Highway construction season is in full swing. As a longtime commuter to the Twin Cities, I pay particular attention to Hwy. 52 projects from Hampton to the Hwy. 55 intersection south of St. Paul. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has slowly transformed this corridor into a freeway, and, for the most part, the work has made sense. Yes, the reduced highway access has created inconveniences for some residents and resulted in business closures, but it has made for a safer corridor.
Until last year. I’m still scratching my head over the engineering feats on a 6-mile stretch from Hampton to Coates. It’s my first exposure to “reduced conflict intersections” (RCIs). I view them as “increased confusion intersections.”
The first one was built in 2010 in Willmar, according to a 2017 report that studied eight such RCIs. MnDOT has plans to build at least 20 more in the next five years. Median openings are removed and RCIs installed in an effort to reduce right-angle crashes on multilane highways. I’ve witnessed only the Hwy. 52 projects, but I imagine circumstances are similar at the other projects. I question how RCIs improve safety on a highway with increased congestion and where motorists routinely blow past the 65-mile-per-hour limit.
The intersection of Hwy. 52 and 200th Street/County Road 66 is a case in point. The median is now closed. Instead, motorists must turn right onto Hwy. 52 from a dead standstill, merge into freewheeling traffic, and have less than two-tenths of a mile to cross two lanes and suddenly slow to enter a third lane, the left-turn lane where a U-turn awaits. They then must repeat the logistics to head the opposite direction and get into the right-turn lane to turn onto the cross street.
To no surprise, motorists improvise. Some ignore the stop sign and take a running start. Some go straight onto the passing lane, then take a sharp right-hand turn in front of oncoming, speeding traffic. Others transform the shoulder into a third traffic lane.
Navigating the RCIs is exacerbated by other “safety” improvements from Coates to Hampton. Consider:
• Motorists must pay particular attention to signs at medians — some allowing U-turns, some forbidding U-turns.
• Some U-turns direct you to a specific cross-street, requiring you to turn left and cross traffic lanes. Other U-turns simply give you the opportunity to turn around and merge into high-speed traffic that is often bumper-to-bumper.
• Signage is absent at a handful of medians. At least one crossing allows access to a private roadway. Other unmarked medians prompt the obvious questions: For emergency vehicles? Use at your own risk?
• A U-turn allows southbound traffic to turn north for no apparent reason — no alert for access to a specific intersection. The U-turn is one mile before the County Road 47 exit where motorists could safely exit and enter onto northbound Hwy. 52.
The hodgepodge of entrances, exits and U-turns on this stretch is challenging enough for those who regularly travel the route in daylight, good weather and light traffic. Throw in everyday variables — unfamiliar motorists, nighttime, poor weather, heavy traffic — and the confusion, and safety risk, increases significantly. Let’s hope future improvements in fact produce a less confusing and safer corridor.
Jim Pumarlo lives in Red Wing, Minn.