The Drive: Prohibited turns bring light-rail mishaps

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2013 - 10:05 AM

Signs tell motorists driving west on 5th Street in the lane immediately next to the downtown Minneapolis Armory that “no turns” of any kind are allowed at the intersection of 5th Street and 5th Avenue S.

Yet day after day, drivers don’t heed the warning and turn across the tracks — and another lane of traffic — to head north on 5th Avenue. Last Monday, the driver of a commercial van made that prohibited maneuver and was struck by a Blue Line train heading into downtown. Another truck driver making the same illegal right turn was hit by a light-rail train there in February. The collisions bring the number of vehicle-train mishaps at that intersection to nine, making it the most dangerous intersection along the 11-mile light-rail line that runs from Target Field to the Mall of America in Bloomington. There have been 74 incidents since Blue Line trains started running in 2005, with 12 percent of those occurring at 5th and 5th.

To be fair to motorists, the corner can be confusing. The light-rail line runs down the center of 5th Street. Motorists in the lane on the right side of the tracks are required to make a right turn onto 5th Avenue. Drivers in the lane on the left side of the tracks are required to proceed straight ahead to 4th Avenue, then turn left.

A sign tells those left-side drivers “no turns” at 5th Avenue. Many who find themselves on the “wrong” side of the tracks disregard the sign and turn anyway.

“Some of the movements can be attributed to ignorance of how traffic works in the area and being unaware of rail traffic in the area,” said Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland. But, he said, many of the “movements are deliberate with drivers trying to make a right turn even though they are aware they should not be trying it, just because they need to get to [5th Avenue].”

No one has been seriously hurt in any of the nine crashes.

At least three drivers, including the one involved in last week’s crash, have been cited by police for failure to obey a traffic-control device, Siqveland said.

Light-rail trains make more than 1,500 trips a week along 5th Street, and that number will increase when Green Line trains begin operating in 2014.

Metro Transit recently began testing parts of the line that runs from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, and with that the agency has ramped up its rail safety campaign.

Messages in the form of posters at kiosks and advertising inside and outside of buses and trains themselves remind motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians to “be safe, be seen,” “be safe, look both ways” and “be safe, don’t chase.” Metro Transit customer advocates also are visiting schools, organizations and those who live near the Green Line to talk about rail safety. Videos play on the agency’s website.

The campaign, which won an award from the Minnesota Association of Government Communicators, was developed when Blue Line trains started rolling and will be used to reinforce the message Metro Transit has touted for the past nine years.

“We consider safety a shared responsibility,” Siqveland said, noting that at 20 miles per hour, the speed at which light-rail trains travel downtown, it takes 81 feet for a train to stop. “Our message is that trains can come from either direction on any track at any time. People need to be aware of their surroundings.”

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