These are the worst of times for downtown Minneapolis commuters. Major freeways are under construction. Key entrance and exit ramps are blocked. Highways and city streets are choked with traffic and those popular “alternate” routes have road work of their own.
It’s all adding up to a summer of frustration for anybody trying to get anywhere.
“I’m convinced @MnDOTnews is aiming to completely paralyze Minneapolis right now,” Matthew Schoeppner wrote in a tweet.
It just may feel like that after drivers encountered miles-long backups every morning last week on westbound Interstate 94 from Hwy. 280 to Hennepin Avenue, jams further exacerbated by long queues on 3rd and 7th streets and Washington Avenue. Trips along traffic-riddled Park and Portland avenues were no picnic, either. And motorists will continue to feel the big squeeze on Interstate 35W south of downtown.
“We say just wait, it will get worse. Right now we are at that ‘worst’ period,” said Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle. “There is no way to sugarcoat it. The most disruptive points will be in the next few months.”
Considering the $239 million rebuild of Interstate 35W from downtown to 43rd Street will last until 2021, Zelle is hoping motorists can cope with the misery until fall. Then some relief will be coming.
By the end of August, 7th Street from Park to 3rd avenues should be back to full strength. This fall, bottlenecks on westbound I-94 should disappear when lanes from Chicago to Nicollet avenues reopen. Drivers heading into downtown will get access from northbound I-35W to 5th Avenue and 11th Street, albeit with only one lane instead of three.
“It won’t be great, but it will be less severe,” Zelle said. “Things will gradually start to improve.”
Until then, the city of Minneapolis is trying to make things more palatable by adjusting stoplights to give drivers more green time. Signals along 3rd Street stay green for 20 seconds longer on each cycle than usual to help move the glut of traffic coming off I-35W. On Washington Avenue, drivers get an additional 15 seconds per cycle. Extra green time has also been added at signals along 31st Street to speed express buses along and on 7th Street to alleviate gridlock.
Along with closures of the ramp from westbound I-94 to 11th Street and the northbound I-35W ramps to 5th Avenue and 11th Street, MnDOT has also closed several key bridges over I-35W. Currently shut down are the 38th and 26th Street bridges, and the Franklin Avenue bridge is partly shut down. Ramps to and from I-35W at 31st and Lake streets have been set aside for express buses and emergency vehicles only. The ramp from southbound I-35W to 35th Street also is closed.
“You have closed every exit within miles of many people, 31st Street South, 35th both ways,” Guenevere Olsby posted on MnDOT’s Facebook page. “It takes me 45 mins for an 8 mile trip. You’ve doubled our time in traffic for the next 3 years.”
The overlapping of the city and state projects can be tied to money and unfortunate timing. Minneapolis is using federal funds to install ADA-compliant traffic signals and sidewalks on 7th Street, while Metro Transit is building stations for a Bus Rapid Transit line to begin service in 2019. The city applied for the money in 2014 and it had to be used this year, said Allan Klugman, an engineer with the city’s Public Works Department.
“This was set in motion before dates for the I-35W project were developed,” Klugman said. “That is frustrating, but the big impact is limited to this summer.”
With rapidly deteriorating infrastructure that dates to the 1960s, MnDOT could not delay the project any longer, Zelle said.
This year and over the next three construction seasons, MnDOT will reconfigure the flyover bridge from northbound I-35W to westbound I-94, build a new transit station in the center of I-35W at Lake Street, extend the MnPass lane from 26th Street to 46th Street and replace or refurbish 18 bridges. But MnDOT is not adding any additional travel lanes to one of the state’s most heavily traveled freeways.
“Removing bottlenecks is not just about traffic volume,” Zelle said. “There will be much better sightlines, a better merging configuration and a better design flow.”
Until that is complete, Zelle, like the 200,000 motorists who pass through the I-94/I-35W interchange each day, will have to endure traffic. He recently drove on I-94 and got onto southbound I-35W and encountered a traffic jam.
“I guess I didn’t take my own advice,” he said, noting the agency has encouraged people to avoid I-35W if possible. “I’ve been caught, too. Hang in there. We hear your pain. It is going to be better.”