Robert Street project hits a wall (or three)

Property owners will vote on adding noise walls along the street

Luke Reiter
news editor

It’s been said that good fences make for good neighbors.

Less certain is the impact of a series of towering walls that West St. Paul may be forced to erect in certain areas along Robert Street to mitigate the increase in traffic noise that will result from the city’s much-anticipated facelift of that corridor.

The Robert Street project, which has been in talks for more than a decade, will reconstruct the entire 2.5-mile stretch of the road within city limits with the intention of improving accessibility for multiple forms of transportation and revive the corridor aesthetically and economically.

The city council learned last week that one stipulation for the millions of dollars in federal funding it will receive for the project is that the work must be subjected to a noise analysis to determine how the changes in traffic flow will affect residents and neighbors.

That analysis, which factors in projected traffic volume and speed as well as building setbacks, changes in elevation and other environmental elements, is then used to determine if and to what extent noise barriers will be required.

Exceeds noise thresholds

Results for Robert Street show traffic on the renovated thoroughfare will exceed noise thresholds in some residential areas, which requires the city to add three 20-foot-tall noise walls to the project.

The findings were presented to the council in a March 11 workshop by SRF Consulting, the city’s primary contractor on the project.

The three areas where walls are being considered:
• the east side of Robert Street from Marie Avenue to Carol Lane
• the west side of the road from just south of Stanley Street up to Arion Street
• the west side of the block between Arion Street and Bernard Street.

The noise walls would contain breaks as needed to allow for existing driveways and parking lot entries.

The inclusion of the noise walls is projected to add another $750,000 in costs to the renovation project.

The total cost estimate of the project has increased significantly from the $10 million mark when the city first began applying for grants.

Last July the updated estimate jumped up to $19 million, due in part to calculation errors by a subcontractor.

Choice for property owners

More concerning than the cost to council members in the March 11 meeting was the anticipated reaction from residents learning their once-open lawns and homes may be overshadowed by towering walls.

“I’m really sensitive to the residents,” Council member David Wright said in the meeting. “I’m sensitive to the businesses too, but these are people that live there 24/7, 365, and man alive, I know that this is going to be a big issue.”

City Engineer Matt Saam explained that neither the city council nor the contractors have a say on the noise wall issue.

“Right now, they’re in the project,” Saam explained. “Unless the residents and property owners say ‘We don’t want it,’ we have to do it.”

Majority can have say

According to the federal guidelines, the requirements for noise mitigation can be overridden only if more than half of the affected property owners vote against building the walls. Renters also receive votes, although they are not weighed as heavily as property owners.

Brett Danner, an SRF representative who presented the results to the council, explained most problems with this system arise not because of how people vote, but rather if they vote. Because the walls are automatically part of the project unless the plans change, non-votes from property owners are read as support for the status quo -- to keep the walls as part of the project.

For this reason, Danner said SRF would conduct an intensive outreach campaign, hosting a question-and-answer meeting at City Hall in early April and sending notices to all affected property owners.

Wright warned that the SRF staff putting on the informational meeting should be extensive in their presentation and well-versed on all possible lines of question, including sunlight blockage and impact on property values.

Wright predicted the issue would trigger a passionate response from property owners.

“Every little thing you can think of should be put in front of that resident,” Wright said. “If we go in this in a haphazard way, this is going to kill us.”

Wright also added he was personally frustrated to learn about the noise wall requirements, saying he was “disbelieving we had to go down this road” when he first received SRF’s report. Danner reminded Wright that this was a federal stipulation and not the contractor’s recommendation, but Wright remained unimpressed.

“That’s all good and well,” he replied. “I love hearing about standards and rules and federal BS this and federal BS that, but I need to tell you at the end of the day these residents will eat you alive if you’re not prepared to talk about this.”

Luke Reiter can be reached at lreiter@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7815.

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