Median on South Robert Street in West St. Paul

Medians on West St. Paul’s Robert Street Made Us Safer & Saved Money

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:

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.)

8 thoughts on “Medians on West St. Paul’s Robert Street Made Us Safer & Saved Money”

  1. An excellent post that is sure to be evergreen in its use, given how people like to complain.


  2. The u turns by the lights r dangerous. Ppl don’t wait to see if cars r coming r turning before doing the u turn. I almost got hit by this driver when I was making a right turn he decided to do his u turn at the same time n almost hit me. I don’t like the way they made this turns etc.

  3. Maria, I linked to a study about U-turn safety in the post. There’s also the report Derek Leuer made to city council that I linked to at the end.

    Certainly drivers need to be careful when the make U-turns, but they’re much safer than the free-wheeling “suicide lane” we used to have.

    And I don’t mean to critique you specifically, this is a common story, but if you’re turning right on red and someone is trying to make a U-turn, they have the right of way. Though if it was you and the person making the U-turn are approaching each other and that person tries a U-turn while you’re making a right turn (presumably, hopefully!, both on green), and they swung too wide and nearly hit you—then yes, you had the right of way.

    Whatever the situation, all drivers need to be more aware of those around them and make safe, legal turns. U-turns can be safe and legal, but we can only do so much to protect against dumb drivers.

  4. Yes, all that, and Robert St. now looks approximately one trillion times (my personal and completely un-backed up by data estimate) better than before.

  5. I agree Kevin. It’s not 100% great, but a heck of a lot better than the old road. I wish we had more greenery on Robert Street but if I remember correctly,the dollars weren’t available.

  6. What really drove up the price though was the long delayby the City in moving forward with our plan. We’re still feeling that cost in our proptery taxes. As you say, no point in complaining about issues that can’t be changed, but it is important that we learn from them.

  7. The article states “Medians cost a ballpark $1.8 million out of a $45 million project.” I’m glad they did the medians and have personally observed better safety and efficiency along Robert since they have been installed. But how much of the remaining $43.2 million was really needed to repave Robert and ensure curbs and such are in the right place for traffic flow, pedestrian safety, etc.? How much of that $43.2 million went to landscaping and fancy designs that carry minimal practical value? The 2019 population of West St. Paul is 19,779. $43200000/19779= $2184 just as an example of the savings per resident if only medians had been constructed. If the project had been done minimalistically, West St. Paul’s poorer residents could’ve received several thousand each as an alternative to all the fancy landscaping. I’m all for helping the people and making the world a better place but every dollar spent on one pet project needs to be balanced against the opportunity cost of spending that dollar on other options, in terms of what would provide optimal value to the taxpayers, heavily weighted towards those in the greatest need.

  8. Robert St needs better signs, when I visit folks I sorta wonder can I turn left onto Robert if I wiggle thru the median, no “No Left Turn” sign clearly forbids. And no sign encourages Uturn so my brain thinks they’re illegal so I use parking lots unlike the South Northerners rarely Uturn. . . Ummm. Time For Travel between various points in region and city and Accidents/Repairs/HealthCare are the 2 factors, so not sure Medians helped the author skips these 2 factors. My dad got careless and Hit the Robert Median 1 time, ha, he drives too much.

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