In April 2019, Julie Sell, Urban Transportation Fellow, sat down with Public Works City Engineer Paul Kurtz to discuss his role with Saint Paul Public Works.
Q: Could you describe your role as City Engineer, and how your department contributes to the vitality and sustainability of the city?
A: My role as City Engineer is to manage the planning, engineering, construction, survey and GIS functions for the Department of Public Works. My overall objective in managing these functions is to successfully deliver capital projects as to design, build and operate city infrastructure that works for all.
Successful delivery of capital projects means they are designed and constructed on time and on budget. It is my responsibility to ensure that we have quality designs of our projects and that they are constructed according to standards and specifications. I make sure we are planned in our approach to capital projects and that we are coordinating and communicating within our own city departments and across other governmental agencies. I ensure we have a well-organized and fully developed 5-year capital plan for the department. The 5-year plan allows us to be transparent about what projects we’re planning to do in Public Works. For each individual project, we do community outreach and engagement to make sure that folks who live and do business here in Saint Paul have a voice in the improvements we make.
Q: Your staff includes people working in a variety of areas that residents or visitors would observe, such as roads and bridges, pedestrian paths, bike paths, parking meters, etc. How do you strike the balance between maintaining the existing infrastructure and planning for the future?
A: This question brings me back to when I started as a young engineer 30-plus years ago. I started in the traffic division of Public Works and our mission statement back then was “the safe and efficient movement of people and goods in, around and through the City of St. Paul.” Our emphasis back then was mainly on vehicle and freight movement. We focused on how to make it safe and efficient for vehicles to move throughout the city.
Fast-forward 30-plus years later, and the mission statement is still relevant. It continues to be about the safe and efficient movement of people and goods, but the focus on modes has shifted. We are no longer just talking about vehicles and freight. We are talking more about pedestrians, bicycles and transit. We shouldn’t lose focus on vehicles and freight because they are still very important modes. We have lots of vehicles and lots of freight moving throughout the city. Our focus now when designing and building infrastructure is to give consideration and attention to all modes. Instead of mainly considering two, as we did back in the day, we now focus on five. We’re designing and building for pedestrians, bikes, transit, vehicles and freight – with an eye to the future and more modes to come.
Q: What prompted that change?
A: Mayor Carter’s overall vision is to create a city that’s works for all. I think that message has resonated throughout most city departments – it certainly has in Public Works. The change started even before Mayor Carter, maybe 10 years ago, when we began to recognize that not everyone has the same opportunities and access when it comes to transportation. If we want to have a city that works for all we have to consider the accessibility, affordability and accommodations for all transportation users. Not everyone’s situation with respect to transportation is the same - yet everyone needs to move around our city and the role of Public Works is to safely and efficiently accommodate that movement. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point and that’s why our number one priority is keeping them safe. We need to make sure that we’re building transit so folks have the opportunity to take longer trips even when they don’t own a vehicle. As we get more into bikes and scooters as modes of transportation, we’re not only asked to build the infrastructure to support those modes but we’re also asked to provide the right-of-way to actually bring those modes to the people. It’s changed over the years for sure.
Q: I realize that within this infrastructure realm, it can be rather confusing sometimes for residents to understand the many organizations that are involved in these processes. In addition to Public Works there’s Planning and Economic Development, you’ve got county, state and Met Council, Metro Transit, etc. How do you coordinate and collaborate with those various stakeholders, how do you assure there are no gaps and that various parts of the city are being equitably served?
A: The whole coordination and collaboration issue is one that can be difficult for residents to understand. Most people think that if the infrastructure is within the city limits, then the city must own it and therefore be responsible to maintain it. That’s not always the case. We know, for example, that our roadways have various jurisdictional designations. We have roads throughout the city that are owned by the County or the State and it is their responsibility to make sure they are being maintained and improved. So it is frustrating for residents when they call in with a request or complaint about a particular street and we tell them that it’s a county owned street and that we will have to work with them to get their request or complaint addressed. Another issue that can be confusing and frustrating for residents is seeing all the construction work taking place within the public right-of-way. Often times the reaction is, “what is public works doing now?” What folks need to understand is that it’s not always public works doing the work. There are many utility companies (Xcel Energy, District Energy, water department, communications companies, etc.) who have facilities within the public right-of-way that often times need repair. The point here is that it’s not always public works doing construction in the public right-of-way.
