Two deadly crashes this month underscore the need to upgrade an outmoded stretch of busy Hwy. 52 between the Twin Cities and Rochester, while officials clamoring for those improvements admit that eliminating dangerous intersections would take years and millions of dollars they don't have.
The divided highway is a key link between the metro area and the state's third-largest city, the Mayo Clinic and Interstate 90. Despite stretches that appear to be freeway, the highway is still peppered with "at-grade" crossings in rural areas, where drivers on county roads must cross high-speed traffic without the benefit of bridges or on-ramps.
"It's brutal," said Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel, a teacher at Kenyon-Wanamingo High School whose former student Curtis Flom, 27, died in one of the recent accidents. "I'm waking up every day to get that road fixed."
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been working with Dakota, Goodhue and Olmsted counties to eventually turn the entire stretch into freeway. But building interchanges and redirecting crossroads is an expensive, years-long process.
Yet by banding together to lobby for projects, rather than competing with each other for the money, they have completed or found funding for about half the 18 projects on a $796 million to-do list drawn up in 2002.
On the northern end, stoplights have been removed as interchanges and frontage roads were built in Inver Grove Heights. Medians that invited dangerous left turns from cross streets have been closed. On the southern end, an interchange is under construction south of Pine Island in anticipation of growth in the Elk Run area. More stoplights have been removed on the northern edge of Rochester and Hwy. 52 is a freeway all through that city.
"Everybody has the same goal here -- to improve safety," said Olmsted County Engineer Mike Sheehan.
In Goodhue County, construction will start in 2013 to replace stoplights in Cannon Falls with a new interchange.
At County Road 9, the site of the two recent deadly collisions, there is an experimental dynamic sign that uses technology to gauge speed and gaps in highway traffic to let drivers on the county road know when it's safe to cross. There hadn't been a fatal crash there since the sign was installed a couple years ago.
"We were quite pleased," said Goodhue County Commissioner Richard Samuelson, who survived his own accident on Hwy. 52 about five years ago. "We hadn't had any accidents [or] tragedies there for some time. Then all of a sudden we have three in 10 days."
On Oct. 8, Angelo Dimopoulos, 70, was driving westbound on County Road 9 and attempted to cross Hwy. 52 when two southbound vehicles hit his car. He died, as did his passenger, Connie Dimopoulos, 65.
Ten days later, Flom was driving eastbound on County Road 9 when his sport-utility vehicle was broadsided by a northbound car.
Both crashes are being discussed by local officials in meetings of Toward Zero Deaths committees organized by MnDOT in 2004 because of the higher-than-usual crash rate in the corridor.
"We're already putting together a timeline of the safety improvements we're doing in that corridor," said Kristine Hernandez, MnDOT's Toward Zero Deaths coordinator.
In 2003, MnDOT installed large green-and-white signs advising drivers of the county road intersections. Other safety projects have included improvements to intersection lighting, rumble strips and road striping.
About 20,000 cars travel the middle of the corridor each day, as measured near Cannon Falls. Near Interstate 494, Hwy. 52 sees 61,000 cars per day.
Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin said his deputies have paid particular attention to speed limit enforcement on Hwy. 52 in the past five to 10 years.
"We do get a lot of complaints on a regular basis about speed and aggressive driving," McNurlin said. "It's a four-lane highway that people drive like an interstate."
Compounding the problem, local officials said, are awkward angles at many intersections, thanks to the diagonal alignment of Hwy. 52 through the county. In those places, even the frame of a car's windshield can create blind spots that block fast-approaching traffic from view.
"You can't imagine how many close calls there have been," Samuelson said. "Everybody worries about [Hwy.] 52."
Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286