Strib: Message from the neighbors: Slow down on our street

A family cycling along Vernon Avenue, in Edina.

A task force of traffic engineers is studying whether the state should lower its speed limits in some areas.

By MARY JANE SMETANKA, Star Tribune
April 14, 2008

How fast is too fast when driving on a residential road?

Minnesota's statutory speed limit on most city streets is 30 miles per hour. But that's too fast for some residents in Edina and St. Paul, where the cities get asked all the time to lower local speeds to 25 mph.

In Andover, where rural areas have become residential but big lots still give neighborhoods a rural feel, residents are protesting speed limits that state law sets at 55 mph for rural areas.

Two summers ago, a speeding driver on one of those roads missed a curve, ran off the road and hit a gas meter, sparking a fire that destroyed a $500,000 house. The city asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation to reevaluate the speed limit on the road. MnDOT did -- and kept the limit at 55.

"People are constantly telling us that the speed limits are just too fast," said Andover City Administrator Jim Dickinson.

Since August, a state task force made up of MnDOT and city engineers from around the state has been re-examining speed limit laws and how they affect local roads.

Bernie Arseneau, who directs MnDOT's office of traffic, safety and operations, is working with the group. Arseneau agrees that a 55 mph limit on residential roads in Andover and places like Chanhassen "doesn't make any sense." He's suggested speed limits of 30 to 35 mph may be better on such roads.

But he said he doesn't think the task force will suggest lowering city speed limits from 30 to 25 mph because there is "no compelling reason" to do so.

While there are city roads where 25 mph is a better speed, Arseneau said, "on those roads, drivers are going 25. So they're functioning safely."

Watching the traffic whiz by

The issue isn't an easy one.

MnDOT tends to look at speed limits from an engineering standpoint, considering road characteristics and technical analyses that measure how fast most people drive a stretch of road.

But people who live on a road look at it from their front steps. They watch traffic whiz by. They know how easy or difficult it is to back out of their driveways. They worry about kids playing at the street edge or using a shoulder to walk to the school bus.

Sometimes, St. Paul city engineer John Maczko said, people bemoan speeding on streets near their homes but do it themselves when they drive. "People act one way when they're standing on the sidewalk or sitting in their front lawn, and act 180 degrees opposite when they're behind the wheel," he said.

Maczko, a member of the task force, is a firm believer in a 25 mph speed limit on urban roads. He thinks it's safer.

St. Paul has long wanted that lower speed limit, he said. Minneapolis pushed for a similar change a few years ago. And in Edina, Public Works Director Wayne Houle said the city receives "a tremendous amount of complaints" about speeding on city streets. Last month, the Edina City Council passed a resolution supporting the state task force and an investigation into the feasibility of a 25 mph limit.

Enforcement only does so much, Houle and Maczko said. Busy police are reluctant to tag people unless they drive at least 10 to 15 mph above limits. While cities are free to put black-and-yellow "advisory speed signs" on roads -- signs that warn of steep hills or urge drivers to slow to 20 mph around a curve -- they can't just post a new speed limit. State law says they must ask MnDOT for a speed study and a decision on the speed limit.

Houle and Maczko said a 25 mph limit would save their cities money because they wouldn't have to spend so much on signs for exceptions. And they both want a uniform lower statewide limit so speeds don't change at city boundaries, confusing drivers.

Slow-down campaign

In Edina, where traffic worries in one neighborhood resulted in city plans to put in speed bumps that in turn angered other residents, the city is beginning a campaign to get drivers to slow down.

At City Hall, residents can pick up magnetic stickers that say, "Be the pace car, not the race car. Slow down in residential neighborhoods." Window decals with the same message can be stuck on the windshield as a reminder to drivers.

Maczko said that in the end, quelling the speed problem lies with drivers.

"When you try and address this whole thing, it really comes down to us as individuals," he said. "There's this belief that we can engineer our way out of everything and if we put up a sign [the problem is] going to go away. It won't."

Still, he thinks 25 mph is the safest speed for residential roads. Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas all go with 25 rather than 30 as a city street speed limit, he said. Arseneau said that nationally, states split roughly down the middle.

While Arseneau said the task force probably will not recommend changing the urban speed limit, that may not be the last word on the subject.

A transportation policy bill at the Legislature includes a request for MnDOT to ask local governments what they think of speed limits and report back to legislators. Among the issues it directs the agency to deal with: speed limits and whether road definitions should be changed.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380