County Road 42: Look familiar?

County Road 42 frustrates drivers south of the river, but a fix isn't easy.

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Numerous stoplights slow traffic on County Road 42 as it passes through the southern suburbs.

Photo: David Peterson, Star Tribune

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It's a well-known transportation peril of living south of the river.

County Road 42.

It's so necessary as a route across Scott and Dakota Counties, but so difficult to travel for any substantial distance without feeling the urge to pull your hair out.

And as the southern Twin Cities suburbs have grown, so has the number of cars, the number of stoplights and the frustration of drivers.

On a recent weekday, in the name of unscientific research, we drove the east-west thoroughfare from end to end about midday. It was a journey of 26.4 miles from Hwy. 55 east of Rosemount to County Road 17 west of Prior Lake.

Total travel time: 53 minutes.

We weren't in any particular hurry, just following the speed limit on the open road and the flow of traffic the rest of the way. Yet we marveled at how often we stopped -- at 14 of 40 stoplights -- and wondered what could be done to speed up the trip.

And we're not alone.

"It isn't a pleasant situation at the moment," said Edmund Schulz, a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in Apple Valley. "It's a general feeling that something should be done."

But what?

The road has stumped transportation planners for years. Dakota and Scott Counties did a joint study in 1999 to address its evolution. That report highlighted the dilemma of a highway classified as an arterial, thus placing a priority on traffic flow, and also flanked by businesses that value access at driveways and stoplights. And a recent Scott County study noted that even a recommended upgrade to six lanes wouldn't increase speeds or decrease congestion from current levels by 2030.

"The engineers say, 'move traffic through.' The businesses say, 'we don't want anyone whizzing through. We want them to stop!'" Janet Williams, mayor of Savage, said.

And stop we did.

After breezing through open fields on the eastern side of Dakota County and most of Rosemount at the 55- and 50-mph speed limits, the stop-and-go rhythm set in at Apple Valley. There was ample time to watch traffic build up in the corridor lined with stores and restaurants.

As for Burnsville, well, that took forever. Traversing the stretch around the Interstate 35E and 35W interchanges took seven minutes alone. Red light or green light, we weren't moving.

"The lights are just almost unbelievable because you can get stopped for a long time for a light and you'll get stopped at the next one, which is maybe a few blocks down the road," Schulz, the retired pastor, said.

But the solution isn't as obvious as building another east-west arterial or a ring similar to 494-694, thanks to cost, geography and politics.

One issue that has stymied the creation of a new ring road is the challenge posed by Lake Minnetonka on the west as a physical hurdle, said Carol Becker, senior planner with the Metropolitan Council.

Four years ago the House Transportation Committee discussed directing MnDOT to consider the options for another ring road, at least east-west across the southern counties, said Rep. Michael Beard, a Republican from Shakopee. "And the 'smart growth' people went ballistic. You'd think we wanted to declare war on Canada. It's a pretty powerful political dynamic -- they get wild about it, almost irrational. It puts the commissioner in a tough spot," Beard said.

With no clear solution, locals scout for shortcuts.

Southcross Drive skirts to the south of Burnsville Center. McAndrews Road runs semi-parallel on a northwest slant between Kenwood Trail and Hwy. 3 north of Rosemount.

Other routes are a bit less obvious.

Carol Schultz, president of the Shakopee Chamber of Commerce, is originally from Owatonna and still meets old friends from time to time at the Cracker Barrel in Lakeville. And on a journey like that, logical as it would be to use it, "I will not travel on 42," she said.

"I start here at Eagle Creek, jog through McColl, take 5 and follow it down," Carol Schultz said.

But our research mission called for perseverance.

That's the mantra of Prior Lake resident Jarad Jackson, 32, too. The stoplights frustrate him, but there aren't many side streets that facilitate running errands to stores that front County Road 42.

"I put myself through college driving a taxi, so I'm pretty good at finding alternate routes," Jackson said. "There isn't another good one that really goes all the way."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056 khumphrey@startribune.com David Peterson • 952-882-9023 dapterson@startribune.com

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