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Traffic through several east-metro cities will increase substantially after a new St. Croix River bridge opens, raising worries about costs, commuters cutting through neighborhoods, and safe entrances for residents and emergency vehicles.
The Hwy. 36 corridor, which stretches from the bridge site at Oak Park Heights east to Roseville, already bustles with commuters. City officials generally agree that after the four-lane bridge opens, retiring the two-lane Stillwater Lift Bridge, traffic could double on the four-lane highway in some stretches.
"The cities along 36 certainly will have traffic impacts," said Maplewood Mayor Will Rossbach, whose city voted to spend millions of dollars to help the state rebuild the English Street intersection, eliminating a stoplight. "Having the additional cars will just make it worse. There's an extreme lack of money to do what needs to be done with our highway."
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the coordinating agency for the $676 million St. Croix River Crossing project, has said that several major improvements along Hwy. 36 will move traffic more freely.
A major remake of the Rice Street interchange at Little Canada and Roseville was finished last year. Coming soon will be reconstruction of the English Street bottleneck in Maplewood and a possible realignment of Hwy. 36 between Hamline Avenue and Victoria Street that would include a new bridge and interchange. Two years ago, Hwy. 36 through North St. Paul to Maplewood was rebuilt, eliminating several traffic lights.
Recent traffic counts showed a daily average of 35,500 vehicles at North St. Paul with more than 80,000 through Roseville to the west. Cities east of Interstate 694 are expected to see the largest traffic increases from a new bridge.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., wants a comprehensive plan from MnDOT that takes Hwy. 36 cities' varying needs into consideration.
"We know MnDOT has a plan for bridge construction. But are there plans and a budget for Highway 36 congestion?" McCollum asked Friday. "This is about more than building a bridge. It is about maintaining a safe, efficient transportation corridor."
Cities that already are strapped for cash could find themselves caught between costly traffic bottlenecks and unfunded government mandates, McCollum told Hwy. 36 mayors and city administrators in North St. Paul last year.
In Lake Elmo, where residents depend on several exits from Hwy. 36, Mayor Dean Johnston said a new bridge will bring job growth essential to "turn around our property values." But Johnston said his city already has a problem with commuters who use neighborhood streets to avoid congestion on Hwy. 36.
"They don't stop, they don't do business, they just go roaring through," he said. "We have major transportation corridors all around the city so there's no need to take our residential streets in town."
Lake Elmo is resigned to accepting increased traffic in exchange for the economic benefits, Johnston said, but the city needs to preserve access to Hwy. 36 for its residents. One "simple solution" would be a frontage road along the south side of the highway similar to what the city of Grant has on the north side, he said.
Johnston described MnDOT officials as being sympathetic to Lake Elmo's concerns.
"The bridge just got approved and they have been cooperative in the early stages of conversation about how to do it," he said of any changes. "I'm not throwing any stones at MnDOT at all."
Down the road at Mahtomedi, near where a major new interchange will be built on 36, Mayor Jud Marshall said construction of the interchange and connecting roundabouts this summer "will be the biggest headache" for his city.
Thousands of drivers avoiding the Hilton Trail interchange work will bypass on Hwy. 12 through Mahtomedi past three schools, he said. And although Mahtomedi doesn't sit squarely on Hwy. 36 -- the tiny city of Pine Springs separates the two -- Mahtomedi will feel the effects of increased traffic after the bridge opens because more residents of St. Croix County, Wis., will be "delighted" to take the new bridge into Minnesota.
Describing the St. Croix bridge as excessively costly, Rossbach of Maplewood said that he has viewed it with "a mixture of disappointment but also understanding of the situation. Government is so crappy at times at getting things done. This went on for 30 years. They need a bridge. There's no doubt about that."
Rossbach said he's skeptical that MnDOT will have money for additional Hwy. 36 improvements if congestion grows beyond projections, because so many other Minnesota roads are even worse off.
In Little Canada, administrator Joel Hanson said his city would welcome any improvements "that allow traffic to flow more readily" because Hwy. 36 is "already congested at certain times of the day."
In Oakdale, city officials continue to work with MnDOT on plans for improvements at the Hadley Avenue and Geneva/Century Avenue intersections, which have stoplights, said Dave Schaps, assistant city administrator.
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles