The massive Robert Street construction project has been done for nearly two years, yet some people are still complaining. They don’t like medians. They don’t like U-turns.
But let’s look at the reality: Robert Street is now safer, and medians saved us money.
Accidents on Robert Street have gone down 23% since construction ended.
Medians actually saved West St. Paul $6.2 million.
Let’s dive into the details to explore why that is.
Remember the Old Robert Street
First, an aside:
I blog about West St. Paul fairly often, and I get a lot of compliments about it (aw, thanks). Something tells me I might not get compliments about this one. People like to complain. I get it. And with a road project, everybody has an opinion.
But let’s remember where Robert Street was: It was so bad that ambulances avoided it.
Robert Street is not perfect, but it’s a vast improvement. Let’s look at some facts about why it’s better.
The Safety of Medians
MNDoT traffic data for Robert Street shows that accidents have gone down 23% since the end of construction. (And how accidents are counted changed in 2016 so more accidents are reported now, which means it’s likely the reduction is even greater.)
It’s impossible to say that’s 100% due to medians, but it’s a good bet that medians significantly contributed to that accident reduction.
Why? Because medians are safer. Look at what the experts say:
- The 2004 book The Handbook of Road Safety Measures found a 12-22% reduction in injury level crashes.
- The 2012 report “Before-and-After Safety Study of Roadways Where New Medians Have Been Added” found a 30% reduction in the crash rate after converting to medians.
- The 2010 report “Modeling and Evaluating the Safety Impacts of Access Management Features in the Las Vegas Valley” found a 23% reduction in the crash rate, as well as a 4.7% increase in crashes for each additional median opening per mile.
Every study shows a reduction in crashes when medians are installed.
What makes medians so safe?
The same thing that makes people complain about them: Medians limit your options. A lot of the left turns were taken away on Robert Street, and while that makes it a little harder to get around, it also makes it a lot safer.
There are fewer conflict points where cars can intersect and crashes can occur. Simply by cutting down on those conflict points—replacing the “suicide lane” with a median and limiting left turns—we get a safer road.
What About U-Turns?
But what about people making those slow, awkward U-turns? That seems unsafe and a good way to cause crashes. Yes, the U-turns take some getting used to. Some of us have to re-learn how to do them. Cars turning right also need to pay attention to the potential of another car making a U-turn.
And yes, it’s been studied. The “Operational and Safety Effects of U-Turns at Signalized Intersections” by the Highway Safety Information System (HSIS) out of North Carolina found that U-turn crashes aren’t very common.
But even if there is an increase in U-turn crashes, those accidents are much less likely to be severe. They’re usually slow speed and often glancing blows instead of head-on or 90-degree impacts. Those kinds of accidents will mess your car up for sure, but the likelihood of severe injury or death is much lower.
Medians Saved Us Money
In addition to the safety benefits, medians also saved us money. West St. Paul received an $8 million federal grant for the Robert Street project. One of the contingencies of that money? Robert Street had to include a median.
Why? The reasons outlined above. Medians are traffic engineering best practice. Nobody is putting in a four-lane highway with a turn lane in the middle. They’re all four-lane roads divided by a median. Look at Eagan, Woodbury, Inver Grove Heights. Even Snelling in St. Paul is switching to medians.
So the feds said we need medians if we want their $8 million.
Now medians aren’t a line item in the project budget, but I asked the city for a ballpark figure, and they said $1.8 million was the total cost of the medians.
Medians cost a ballpark $1.8 million out of a $45 million project. But an $8 million federal grant that helped pay for the project mandated medians. If we said no to medians, the project would have cost West St. Paul another $6.2 million.
So if you don’t like medians, remember that they’re safer and they brought in $6.2 million to help pay for the project.
Trust the Experts
We all have our opinions, but driving a car does not make you a traffic engineer. You might not understand why they did something the way they did, but there was likely a logical reason. There may have been trade offs, they may have been choosing the lesser of two evils, they may have data that contradicts your anecdotal experience.
We need to trust the experts.
The Robert Street project was not planned by city council members who decided things on a whim. It was planned by traffic engineers—experts who do this work for a living and know how to improve traffic flow and safety.
Let’s trust the experts and know that Robert Street is way better than it used to be. We’ll never eliminate all accidents or stupid drivers, but things can improve—and Robert Street is a lot better. Thanks to medians.
(Big thanks to West St. Paul city staff for answering my questions. If there are any errors, blame my interpretation/presentation, not them. They also turned to MNDoT, and it just so happens that one of our Planning Commission members, Derek Leuer, is a traffic safety engineer with MNDoT. He gave a report about medians and U-turns at the city council on Feb. 27, 2017 that was helpful background to the above. The 23% reduction number isn’t in that report, but it’s worth taking a look at.)