Anu Patole leaves her house at 5:30 a.m. every day to avoid stop-and-go traffic on her drive to work.
Uriah Norris’ commute time has doubled when there’s an accident or bad weather, and he’s had to call in to work meetings from his car.
And Kari McGuire quit her job after nearly a decade because she couldn’t stand the hourlong drive from Shakopee to Minnetonka.
Southwest metro commuters are fed up with the congested Minnesota River crossings they use to get to and from work. Though some efforts are being made to address the problem — including the new County Road 101 bridge that opened last week — estimates suggest those fixes aren’t long-term solutions. More than 100,000 more vehicles per day are expected on the area’s five major river crossings within the next 25 years, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
“There needs to be more attention paid to the river crossings and the capacity issue,” said Lisa Freese, Scott County’s transportation chief.
Scott County river crossings will endure some of the most significant strain. By 2040, the county’s population — already the fastest-growing in the state — is expected to increase by about 50 percent, or about 70,000 people, according to the Metropolitan Council.
Most residents leave the county for work, something local leaders are trying to change in an unusual effort to ease congestion. But the percentage of people who work outside the county hasn’t budged in a decade, and commuters are worried about how growth will affect their already headache-inducing drives. Patole, who lives in Shakopee, said she’s seen the effects of rapid growth there.
“The number of people trying to get in and out of Shakopee is just growing,” she said. “It’s tough being on the south side of the river.”
Searching for solutions
Scott County residents identified traffic congestion as a major concern in 2005, when they were surveyed for the county’s long-term plan. More than 40 percent of respondents said congestion and travel times were the biggest transportation issue in the county, and most said transportation investment should be focused on expanding roads.
Beyond the County Road 101 bridge, it’s not clear whether Scott County will get more upgrades anytime soon. Next door in Dakota County, MnDOT has tentatively set 2021 as the end date for a $140 million Interstate 35W bridge rebuild.
Scott County has been trying to attack the root of the congestion since the late 2000s, when local leaders discovered that three-quarters of employed residents were leaving every day for work. They set a goal to cut that to half by 2030.
Early efforts have focused on creating jobs, and the county has attracted new businesses including Shutterfly, Amazon.com, Datacard Group and Emerson Electric — at least 3,500 new jobs in all, according to county estimates.
The next step is getting residents who work outside the county to make the switch to jobs closer to home, said Stacy Crakes, business development manager at the county’s First Stop Shop, an economic development organization within the Community Development Agency.
“We got all these jobs here, and now we’re trying to figure out, how do we get them in front of people?” she said.
McGuire, who found a job five minutes from her home in Shakopee, said she’s urging her husband to do the same. As a member of the city’s Economic Development Advisory Committee, she said she wants to set an example.
“I might as well practice what we’re preaching,” she said.
On the morning the new County Road 101 bridge opened, downtown Shakopee buzzed with activity. Mayors rubbed shoulders with members of Congress in a celebration at a local restaurant. Down the road, the cashier at a Holiday gas station chatted with customers about the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The $54 million project, which raised and expanded the bridge, has brought a sigh of relief to Scott and Carver counties. The bridge flooded nearly every year, diverting traffic to already-crowded crossings nearby.
“It was such a gaping hole in our transportation system,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The expansion is expected to absorb the nearly 20,000 additional vehicles that will travel the bridge daily in the next 20 years. But the additional lanes are expected to eventually fill up.
“As you add more capacity to a certain corridor, it’s going to attract more trips,” said Brian Kary, freeway operations engineer at MnDOT.
People tend to change their travel patterns in response to new transportation options, said Frank Douma, a transportation researcher at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. But those changes are tough to predict.
“We don’t know exactly who’s taking the trips that might shift in time or place over to the new facility,” he said. “You can’t know that for sure until it happens.”