Lights flash and candy-cane colored gates swing down dozens of times a day here. During rush hour, cars move at a creep, inching past a dangerous rail crossing with a tangled history of traffic gridlock, property damage, driver fatalities and close calls.
After years of study, Minnesota transportation officials are now proposing that the Ferry Street crossing in Anoka — where four young people died in a train-car collision in 2003 — shouldn’t be a crossing at all.
An early design lifts Ferry Street 30 feet over the railroad tracks as a two-lane bridge that also includes a multiuse trail for walking and biking. Funding has yet to be secured to build the overpass, but early estimates from a recent study put the cost at $17 million to $21 million.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) pitched the draft design to elected officials and the public this week, where it was met with some lingering skepticism from residents worried about ongoing gridlock and already limited access to Ferry Street, or Hwy. 47.
“I’m not sold on the idea yet,” said Jean Jones, who lives north of the tracks. “It’s going to get rid of the train issue, but I’m not sure if it’s not going to open another can of worms.”
During a public meeting Thursday, more than 150 people like Jones weighed MnDOT’s early design and queried transportation officials on topics ranging from the fate of nearby businesses to concerns about pedestrian safety.
Jones said she’s especially worried about how she’s going to get to work during construction.
The crossing at Ferry Street just north of Hwy. 10 forms a nexus of some 40 to 80 trains and more 18,000 vehicles a day, according to MnDOT.
Residents in nearby neighborhoods as well as business owners say they try to avoid Ferry Street during peak traffic times.
Transportation officials say the new bridge will help ease congestion related to the trains as well as remedy urgent safety issues at what they describe as one of the state’s riskiest crossings.
“We want to get it built as soon as we can because it’s a real safety concern,” said Paul Jung, MnDOT’s north area engineer.
From 2010 to 2014, there were 17 rear-end crashes near the crossing, according to MnDOT. The busy thoroughfare slopes upward as it crosses the tracks, making for limited visibility.
The variety of trains rumbling through the town, some hauling crude oil, others transporting commuters on the Northstar line, also makes for a complicated mix of train traffic signals.
In 2003, a freight train collided with a car carrying four young people, including a high school student. The crash killed Brian Frazier, Corey Chase, Harry Rhoades Jr. and Bridgette Shannon. After an 8½-year legal battle, the victims’ families received a $29.1 million settlement from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
Their deaths mark a traumatic point in the town’s collective memory, residents and city staff said.
“It’s time for MnDOT to do something about [the crossing], and we applaud their efforts in moving forward with this,” said Anoka City Manager Greg Lee.
Still, some voiced doubts about potential road closures and how the bridge would impact neighborhood access to Ferry Street.
Waiting for trains is a daily reality for Bob Smith, who owns Shades of Green Landscaping on the north side of the tracks. The construction phase worries him, he said, but he also supports the bridge.
“It will be safe,” Smith said. “That’s the main thing.”
While potential construction is years away, MnDOT officials said the search for funding is ongoing, with a goal to finish the preliminary design next fall.