Transportation projects booming in south metro

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2013 - 4:19 PM

We're in the midst of a series of transportation advances as momentous, collectively, as the 90's arrival of the Bloomington Ferry Bridge.

Teased by a colleague once about the clutter in her office, Lezlie Vermillion sighed. "How else," she said, "do you keep track of 150 different projects and processes?"

Scott County's public works chief may never have had as much going on at one time as she does today. And she and her county are just one part of a swath of transportation improvements all across the south metro that seems without parallel for nearly 20 years. In the short term, that has meant and will keep on meaning lots of headaches for drivers, adjoining businesses and others. But it's also addressing, all at one time, issues that have been building for decades.

"We've done a fair amount of investment in the south metro," said Sheila Kauppi, south area manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. "It's an area that obviously has a lot of corridor coalitions and groups that have applied a lot of pressure to 'not forget about us south of the river,' and there were some serious needs. It's an exciting time for us."

The biggest projects by far, at more than $100 million each, are the Red Line rapid busway on Cedar Avenue in Dakota County, the state's first foray into that increasingly popular light-rail-style technology, and the major new intersection at Hwy. 169 and I-494 in Hennepin County.

But lots of smaller ones either have just been completed or are gearing up for design, bids and construction.

Among them:

Motorists will see the disappearance of multiple exasperating stoplights on Hwy. 169 and on the stretch of Hwy. 13 between I-35W and the Bloomington Ferry Bridge, creating smoother-flowing freeway intersections.

Scott County arrives in the transit arena on a much bigger scale than before. Transit stations No. 2 and No. 3 arrive amid record-high express bus use, and one of the two is a much more substantial presence than anything Scott has had before -- the county's first wait-indoors transit hub -- as a former car dealership in Shakopee gets converted.

There's new lane capacity linking Scott to the metro area, and one that will be far more flood-proof than before -- the Hwy. 101 bridge to Chanhassen gears up soon.

"You're talking about a bridge that's 4,000 feet long," Kauppi said. "It will be a sight to see."

And at no small cost itself. Vermillion, looking at it from her side of the river, prices it out at $34 million, but MnDOT, counting some construction in Chanhassen as well, puts the overall pricetag at around $52 million.

Explanations differ as to why so many things are happening at roughly the same time, after having been awaited so long.

The arrival of a tidal wave of federal stimulus money amid the economic meltdown around 2008-09 is cited by some but minimized by others. The county wheelage tax, something only fairly recently allowed, has been a contributing factor as well, as funds built up.

The simplest explanation may just be that the rapid-fire growth of the suburbs south of the river was bound to create huge problems with undersized infrastructure, and problems severe enough -- both in terms of congestion and crashes -- that projects were going to rise in importance and draw funds.

While the average commuter is most conscious of traffic tie-ups, Vermillion said, from the standpoint of the pros, it's also about movement of freight in trucks and the avoidance of crashes. Intersections were overloaded, folks were getting impatient and bolting out into traffic.

And sometimes it really hits home.

"We had the son-in-law of one of our own staff here killed in a crash," she said. "A family of four ... a sad, sad deal. And this is someone who spent his whole life improving highways, at MnDOT and with us. And we have this multiple fatality at 282 and 169, at that signal -- people killed by a semi."

Gradually, the list of major priorities is being whittled away.

"We sat down years ago and drew up the biggest priorities for the 13 corridor," Vermillion said, "and there are only two left now, two pending projects that will bring that full vision to fruition. Savage has already bought some land to help make those things happen."

For its part, MnDOT is warning that amid all the improvements, we're coming up on an exceptionally difficult road construction season, quite a bit more challenging than most.

"We've got pavement reconstruction and bridge work on I-35 from Elko New Market all the way up to Cliff Road in Eagan," Kauppi said. "That was a project we were able to move forward, and it's a big one -- $15 million. It doesn't add lanes or speed traffic like some of the others, but it's about maintaining our existing system, which is also very important" -- as frustrating as it will feel when the cones go up and lanes get shut down.

David Peterson • 952-746-3285

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