Unsuspecting drivers are headed for major traffic trouble Monday when a five-month road project begins squeezing Interstate 694. The main commuting corridor for the north metro carries 150,000 drivers a day.
(Updated: The project has been delayed until at least Monday night.)
“I am really concerned about when this project starts, about traffic delays big time,” said Ken Barnard spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “It’s not going to be pleasant.”
For the next five months, motorists on I-694 will face lane closures 24 hours a day between Hwy. 252 and I-35W. That’s on top of work already in progress on I-694 extending east from 35W to Hwy. 10, meaning the construction zone will extend 10 miles along the north metro’s main east-west corridor.
With eastbound backups as far west as Brooklyn Boulevard possible, Maple Grove Transit has added buses as early as 5:20 a.m. to help get commuters to their jobs in downtown Minneapolis on time. It’s also rerouting express buses down Hwy. 169 to I-394 and others along Hwy. 610 in hopes of missing the 694 delays.
“We’re sure we won’t be completely on time, but we are trying to minimize delays as much as we can,” said transit administrator Mike Opatz. “It will be a challenge.”
But could it be the next “carmageddon”? That was the word coined to describe the specter of traffic jams of biblical proportions predicted when California announced it was shutting down I-405 in Los Angeles for an entire weekend in 2011. But gridlock on the nation’s busiest freeway didn’t materialize.
MnDOT officials are praying the same scenario plays out here when the I-694 pavement and bridge replacement project gets underway at midnight Sunday through Brooklyn Center, Fridley and New Brighton.
Commuters are anxious, too.
“It’s already horrendous,” lamented Kim Gunderson, who estimates that her 25-minute commute between Mounds View and downtown St. Paul will grow to 45 minutes or more. “The frustration is that you can’t get anywhere easily. I am taking alternate routes. They don’t save much time, but at least I am moving.”
Unlike in Los Angeles where traffic was able to fan out on that city’s labyrinth of roads to get around, the 150,000 drivers who cross the Mississippi River on I-694 daily have few options. The next nearest major crossings are Hwy. 610 several miles to the north or I-94 in downtown Minneapolis a few miles to the south.
Complicating matters is that at various times ramps at East River Road, Central and University avenues, and Silver Lake Road will be closed, eliminating some exit points. On three weekends to be announced later, the interchange at 694 and 35W will be shut down.
Drivers looking for alternative routes will be on their own. No official detour will be posted, Barnard said.
‘Know their cars better’
Construction on 694 will likely bring additional traffic to routes such as I-494 and 35W, Hwys. 169 and 100, and Central Avenue, University Avenue and East River Road. The work could double drive times for north metro commuters, Barnard said.
“They are going to get to know their cars better,” he said.
Bus riders won’t escape, either. Metro Transit routes 760, 767, 852 and 854 serving northern suburbs will use the Camden Bridge to cross the Mississippi River.
The $21 million project includes putting new decks on bridges at the 252/694/94 interchange and patching concrete and joints that have crumbled below the surface. The road also will be ground down.
Barnard acknowledged it is not the greatest timing given all the other road projects going on. Originally, work on 694 was not scheduled for another four years, but federal funding became available to pay for most of the project — provided it was started before June 30. MnDOT couldn’t pass up the $18 million, he said.
In case they feel singled out, it’s not just I-694 drivers who are likely to get caught in bottlenecks this summer.
Further east, Hwy. 36 in both directions from Hwy. 61 and White Bear Avenue will be closed for 75 days starting Monday. In Burnsville and Eagan, I-35E is down to a single lane in each direction between Cedar Avenue and the 35E/35W split for the next few months. In the west metro, all southbound lanes of Hwy. 169 between Hwy. 55 and I-94 will have complete closures on weekends for the next three weeks, followed by four weekends of northbound closures.
“My plans for the summer are to take a vacation from now until November,” Barnard said jokingly.
But seriously, he added, “People need to realize that we are not doing to them, we are doing this for them.”