceed from a grammar stage, which consists of direct instruction in basic knowledge and skills, to a Socratic dialectic in which they attempt to think their way to a logical conclusion. That is followed by seminar discussion.
John Miller
Courtesy of John Miller
John Miller
Why not keep the structure, but open the field of inquiry up to the classics of other traditions and civilizations?
“Have a conversation amongst students where you give them open-ended questions,” Miller explains, “but instead of Plato vs. Aristotle it’s Lao Tze vs. Buddha.”
Why not start with cultures that are 2,000 years old, and include indigenous and African traditions and — as students age and the global classics become more contemporary — Latin American and African-American experiences?
“We’ll teach the civil-rights movement, but also the gay civil-rights movement so kids from all kinds of modes of diversity will see themselves,” says Miller.
Big vision notwithstanding, opening a charter school — much less a high school — is a tough undertaking in the Twin Cities right now. One of the biggest hurdles is finding space. Schools require universal access, gyms, commercial kitchens and other expensive renovations. Most landlords don’t want to invest for a startup.

First Covenant

As it happened, First Covenant was in search of people who might like to use its four floors of mostly vacant space for activities that jibe with its social justice mission. Built in 1885, the church’s sanctuary was for a time the tallest building in the city.
A second building once housed Sunday school for 1,000 students. Mill City will max out at 300.
It didn’t hurt that a former student of Miller’s was the son of the pastor, who is a member of a downtown Multi-Faith Network that includes priests and imams and other clergy committed to working together.
“You can’t beat the location,” says Miller. “All roads lead downtown. Light rail leads downtown. Buses all go downtown.”
 

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