The cost of reconstructing Ayd Mill Road has ballooned to $7.5 million, and St. Paul City Council members have one week to decide whether to move forward with it.
The overhaul of the crumbling corridor, which accounts for a third of the pothole work done citywide, would reconfigure one of four lanes for bicycle and pedestrian traffic, leaving the other three lanes for motor vehicles.
The proposed cost is higher than the $5.2 million requested in Mayor Melvin Carter’s proposed 2020 budget, because of an underground spring that has undermined the pavement and other complications, according to city public works officials.
Council members will need to approve the project Feb. 19 if they want it in the five-year plan for public works projects.
At a committee meeting Wednesday, most council members said they support the vision for the road but are hesitant to sign off without more feedback from the public.
“What the community says to us influences the way we decide to vote on this,” said Council Member Jane Prince. “The community needs to know. They’re our bosses and they inform our decision.”
Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she asked the council to delay approving the project as part of the 2020 budget because the public hasn’t had a chance to sound off.
“I want to be clear: I really think this is an imaginative, innovative, bold, intriguing proposal,” Noecker said. “But I also believe that we really genuinely have a lot to learn when we go out and ask people for input on these things.”
Though public works is planning to do community engagement and traffic modeling in the spring, the department doesn’t typically ask for residents to approve its projects, the department’s director, Kathy Lantry, told council members. And Ayd Mill needs not only a pavement rehab — city pothole crews spend a third of their time there, Lantry said — but sewer and traffic fixes, too.
“It is deteriorated to a point where we’re going to have to make some decisions,” Lantry said. “The road needs to have a surface that is safe for people to drive.”
Money for the project would come from bonds and the city’s sewer fund. About $200,000 of the city’s $500,000 annual allocation for bicycle infrastructure would be used to help pay off the debt over 10 years.
The 1.5-mile roadway has a long and complex history dating back to the late 19th century, when it served as a railroad corridor. A 2009 City Council resolution said Ayd Mill should remain a city street and that the city should explore reducing it to two lanes and creating a greenway.
The council approved a $3.5 million mill and overlay of Ayd Mill Road last year, but plans changed when the mayor floated a $5.2 million overhaul in his 2020 budget address. The mayor’s proposal, which involved designating two lanes for bikes and pedestrians, got unanimous support from the Union Park District Council.
After deciding not to include Ayd Mill in the 2020 budget, council members are now facing a shortened timeline and higher cost. Carter’s proposal would have ended up costing about $9.8 million, Lantry said, mainly because the city would need to construct a new road bed and add left-turn lanes to avoid traffic backups. The $7.5 million alternative is a response to the increased cost, she said, and is also a compromise for critics concerned about traffic being diverted onto residential side streets.
Council Member Dai Thao has been one of those critics, and he repeatedly questioned public works’ approach to the project at Wednesday’s meeting.
“We’ve seen numerous times where, when we rush through a project, we tend to make a lot of mistakes,” he said. “This doesn’t give us a lot of confidence.”
Council Member Nelsie Yang, the group’s newest and youngest member, laid blame on her predecessors.
“We’ve had very irresponsible people elected into office who actually are not prioritizing fixing up our neighborhoods, our street conditions, and that’s why we are where we are,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of burden to hold, especially as people who are here and are supposed to be listening to the community and putting them first.”
Council Member Mitra Jalali pushed back, saying she spent much of 2019 talking to residents about Ayd Mill.
“We didn’t get here because of not being willing to patch in potholes or do enough planning,” she said. “We actually are fighting to get to the world we want, where we have a different, more innovative roadway, and conversations like this are illuminating just how stuck we are.”