Chelsea Langhans was driving east on Hwy. 12, on her way to teach a Saturday morning yoga class in August 2015, when a westbound driver crossed the centerline and hit her head on. The violent impact totaled the 25-year-old’s car and killed her.
It was the second fatal crossover wreck in a matter of days on the narrow and unforgiving stretch of Hwy. 12 between Wayzata and Orono that galvanized the community and law enforcement to intensify their push to make the road safer.
On Monday, the Minnesota Department of Transportation took the first step to address safety concerns on “The Corridor of Death,” as it is commonly called. MnDOT is building a concrete median divider to separate eastbound and westbound traffic between County Road 112 and County Road 6, the first improvement in nearly two years on the dangerous stretch of road.
The $2.3 million project stretching 3½ miles will shut down the highway for 18 days, causing significant delays in the area as vehicles are routed through Long Lake along Wayzata Boulevard.
The new barrier will address vehicles crossing over the centerline, but that is only part of the issue. All told there have been 24 deaths in the past six years along the 38-mile stretch from Wayzata through all of Wright County. There have been 239 people injured in a total of 811 crashes on the road during the same time frame, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The road has the highest crash rate in the metro when compared to similar two-lane highways, DPS statistics show.
“Residents are excited that the barrier is going in, but they don’t want [improvements] to stop,” said Gary Kroells, chief of West Hennepin Public Safety, which serves Independence and Maple Plain, in the heart of the Hwy. 12 corridor.
Kroells, who has responded to a number of the wrecks, won’t use the highway himself and says many residents in the area won’t either. Kroells commutes from Delano to his office in Independence by using county roads. Kroells said the rural highway that handles metro traffic volumes needs to be redone from Maple Plain to Delano. Ultimately, Kroells says Hwy. 12 needs to become a four-lane highway.
When it was built in the 1930s, Hwy. 12 was a sleepy rural road that connected the Twin Cities with western Hennepin County, snaking through the countryside and such tiny towns as Independence, Maple Plain and Delano.
But over decades as the towns grew and traffic increased exponentially, the highway, which now carries 24,000 vehicles a day, has not kept pace.
Two years ago, law enforcement members and representatives of 12 communities and two sheriff’s offices along the route formed the Highway 12 Safety Coalition. The coalition has met monthly to brainstorm safety ideas, and the concrete median was among their top recommendationst,
The coalition turned up the pressure on lawmakers to approve a bonding bill that contained $15 million for improvements. Legislators failed to pass the bill, leaving MnDOT with no funding to pay for the wall.
That is the frustrating part, Kroells said.
To pay for the median, the transportation department was able to find $2.3 million that the Federal Highway Administration withholds annually from MnDOT due to Minnesota’s comparatively less stringent DWI laws, but subsequently returned to the state, said Susan Youngs, a MnDOT spokeswoman.
“Thank goodness we got this money and that we are going to save lives with this median barrier,” Kroells said. “At the same time, we have another five to seven miles to address.”
Those seven miles stretch to the Wright County line.
For Chelsea’s mother, Tina Langhans of Maple Plain, the impending bottlenecks expected during construction will be well worth it.
“When two cars are going 60 miles per hour, you can’t react quick enough,” she said last week of her daughter’s Aug. 22, 2015, crash. “Had the median been there, I would say 100 percent, she’d be alive.”
She is thankful that finally something is being done to address the need to make the highway safer.
“This will be the end of head-on crashes. For anybody distracted or drunk, there will be no way they can cross the centerline and injure or kill somebody in the oncoming lane,” Langhans said. “MnDOT gets a pat on the back. What they are doing is awesome. It will be great in the long run. It will be better and safer for people traveling the road.”