Having said this, we do our best to coordinate construction activities between all the utility companies, various city departments, and our county and state partners. It doesn’t always appear that way to the public, but we reach out to all utility companies and our governmental partners when we do capital construction projects in Saint Paul. The other thing that has become a very important element of our project work, as it relates to communication and coordination, is the community outreach and engagement we do. We’re engaging the community more to ask what people want to see in their neighborhoods and what they want to see on the streets of Saint Paul. It’s all part of educating residents and business owners about what is being done and how they can be involved in the outcome.
Q: I realize that you grew up in the city and now live in the suburbs. As someone who’s commuting to an office downtown most days, what observations do you have about the transportation options that currently exist, and what do you observe on your commute each day?
A: I grew up on the eastside of Saint Paul and just moved a little further east out to Woodbury. I come into the office early in the morning which makes my morning commute pretty straight-forward and uneventful most days. What I notice with my early morning commute is that we still have a lot of single occupant vehicles. Going home in the evening I face much more traffic and congestion. I do see more buses on the system in the evening commute, but there are still many of us in our single occupant vehicles.
So what’s it going to take to get people to consider trying other transportation options? I think I speak for a lot of folks when I say it’s all about convenience, saving time and saving money. If we could even make two of these three things work for people they would likely give other transportation options a try. One cannot underestimate the importance of time savings for people – especially those who may have family commitments before and/or after work. I think convenience and time savings is even more important than cost savings for a lot of people. Of course, it will depend on each individual’s circumstance and situation.
Q: You make a good point. It’s about recognizing that people have different priorities. A family with young children is going to have different needs than a senior, or a handicapped person, or a young professional, or possibly a new immigrant who’s working a late shift and needs to get to work. How do you think the city can help assure people have that variety of options, whether their priority is time, convenience, price or some other measure?
A: Again, we are looking at all modes which include: pedestrians, bikes, transit, vehicles and freight. Our job as Public Works professionals is to make sure we are designing and constructing our streets and infrastructure to account for and accommodate all of these modes. The most difficult part when you have a built-out city like Saint Paul is to acquire the necessary right-of-way in order to accommodate all of the modes. Fitting all of this in within a limited right-of-way is a real challenge for us in Public Works.
It would be great if we had unlimited right-of-way where we could install bike lanes/bike trails, transit only diamond lanes, parking lanes, wider sidewalks for pedestrians, wider sidewalks for café outdoor seating along the street, space for bike racks and bike sharing, a place for scooters, a place for EV charging stations, etc. The challenge is that we just don’t have the available right-of-way to accommodate all of these uses. Public Works is tasked with making difficult recommendations as to how best to use the available right-of-way. No surprise when I state that trade-offs have to be made. It’s great that we have all of these modes and uses, but fitting them all in is certainly one of our bigger challenges in Public Works.
Q: You also mentioned bikes and scooters a few times. That’s a realm where increasingly people are using the term shared mobility, these new modes. Have you had any experience with shared mobility? It could be these modes, or ride share, or something else.
A: I see a real need for transportation alternatives or solutions for taking short trips. That’s where bikes and scooters come in. Having these transportation alternatives available at key locations throughout the city makes it easy for people to access and use. We’re trying to be as aggressive and progressive as possible in Saint Paul to make these transportation alternatives available. We are now pursuing the idea of putting electric vehicle charging stations in the public right-of-way as well. The way we can get folks to try different transportation options is to make them available and convenient. The more we can provide, promote and encourage folks to use different modes will hopefully lead to less congestion and a better environment for all of us.
Q: What should residents, employers and other visitors to the city know about this mobility project and why it’s important?
A: It all comes back to building a city that works for all. We tie it back to the various modes that we’re considering as we plan, design and build out our infrastructure. On the horizon, we see things like electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles, in addition to scooters and bikes in the right-of-way. We need to understand what we have, what’s coming, and how we should be positioning ourselves to be ready when it gets here. I think about this in the context of our capital construction projects and our public works 5-year plan. A couple of questions come to mind: Is there anything that we are currently doing that we should change? Is there anything that we are not currently doing that we should be? We want to position ourselves so we are spending our resources on infrastructure that can accommodate people with all abilities today, but also with an eye to the future and the modes of transportation to come. This mobility project will hopefully help us answer the two questions I raised above: Is there anything that we are currently doing that we should change? Is there anything that we are not currently doing that we should be?
Q: Are there any other issues we haven’t talked about, that you think are important to include?
A: I think about what’s changed for me in my 30-plus year career in Public Works. One important element that we are now doing as part of our capital project work is to reach out to the community and engage them more. Our purpose is not only to inform them of what we are planning to do, but also to give them a voice into what type of improvements they would like to see made. If we want to create a city that works for all, it only makes sense that we engage our residents and business owners to better understand how Public Works can help make it so.