Driving out a devil of a traffic problem

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 1, 2011 - 9:45 AM

A $50 million improvement on Hwy. 169 in Brooklyn Park and Osseo is making driving safer.

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February 2008: Looking southwest at the devil's triangle in Osseo.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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A $50 million exorcism of the notorious "devil's triangle'' of traffic delays and crashes in the northwest metro is down to the finishing touches on a new up-and-over bridge on Hwy. 169.

A quarter mile of Hwy. 169 through Brooklyn Park and Osseo has been rebuilt on piers that now take the highway over traffic signals at Hwy. 81 and N. 85th Avenue that once intersected Hwy. 169 in a nightmarish triangle.

The triangle was known for trying delays, rear-end collisions and even fatalities. Driver tempers flared in the 20, sometimes 30, minutes it took at rush hour to inch along Hwy. 169 through the two signals at Hwy. 81 and 85th Avenue. Compounding the delays, an occasional freight train would roll across 169, bringing traffic to a halt.

The project -- four years in the making -- unclogs another of the Twin Cities' biggest traffic bottlenecks, one that 56,000 vehicles travel through daily.

It was delayed most recently by the state government shutdown. Much of it is already open and already drawing praise from Hwy. 169 commuters.

It also comes on the heels of last year's completion of the $288 million Crosstown Hwy. 62 interchange and just ahead of the $125 million work underway to remove signals and redesign Hwy. 169's car-clogging interchange with Interstate 494 in Bloomington, Edina and Eden Prairie.

"They called it 'devil's triangle' for a reason," said John Anderson, of Brooklyn Park, who drives the stretch regularly.

Delays at the lights were so long that "folks would get bumper-to-bumper with the car in front of them," Anderson said, and move into the middle of the intersection hoping to sneak through after the light turned red.

That blocked progress on the local roads, prompting people to make illegal turns.

"Before they went through the construction, I would avoid it at all costs," said Erik Burnevik of Ham Lake. "You would sit at those lights and it would be backed up. It would be a half hour just to get through there."

Now, "it's slick. It's unbelievable," Burnevik said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation began the project in the summer of 2008, a year later than promised because a chunk of its funding was used to get the Crosstown rebuild going in 2007.

With work resuming as the shutdown ended, northbound Hwy. 169 lanes are finished. The southbound lanes are open but out of their final alignment to allow for striping. Two ramps from Hwy. 169 to Hwy. 81 are not yet open.

MnDOT resident engineer Dan Penn, who supervised the project, said he expects it all to be open this month.

Relieved of freeway traffic, the two local roads now operate more safely and efficiently.

"It's very well designed; it's easy to get through the intersection," said Bill Van Clef, who lives off 85th Avenue in Brooklyn Park. "Once they opened the new exit ramps, it was just amazing how quickly I could get home.

"It's also a nice investment in the infrastructure in that area," Van Clef said. "It was torn up and kind of ugly up there. Now it's attractive. The retaining ponds are better than the scrap brush there before."

Brooklyn Park traffic engineer Jeff Holstein lobbied tirelessly for project funding for years. "We love it,'' he said. "We wish it would have happened 20 years ago."

Osseo, on the west side of Hwy. 169, is also pleased, said City Administrator Jeffrey Dahl. Eliminating the congestion means drivers will no longer avoid the area, which means more visits to Osseo businesses, he said.

300 crashes in two years

At the city's insistence, MnDOT avoided taking any land in Osseo for the project and agreed to post a sign on Hwy. 169 alerting drivers to an exit for Osseo so it won't be forgotten as drivers zip overhead.

State records show that nearly 300 crashes occurred at the old triangle between 2000 and 2002, when the case was being made for the project.

The junction of Hwy. 169 and Hwy. 81 -- then the state's most heavily traveled intersection with traffic signals -- accounted for 119 of the crashes, said Ramankutty Kannankutty, MnDOT's north metro area engineer.

Another 12 crashes, including one fatality, occurred at the railroad crossing on Hwy. 169 parallel to Hwy. 81. The crossing had flashing lights only -- no protective arms -- and was ranked the most dangerous in the state because of the volume of traffic passing at high speeds on Hwy. 169.

Improving safety was the primary goal of the triangle project, Kannankutty said. The question was "how do you come up with a design that will benefit all the movements and at the same time make the main movement go smoothly?"

Separating the freeway traffic from the local traffic has vastly improved traffic flow on Hwy. 169 but one more signal is left to be removed at 93rd Avenue. On busy evenings, that light backs traffic up onto the new Hwy. 169 bridge just like the old ones did in the triangle.

Although that light is just a half mile north of the triangle, right-of-way needs could not be worked through in time to include it as part of the triangle project, Penn said.

The plan is to ramp 93rd Avenue over Hwy. 169 starting in 2013, Penn said.

Once that set of signals is removed, and the lights are removed at Hwy. 169 and I-494 in the south metro, Hwy. 169 will be a freeway from Hwy. 610 to Shakopee.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711

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