Environmental Aspects of Transportation Planning in Northfield

Direct impact on natural and undeveloped areas: waterways, forests, farmland

Background: One obvious effect of expanding a transportation system is the direct impact of building new roadways through previously undeveloped areas. Impacts may include reduction of natural habitat or farmland, an increase in the amount of impermeable surfaces, and disruption of corridors of natural habitat (especially along waterways). Direct runoff from pavement can also bring undesirable pollutants into the water.

Bridge(s) across the Cannon River - The Cannon River is a primary reason that Northfield is here, but it is nonetheless a significant barrier for transportation across town. In addition, some of the most extensive forested areas in the Northfield area are along the Cannon River and its tributaries, so any new crossing of the Cannon would undoubtedly disrupt natural habitat. The desire to increase transportation connections across the Cannon does, however, exist. Decisions about where (and whether) to build a new bridge will have to be made by comparing benefits with environmental, economic, and community costs.

Southwest Bridge:  The location under most serious consideration for a future bridge, as presented by the recently amended Transportation Plan of the Comprehensive Plan, is in the southwestern part of town, between the Dundas bridge and the Highway 3 bridge. (Map of existing bridges and map of proposed roads.) The specific alignment of the route is designated as one in need of further study. Environmental factors should play a role in this further study; such consideration will ultimately be required by an EAW and EIS.

Environmental concerns regarding the bridge include the impact on both the forest and the watersheds through which the road would pass. Two tributaries enter the Cannon River from the west: Heath Creek to the north and Spring Brook (Rice) Creek to the south (map). As the map of proposed alignments stands, the road would be primarily located in the Heath Creek watershed, the larger of the two watersheds.

Alternative routes have been proposed. The possibility of locating the bridge farther to the south has been suggested (for example, in the NCO forum on transportation). This alternative involving a southerly bridge would mean increased traffic through the Spring Brook (Rice) Creek watershed. As this is one of two trout streams in Minnesota which the DNR uses to stock other streams, the support for limiting the impact on the watershed will likely be large. The City Council, Planning Commission, and EQC are all aware of the quality and status of this creek as a trout stream, in large part due to the efforts of Lisa Lucas of the Cannon River Watershed Partnership, who presented information to these groups this spring. Furthermore, the EQC passed a resolution in their April 2000 meeting recognizing the importance of Spring Brook Creek.

Another proposed route (that differs from the one shown in the current plan) incorporates two Heath Creek crossings. From an environmental standpoint, this is undesirable due to the unnecessary impact on Heath Creek.

To identify a suitable location for the bridge, environmental issues must be considered in conjunction with practical issues, such as the width of the floodplain and the suitability of the river crossing for bridge integrity. Past planning, the aqusition of right of ways, and the use of land in the path of the desired bridge, will also undoubtedly influence the final bridge location, if and when it is built.

Arboretum Bridge (or lack thereof): Carleton's Cowling Arboretum has been considered in the past as a location for a bridge north of town. The most recent amendment to the Transportation Plan of the Comprehensive Plan removes this from the map of proposed roadways. The justification for the removal of this linkage came from the conclusions from the 1998 SEH transportation study, which demonstrated that such a bridge is unnecessary due to the low traffic volumes on Highway 19.

Since the decision to remove the Arb crossing from the plan was based on low traffic volume, the proposal to build a bridge through the Arb could easily resurface if traffic volumes were to increase significantly. From an environmental standpoint, however, maintaining the continuity of the Arb along the river is an important goal. Much restoration work has gone into creating a continuous piece of habitat incorporating a mosaic forest, oak savanna, and prairie. A bridge cutting through the Arb would interrupt this continuity. Since the quality of natural areas is related to both size and continuity, the fragmentation of the Arb that would result from a bridge crossing is highly undesirable. Furthermore, the value of the Arb as contiguous natural habitat will only increase as restoration continues and as development in surrounding areas of Northfield leave less and less open land.

The Planning Commission and City Council will consider this issue of providing additional protection to the Arboretum in the near future. On May 15, 2000, the City Council passed RESOLUTION #2000-167 - Referring A Proposed Comprehensive Plan Amendment to the Planning Commission Regarding the Carleton Arboretum.

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Interrelated issues of land use/development and the expansion of the transportation network

Background: Land development and the expansion of the transportation network are interrelated issues. The addition of roadways can encourage land development, for example. Bypasses or ring roads associated with many cities have initiated the appearance of gas stations, fast food restaurants, mini malls, etc. In addition, policy regarding what land use changes are allowed or encouraged is intimately related to what kind of transportation network is needed. For example, encouraging development within the city rather than at the edges may affect whether new roads are needed at all. Furthermore, the street layout within a development--whether a grid or a series of cul-de-sacs--determines connectivity to pre-existing streets and affects the flow of traffic through an area.

