City officials have dropped plans to reduce the number of driving lanes on Riverfront Drive through Old Town.
The proposal would have cut the number of through lanes on the busiest corridor leading to Mankato’s downtown from four lanes to two with a third lane in the center reserved for left-turning vehicles.
An engineering firm originally estimated that the impact on drive times would be minimal. In return for fewer driving lanes, extra space would have been available to transform the Old Town business district into a more pleasant pedestrian area with wide tree-lined sidewalks, street-side dining, public art and safer pedestrian crosswalks.
“A three-lane section doesn’t look like it works,” Assistant City Engineer Michael McCarty told the City Council during a recent bus tour of Mankato. “Well, it works if nobody slows down to turn.”
That turning issue is particularly problematic with semi trucks, which use Riverfront as a route to downtown and to industrial parcels on the northwest side of the street in Old Town.
Doubts about the feasibility of a lane reduction — a key component of a broader Old Town master plan — arose earlier this year. The city was planning to test the lane reduction this summer using pavement paint, traffic cones and other temporary measures. If it worked, plans would have been drawn up to make the changes permanent when Riverfront Drive was scheduled for reconstruction in 2022.
But concern by truckers and the manufacturing facilities along Riverfront prompted a postponement of the pilot project, and now the city is back at the drafting board.
“There isn’t really a three-lane process that works for truck traffic,” said Deputy City Manager Alison Zelms.
Because a turning semi needs extra space, a tight corridor would send those trucks swinging outward into through lanes and disrupting traffic flow more than originally anticipated.
One new alternative under consideration involves adding two more traffic signals — at Rock and Spring streets — to the one at Elm Street in the heart of Old Town. Along with providing pedestrian crossing opportunities, including to Riverfront Park at Spring Street, the high-tech signals would be integrated and timed to adjust for periods of the day with heavy truck traffic and for rush-hour drive times.
While the lights would give pedestrians two more safe spots to cross Riverfront, which averages 16,000 vehicles per day, they do little to visually improve the historic business district.
Without a lane reduction, on-street parking will need to be reduced or eliminated to make room for some of the aesthetic upgrades — such as broader walkways, greenery and sculptures. Those amenities were strongly supported by many of the shoppers, diners and business owners in Old Town, which is in the midst of a revival after decades of stagnation.
“But we’ve also heard from people that they don’t want to lose any parking,” Zelms said.
Any reduction in on-street parking would need to be accompanied by the addition of signs directing drivers to the parking lots in the area, she said.
The next step is laying out computerized animations of vehicle and pedestrian flow under different design options — one for the current four-lane roadway and one for a four-lane street with on-street parking removed.
The modeling will also include an animated demonstration of the now-abandoned lane-reduction plan so that supporters of that option can see why it doesn’t work, Zelms said. When the engineering work is completed, probably later this year, a public meeting will be held to demonstrate the options and gauge public opinions, she said.
A solution that satisfies most people will be a challenge considering the varying priorities of truckers, manufacturing firms, business owners, pedestrians, and drivers traveling to and from downtown who simply want a fast-moving thoroughfare.
“It’s a very important corridor for people,” Zelms said.
The project is now scheduled for 2022 in Mankato’s five-year construction plan. Because of the hefty price-tag on the work — estimated at $5.1 million — the city still has work to do to cobble together financing, which could alter the timeline.