That trip from the southern suburbs to downtown Minneapolis is about to get more complicated, crowded and all-out crazy-making.
On Friday night, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will shut off the main entrances from Interstate 35W that lead into and out of downtown Minneapolis for four months. The major roadblock will leave just one direct access point for northbound motorists heading into downtown on 35W and two for those leaving.
And if that isn’t enough, there’s a weekend bonus: Interstate 94 will be closed in both directions between Interstate 394 and Interstate 35W from Friday night until Monday morning.
“Travel will be difficult,” said MnDOT Metro District Engineer Scott McBride in what might be the understatement of the summer road construction season.
The closure is part of the $239 million rebuild of the state’s busiest freeway that will make the commute smoother — but not until 2021.
For the next four months, the more than 200,000 motorists who use I-35W between downtown and the Crosstown each day will be left to figure out the best way to get around some epic traffic snarls.
The prospect of gridlock on the freeway during rush hour on weekdays, and for events on weekends, has transportation and city officials pleading with commuters to take public transportation, carpool, bike, walk or even work at home to help keep traffic levels down on I-35W.
As an incentive to leave the car in park, Metro Transit is beefing up its service on 12 routes that serve the southern suburbs, increasing service by 40 percent along the corridor. On Wednesday and Thursday, the agency will distribute fliers along Marquette Avenue to encourage people to ride the bus. The increased service costs $6 million and will continue through the project’s 2021 finish.
“We are the solution,” said Brian Funk, Metro Transit’s director of bus operations. “We are your stress reliever.”
MnDOT and the city of Minneapolis will prohibit parking on Park and Portland avenues from Lake Street to downtown during rush hours. The vacated space will be used as a bus-only lane to allow buses to bypass congestion and make quicker trips into and out of the city, MnDOT’s McBride said.
For those who drive, the city is offering $20-a-month parking for carpools at ramps near Target Center. The regular rate is $99 a month
Where will drivers go?
Motorists can be like water, finding the least-obstructed route. And they likely will experiment for the first few weeks, even though MnDOT has posted official detours that take drivers west to Hwy. 100 via the Crosstown and I-394, McBride said.
“We can’t accurately predict where they will go,” he said.
That is worrisome for Minneapolis Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson. She said the city is bracing for increased traffic on north-south city streets such as Park, Portland, Chicago, Cedar and Hiawatha.
“Transit is the key. If you are already taking transit, keep doing it,” she said. “City streets are not designed for freeway traffic.”
Hutcheson said the city will monitor conditions at intersections and make adjustments to traffic lights and deploy traffic control agents as necessary.
She asked drivers to be good neighbors, reminding them that people who live along arterial neighborhood streets will still walk their dogs, let children play in their yards and expect the same quality of life.
“Construction is disruptive to everybody’s lives,” she said. “We are doing what we can to help people move around.”
The noose tightens
In two weeks, MnDOT will tighten the noose a bit more when it removes travel lanes on I-35W between downtown and Lake Street. The freeway will narrow from 10 lanes to five, further reducing capacity.
Traffic headaches are likely to persist well beyond fall, when the downtown exits reopen. At that time, just one northbound lane instead of the current three will be available for drivers. Southbound lanes will remain closed.
Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said the massive rebuild — even with all its hassles for commuters — is essential to the future vitality of downtown.
“This may take a while to adjust to,” he said. “Downtown is open and accessible during this time. This investment is worth it.”