Lakeville Mayor Matt Little is hoping that a letter he and the City Council recently penned will motivate Gov. Mark Dayton to look into improving busy Interstate 35, the city’s key north-south thoroughfare.

In a Feb. 19 letter to the governor, Little asked that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) add a third lane to the freeway to ease congestion and reduce the number of accidents.

“Capacity and congestion have been a pretty big issue on that section of the highway for a few years,” Little said. “You’re seeing a high amount of crashes and injuries.”

Little said in the letter that the I-35 corridor is the “busiest, most heavily traveled highway corridor in Minnesota,” and he noted that a section of the road beginning at the southern edge of Lakeville and extending to County Road 46 accounted for 300 crashes, 125 injuries and four fatalities in the past three years.

Data show that 89,000 cars travel on I-35 through Lakeville daily, and Lakeville’s portion of the freeway has an “incredibly high” crash rate, he said.

Neither Dayton’s office nor MnDOT has responded yet, but Jon Solberg, MnDOT’s south area planner for Dakota County, said that MnDOT is “supportive of the fact that they desire a third lane.”

However, “Expansion on 35 in Lakeville is not consistent with our Transportation Policy Plan as a number one priority,” he said. “Expansion would be our last priority.”

Because of fiscal limitations, MnDOT would be more likely to consider lower-cost improvements, such as managed lanes or dynamic shoulders, Solberg said.

And this summer, MnDOT will make “modest improvements” to I-35 by extending the on-ramp from County Road 50, which MnDOT believes will help with congestion, Solberg said.

Congestion ahead

The immediate motivation for the letter was a January City Council meeting in which MnDOT representatives explained an I-35 maintenance project planned for this summer and fall, Little said. I-35 will be reduced to one lane.

The impending loss of a lane “gave us the impetus to really start pushing this project,” Little said.

City Administrator Steve Mielke said the meeting highlighted the fact that expanding I-35 isn’t even in MnDOT’s 20-year plan. “If we’re not even listed in the plan, that means that the congestion that we have, and the impediments that that congestion causes to basically anyone south of the river, are going to continue on for 20 years,” Mielke said.

In addition, Lakeville is “set to take on anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 more people” within the next 20 years, Little said, with surrounding communities also growing.

The traffic adversely affects both commuters, who use the freeway to get to jobs in the Twin Cities, and businesses, whose bottom lines are affected by delays, Little said. Adding inclement weather to the equation turns the freeway into “a parking lot,” he added.

“It’s important for us as a city as a quality-of-life issue, too,” Little said.

Mielke noted that the city and Dakota County have already invested “quite a bit of money” in improving I-35 interchanges at County Roads 60, 70 and 46 to improve access. However, “once commuters get there, they’re sitting in traffic,” he said.

Mielke said that a logical next step is for the city to try to build a coalition of businesses and representatives from nearby cities and Dakota County who support an expansion project.

Lakeville’s approach of writing a public letter to the governor isn’t something the city has done before, at least not recently, Mielke said.

Typically, the city creates a legislative agenda and sends it to its elected representatives, asking them to consider the issues the city has flagged. The I-35 concern has appeared in those priorities before, Mielke noted, and has been a concern for more than a decade.

“This is nontraditional for us, but we feel it is necessary for our voice to really be heard on this issue,” Little said.

There’s no telling what will come of it, but the city’s request will be taken into account, Solberg said.

“As a process, the city has done what they needed to do. This is a great time for Lake-ville to bring up their desire” for expansion, Solberg said, because the Metropolitan Council is currently seeking input for their Thrive MSP 2040 plan from stakeholders.

“Ultimately, we take our direction from the Met Council,” Solberg said.