Construction is just getting underway to deal with one of the main exasperations of southwest metro commuters: Dismantling the stoplights on Hwy 169 at I-494 that now interrupt traffic and are blamed for many crashes. Here's some background on what to expect -- and why not to hope for too much from this $125 million project.
How long will it take?
About another year and a half, though the main benefits for south-of-the-river commuters will begin to be felt later this year.
By November the hated stoplights whose removal is the main point of the exercise will completely vanish. That's a full year before the entire construction project -- an extremely complicated one whose like has never before been seen in Minnesota -- is finally done.
Will this do away with the rush-hour stoppages on 169?
Not at all. The Bloomington Ferry Bridge over the Minnesota River is itself the cause of one to two hours of heavy congestion, especially during morning rush hour.
Flooding problems have given us an extra lane on that bridge -- why not just keep it?
The temporary re-striping is going away soon, said Lynn Clarkowski, south area manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. One big reason: It required "design compromises" -- compromising on safety -- in the short term that officials don't want in place long-term. For instance, narrower shoulders mean there's less room to pull off the road in an emergency. The re-striping was only aimed at softening the impact of the closure of other river crossings during flooding.
When is something going to be done about bridge congestion?
There's a study underway, to be completed in September, of "lower-cost, near-term solutions that we can implement, similar to what we just did but on a permanent basis," Clarkowski said. Solutions, that is, faster and cheaper than a whole new bridge at Hwy. 41, a project that would cost several hundred million dollars and at best is likely decades away.
In the meantime, the "optimization" of the signal lights aimed at smoothing the flow of traffic during the flooding -- changes that were put in place in March -- will remain in place, the department announced last week.
That reconfiguration, in the words of spokeswoman Bre Magee, "eliminates the [traffic-stopping] effects of the signals to some extent."
Hwy. 169 is also formally listed now in state plans as a future site for a new MnPass lane. That won't happen anytime soon, either, but the fact that it's being planned for at all, Clarkowski said, represents progress.
How much will drivers be affected during the next two construction seasons?
Nighttime and weekend lane closures will take place "as needed," officials say, and there will be one full closure of 169 and perhaps a full closure of 494 as well. The closure of 169 will be for a weekend, Magee said, and likely around mid-July. The dates and other details will be widely publicized beforehand.
The interchange reconstruction is reported to have been approved only because it's less expensive than originally envisioned, and that's because it's only partial. Is that a concern?
Not especially for south-of-the-river commuters. The two ramps that aren't going in are those that would carry eastbound traffic on 494 to northbound 169, and southbound 169 traffic to westbound 494. You still will be able to make those movements via the complex system being created, but not via quick, simple flyover ramps.
What's being done when?
Hwy. 169 will be reconstructed this year, together with a new bridge for local traffic. Some of the six roundabouts planned will be in use this year. Next year, we'll see the roundabout system finished and flyover ramps completed. Many more details -- including assurances that all the trees to be removed have been removed already -- are on the website whose address is included in the box on the right side of this page.