Between St. Paul and Rochester on Hwy. 52, Cannon Falls could be called Stoplights' Last Stand.

And the end is near.

A decade-long project to transform the divided highway -- a commuter route and direct link between the Twin Cities and the Mayo Clinic -- into a freeway has zeroed in on those two stoplights, with plans to build a new interchange and remove the lights by 2014.

"It's a safety issue," said Goodhue County Engineer Greg Isakson. Drivers "get in a mindset that they're on an interstate ... and all of a sudden it's 55 mph and there's traffic signals there."

The stoplight removal is just one of about 20 intersection projects that were on a $796 million to-do list back in 2000 when Dakota, Goodhue and Olmsted counties teamed up with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to push for a smoother and safer ride along the highway that connects the metro with southeastern Minnesota.

The ultimate vision -- 80 miles of freeway with bridges at all intersections -- is still years away, and the stoplight project won't start for about two years. However, about half of the other work is already complete or in progress, changing the access and feel of the highway from Inver Grove Heights down through Rochester. Progress has been steady and safety has improved, officials say.

On the northern end, stoplights have been removed as interchanges and frontage roads have been 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 northern edge of Rochester and Hwy. 52 is a freeway all through that city.

"We're seeing a significant reduction in crashes," said Sheila Kauppi, a metro district engineer with MnDOT.

The divided four-lane highway, much of it rural with a 65 mph speed limit, had grown increasingly dangerous as growth and commuting between the Twin Cities and Rochester added more cars. About 20,000 cars travel the middle portion of the corridor daily, as measured at Cannon Falls. Near Interstate 494, Hwy. 52 sees 61,000 a day.

At intersections without an interchange, it has gotten harder for drivers to find a gap and pull onto the highway. Closing or reconfiguring access to the road is one way to keep traffic moving safely.

Given tight budgets and MnDOT's emphasis on lower-cost, high-benefit projects, Kauppi said the Hwy. 52 group collectively decided to "put interchanges in where we can afford them, and start marching our way toward some cheaper fixes until we can actually fund the whole thing."

South of Cannon Falls, for example, the agency is trying out a new dynamic sign at the intersection of Goodhue County Road 9. The signs gauge speed, traffic volume and the size of approaching vehicles and lets drivers know if there's time to safely pull out onto the highway.

At the intersections of Dakota County roads 66 and 86, MnDOT hopes to limit left turns onto the highway by closing the medians. Instead, they'll encourage drivers to make a right turn, shift over to the left and make a safer U-turn at another point where there will be left turns lanes.

There are plans for interchanges at those points someday, but those are each estimated at $15 million. The U-turn solution will cost about $1 million.

But first, the stoplights at Cannon Falls. All the way along the corridor, officials are rallying to that cause, featuring it on a brochure given to state and federal officials touting the merits of the Hwy. 52 freeway plan.

Olmsted County Engineer Mike Sheehan said that spirit of cooperation has helped secure about $400 million so far for improvements along 52.

"Everybody has the same goal here -- to improve safety," Sheehan said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056