Driving I-94 from city to city now borderline nuts

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 4, 2011 - 11:22 PM

Construction projects in the busy area where Minneapolis and St. Paul meet are slowing and frustrating commuters.

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Road construction on I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul will be a headache throughout summer.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Heather Peterson can't seem to shake the hardhats or the detours.

One block from her downtown St. Paul condo, construction crews are tearing up a street to make way for a light-rail line.

On the road that runs beneath her skyway office at the University of Minnesota, workers are engaged on the same project.

And along the route Peterson drives to and from work, highway crews have blocked off several lanes as part of a six-month repaving and repair project near the Minneapolis-St. Paul border.

"Right now, I feel like I'm living in a construction zone," said Peterson, a manager for the University's One-Stop Student Services program. "I can't avoid it. It's everywhere."

Tens of thousands of metro commuters are facing a summer of frustration as two major road projects linking Minneapolis and St. Paul conspire with a number of minor ones to make getting from one city to the other a complicated task.

Bad enough that construction of the 11-mile Central Corridor Light Rail line has broken up much of University and Washington Avenues in recent months, forcing many commuters onto alternate routes.

Now, I-94 motorists are discovering that the daily rush-hour between cities is being slowed by as much as 20 to 30 minutes thanks to the $23.9 million resurfacing and repair that runs for about four miles between Cretin Avenue in St. Paul and Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis.

The work on one of the busiest stretches of Twin Cities highway is expected to last until late fall before resuming again next spring.

"It's a never-ending story in Minnesota," said Frank Beil, a Woodbury resident who drives I-94 daily to his teaching job at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "It's just never ending."

Long-planned upgrade

The timing of the road work, which began last week in the midst of the ambitious light rail project, irritates some commuters.

"It sucks!" said Bill Blegen, 26, a salesman who lives in St. Paul but works in Minneapolis. "They certainly could have found a better way to do it."

But Bre Magee, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said the project is so involved that crews can't work overnight and reopen lanes each morning.

"If we could, we would," she said.

The work involves repaving lanes and ramps, upgrading the median, drainage and lighting systems and replacing signs.

Next spring, crews will add electronic signs between the Lowry Tunnel in Minneapolis and John Ireland Boulevard in St. Paul.

Magee said the work is part of a plan to upgrade the road following the 2007 I-35W bridge collapse. Weeks after the disaster, a stretch of I-94 was re-striped to add a fourth lane in each direction as part of an emergency measure to cope with the traffic rerouted from 35W. The extra lanes were later made permanent with permission from the Federal Highway Administration, which required the state to complete the upgrades now under way, Magee said.

"Anybody who drives that road knows [the upgrades] needed to be done," said Kent Barnard, a MnDOT spokesman.

Slow going

For commuters, the end result should be a smoother, safer road.

But this summer and fall, that finish line might feel like a long way off.

The opening day of work on Wednesday resulted in an extra slow morning rush hour, with some commutes delayed by 40 to 50 minutes.

Day Two went smoother, although Blegen said his morning commute was slowed again after a car in a center lane ran out of gas.

Traffic slowed again in the construction zone Friday afternoon, when commuters were headed home or out of town for the weekend. But motorists seldom had to come to a stop.

"It hasn't been too bad at all," Barnard said. "But come Monday morning, all bets are off."

Fearing it might get worse in coming weeks, Beil said he will stagger his travel times to make sure he avoids major congestion.

Debra Richardson, who lives off Riverside Avenue in Minneapolis but works in St. Paul, said she plans to drive back roads to Marshall Avenue, which parallels I-94. It might take longer, she said, but it's less stressful.

Peterson said it once took about 20 minutes for her to drive I-94 to work on the University of Minnesota's West Bank. Over the last week, it's taken as long as 50 minutes, she said.

She's explored driving alternate routes, such as Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which parallels I-94. But she figures the side streets will probably be busier, too. She thought briefly about biking to and from work, but decided it's just too far in the summer heat.

"Everywhere I go, there are big huge gigantic pieces of equipment," she said with a chuckle. "There's just lots of orange cones and 'road closed' signs.

"It's a good thing orange is my favorite color."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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