Northfield is a rapidly growing city. Growth necessarily produces challenges in transportation, because the more that a city sprawls, the more dependent residents in the outlying areas will become on motorized forms of transportation.

The standard procedure in Northfield is for roads to be build in conjunction with new developments. Though this sometimes results in the construction of roadways that are temporarily isolated (as is a portion of Jefferson Parkway at the Hills of Spring Creek development), it means that the development initiates the roadway construction, rather than vice versa. This process of road building helps to minimize the problems created when roadways precede development. For example, a new road through undeveloped land would provide easy access to an expanse of land, likely spurring rapid, and perhaps poorly planned, development.

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Creating conditions conducive to pedestrian and bicycle traffic

Background: Pedestrian and bicycle traffic are essentially pollution free forms of transportation, so actions to encourage these environmentally friendly types of traffic should be encouraged. For example, accommodations should be made for safety of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Encouraging development in a centralized, compact area also helps to make pedestrian travel a practical option for individuals.

Northfield has many positive attributes when it comes to being pedestrian and bike friendly. With a healthy supply of pedestrians from the two colleges, there are certainly incentives to maintain this atmosphere. Here are some of the issues related to the value that Northfield places on these green forms of transportation:

Trail Master Plan - The Trail Master Plan is a new (as of 1999) part of the Comprehensive Plan which defines a walking/biking trail network within Northfield. The Mill Towns Trail, a trail along the Cannon River connecting several towns, is also included. The is a positive addition to the Comprehensive Plan, as it provides a strong reminder that not all transportation planning need focus on motor vehicles.

Bicycle Friendly Communities program - Northfield is working to become part of this program, which is sponsored by the League of American Bicyclists. The City Council made progress toward meeting the requirements by passing RESOLUTION #2000-160: A resolution establishing policy on designing, modifying and maintaining public streets to facilitate bicycle usage on May 15, 2000.

West of the river development guidelines - Although the guidelines do not explicitly address transportation or environmental concerns, the type of development and re-development that they encourage promotes a pedestrian friendly environment. For example, the plan encourages:

The challenge now is to enforce these guidelines.

The challenge of sprawl - Perhaps the biggest challenge in encouraging pedestrian transport over motorized transport is the continued sprawl. As the city spreads out, the transportation needs of those that live on the new outskirts of town are less likely to be met a pedestrian mode of travel, and the addition of new businesses at the edge of town may inhibit the ability of pedestrians in town to meet their needs. Sprawl limits the feasibility of getting around without a motorized vehicle.

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Public transportation: intracity and intercity

Background: Availability of efficient and comprehensive public transportation can reduce the need for every individual to have a vehicle. If the transit is effective and serves enough people, it may reduce congestion on the roadways, reduce the need for new roads, and minimize the emission of greenhouse gases along with a reduction in fuel consumption.

Intracity transportation in Northfield - Northfield's system of public transportation within the city is the Northfield Transit bus, which provides pick-up and drop-off service with advanced phone reservations.

In addition, the colleges run an intercampus shuttle, which meets many of the intracity transportation needs of students.

Intercity transportation from Northfield - The colleges operate a bus to the Twin Cities, but currently no bus line which offers service to the general public runs to the cities. In fall 1999, a private shuttle became available for transport to and from the airport (according to City Council minutes, October 26, 1999). 

Future public transportation connections with the Twin Cities - Though Northfield falls outside of the Twin Cities planned metropolitan area, the potential exists--in the long term--for mass transit connections, such as a commuter rail. At this stage, it would be a good idea to maintain an awareness of the possibilities and to pay attention to plans under consideration by the Twin Cities Met Council.

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 Efficiency of the transportation network in terms of travel distance

Background: Providing routes of travel that are direct and efficient is logical from a practical standpoint, and can be considered environmentally friendly in the sense that the distance of travel along roads between points is related to the practicality of travel by non-motorized means as well as to the amount of gas used by motorized vehicles.

Grids vs. cul-de-sacs - Grids provides through streets and provide more direct routes of travel than developments with cul-de-sacs and winding streets. City staff and city ordinances discourage cul-de-sacs.

Do the proposed roads reduce travel distances? See Effect of proposed roads on travel distance in greater Northfield.

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Materials used in the construction of roadways

Background: The Recycled Materials Resource Center was "created to promote the use of recycled materials (pavements, secondary, waste, by-product materials) in the highway environment."

I am unaware of any effort by the city of Northfield to use such materials. This is an issue that could be considered in the future.

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Joanna Reuter, ENTS Independent Study, Spring 2000