West St. Paul officials contemplate tunnel under Robert Street

A new tunnel was constructed recently for the River to River Greenway bike trail, bringing walkers and cyclists beneath Charlton Street near Marie Avenue. (Jesse Poole/Review)
A new tunnel was constructed recently for the River to River Greenway bike trail, bringing walkers and cyclists beneath Charlton Street near Marie Avenue. (Jesse Poole/Review)
A mapped-out plan would turn the River to River Greenway bike trail north from Wentworth Avenue before Robert Street. It would then head beneath Robert via a new tunnel built between Wentworth and Thompson avenues, linking the bike path to the east and west of Robert Street. (submitted graphic)
A mapped-out plan would turn the River to River Greenway bike trail north from Wentworth Avenue before Robert Street. It would then head beneath Robert via a new tunnel built between Wentworth and Thompson avenues, linking the bike path to the east and west of Robert Street. (submitted graphic)

As West St. Paul's South Robert Street faces construction, it also faces a future of redevelopment.

According to Jim Hartshorn, the city's community development director, "the way an already-developed city can grow is to redevelop," which he says can raise market and property values for business owners and residents, and draw in money from outside as well.

Hartshorn said most of these redevelopment plans have to do with convincing businesses to move into town, but, he added, the safety and beautification of South Robert Street is part of the package.

One controversial topic up for debate is a tunnel that would link Dakota County's River to River Greenway bike trail at South Robert Street. It would take the path beneath Robert, just north of Wentworth Avenue at Crawford Drive. As it is, cyclists are and will continue to be required to cross Robert at a crosswalk, which can mean waiting for traffic signals to change.

Hartshorn said city leaders will have to decide if the extra wheeled traffic is worth the $5 million price tag.

Costs buried

According to West St. Paul Mayor David Meisinger, the estimated $5 million construction cost of the tunnel is only a fraction of what the total price could end up being. He says the city will pay another significant price: space.

"We'd be losing no less than two commercial properties at the entrance and exit of the tunnel," he said. "One reason we're rebuilding the road is to attract redevelopment."

Those taxable lots, he said, are potential money-makers for the city. But also, he noted, a tunnel would undermine a basic idea of the rehabilitation project: bringing people onto Robert without their vehicles.

"I'm 100 percent opposed to the tunnel," Meisinger said. "We're paying millions of dollars to make a pedestrian-friendly road, you shouldn't have to dig a tunnel underneath it to cross it. There's already a gap in the funding and to spend $5 million more for a tunnel is unnecessary."

And building a pedestrian bridge instead, he says, would lead to much the same issues.

Safety first

Not everyone is against the idea.

"This is something that would make West St. Paul more attractive to potential businesses and residents," said council member Jenny Halverson.

She added she's a proponent of the tunnel for safety reasons. Explaining she was hit by a car once while crossing Robert at Wentworth on foot, Halverson noted if the city has a tunnel that goes under Charlton Street now for safety, then "the same should apply on Robert Street, and even more so, given that the traffic count on Robert is exponentially higher than it is on Charlton."

But there's a second reason Halverson backs the idea of a tunnel.

"I think it's small-scale and short-sighted to not consider the economic advantages of having linked trails," Halverson said. "If you look in recent news, the Minneapolis Greenway has made over $200 million in residential development."

She said she'd like to see the River to River Greenway do a similar thing for West St. Paul.

"We need to think long-term and about what kind of developments we should bring to our community," Halverson said. "We shouldn't just look at the dollars easy to grab now. We need to think about getting a higher return."

According to Halverson, that higher return doesn't necessarily have to come at the high costs other city officials have in mind.

Because the trail is a part of a county trail system, she said, "This isn't part of the Robert Street budget. How much would be paid for by whom is still in flux for this tunnel."

Halverson said that if the city could work out a deal with the county, the Robert Street rehabilitation could benefit.

"Every single market study that we've had done in relation to Robert Street has returned to us with results saying that we need to have more east-west connectivity."

To her, this is one instance the city could align with such reports.

"This is a way we can start building in that direction," she said.

Why just here?

Council member John Bellows added another point of consideration.

"I'm concerned that if the tunnel is being presented as the safe way to cross Robert Street, then it seems to me that we'll need to have a number of these safe ways to cross Robert Street," Bellows said.

He said he understands that the primary idea is to maintain safety.

"Safety is the prime concern, but it should be the prime concern at a number of stops. This tunnel is too narrowly focused."

Bellows said he'd like to hear about alternatives that are more cost-effective.

"There may be a number of other possibilities to make a continuous River to River Greenway," he said. "We really haven't done a cost-benefit analysis. I'm not sure this is the best use of our funds."

Currently, the tunnel proposition is making its way through the Council's work sessions and has not reached a vote. How much this venture would cost the city has not yet been determined.

Inside the tunnel

According to Hartshorn, other city officials and residents have voiced concerns about the safety of the tunnel itself. Though cars won't be whipping by walkers and cyclists, according to Hartshorn, folks have questioned whether it will be a spot for loitering, theft or violence.

According to police chief Bud Shaver, the only concern he has is, again, cost. He said he's not concerned that the tunnel will be unsafe for people, even at night.

What's almost a given, he predicts: graffiti and vandalism.

"The two primary issues that we'd likely experience is graffiti, which influences people's perception of safety, and vandalism," Shaver said.

Though each require maintenance, he said he doesn't think graffiti and vandalism are reason enough to dismiss the idea.

"I do see value in people not having to cross the street," Shaver said. "The tunnel has its advantages for sure, and I don't suspect that it would be a spot where individuals would wait and lurk for victims of crimes. There's no track record of that happening in tunnels in the area; that's just a perception from TV."

His one suggestion: "The tunnel should be large enough for us to get a squad car down there, just in case."

Jesse Poole can be reached at jpoole@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815. Follow him at twitter.com/JPooleNews.

 

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