A group of public officials on a chilly Tuesday made a heated call for state spending on Minnesota’s transportation network.
Gathered on a highway bridge overlooking the interchange of I-35W and I-494, local and state leaders made their pitch in support of Gov. Mark Dayton’s 10-year, $6 billion spending plan. The site was chosen because the 35W/494 interchange recently was named one of the nation’s 20 worst highway bottlenecks by the Federal Highway Administration.
“Hundreds of thousands of people drive through this interchange every day on their way to work or school, and back again,” said Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. “Nearly all of those Minnesotans needlessly waste hours every week stuck inching through bumper-to-bumper traffic. The time for admiring this problem is over. It is time to roll up our sleeves and do something about it.”
Tuesday’s remarks added detail to the transportation funding proposed by Dayton revealed last week. The plan would repair, replace or expand more than 2,200 miles of state roads and 330 bridges over the next decade, but individual projects were not identified. To pay for the projects, Dayton seeks a 6.5 percent gross receipts tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, an increase in license tab fees and $2 billion in trunk highway bonds.
Plan challenged at Capitol
While his plan enjoys wide support among DFLers, Republican lawmakers challenge Dayton’s take on the scope of the problem and the funding solution. House Republicans in January proposed tapping the state’s projected budget surplus and shaving spending at the Minnesota Department of Transportation to fund $750 million in repairs over the next four years. They have opposed any tax hike.
Smith and Charlie Zelle, transportation commissioner, joined more than 25 elected officials and business leaders, mostly from southwest suburbs, to put the pressure on Tuesday.
“The sooner we can get started on this project, the better,” Zelle said. “If we do nothing, traffic will keep getting worse and the costs of rebuilding this interchange will only grow higher. A half-century of waiting has produced one of the worst traffic jams in the nation.”
Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel endorsed the wholesale gas tax. “We need a long-term solution, and I think this time the gas tax is the best way to address it,” she said.
A ‘turbine’ interchange
Built in the 1960s, the interchange carries up to 290,000 vehicles a day. The segment of I-35W between 90th and 76th streets experiences three to five hours of congestion each weekday, while the segment of I-494 between Penn and Lyndale avenues experiences more than six hours of congestion each weekday, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The core of the plan calls for a so-called turbine interchange, which features a series of ramps and loops that take all left-turning traffic on a circle around the central bridges where the freeways cross in a counterclockwise direction. This design would eliminate the short-merge areas from the ramps, make the interchange safer and increase capacity.
It would be built in phases, with the first portion costing up to $75 million.
The governor would direct MnDOT to study the possibility of adding MnPass lanes on I-494, Crosstown Hwy. 62, or both. The MnPass option would cost an estimated $180 million to $240 million, and would be financed in part by MnPass fees paid by commuters who use the new lanes. MnPass lanes are free to carpools; solo drivers pay a fee to use them.
The third part of the plan includes a new bus rapid transit station with a 500-space park-and-ride ramp at American Boulevard. The proposed Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit route would run along I-35W from Burnsville to downtown Minneapolis in a dedicated right of way.