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Consultants for Minnesota's first light rail line warned that grade crossings could snarl traffic along Hiawatha Avenue. But the project's builders inadequately studied the potential rail-motorist conflicts, and missed red flags in their own data that might have made a difference, according to a review of the engineering work by the Federal Transit Administration.

Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

Hiawatha Ave., as seen from E. 38th St. looking toward downtown.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Traffic frustration eases along Hiawatha Avenue

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW
  • Star Tribune
  • February 6, 2013 - 11:19 PM

Jean Buckley pulled up to the intersection of 42nd Street and Hiawatha Avenue S. in Minneapolis on a recent Sunday morning, and the light instantly turned green.

"Amazing," said the resident of south Minneapolis' Longfellow neighborhood, who in the past often waited several minutes to get the go signal. "I got to church for the first time in years to hear the choir sing our opening hymn."

Buckley and other drivers are now spending half as much time at red lights on Hiawatha and its cross streets since a new traffic control system was installed last fall at intersections between 26th and 50th Streets, Minneapolis officials said Wednesday.

A new $1.1 million system with 160 loop detectors replaced old units that often skipped phases for two and three cycles when light-rail trains passed by, leaving motorists trying to cross or make a turn left on or off Hiawatha waiting as long as 10 to 12 minutes for a green light.

In the four months since the system went live, the number of drivers waiting more than two minutes for a green light is down 50 percent, and the maximum wait time has dropped from 11 minutes to four, said Council Member Sandra Colvin Roy, who represents an area of south Minneapolis and is chairwoman of the Transportation and Public Works Committee.

Punching the clock

Roy cited electronic data collected from the system and manual observations by people with stopwatches.

"We have significantly reduced the wait times for drivers in this corridor," she said. "And if we could measure the blood pressure of those who live in the neighborhood, I'm sure that has gone down, too."

With a $10 million grant, Minneapolis will use the same technology to retime traffic signals citywide. The city will change the 200 signals in the downtown area and 350 in south Minneapolis this year. It will work on the 250 signals in north Minneapolis in 2014, said Allan Klugman, a senior engineer with the Minneapolis Traffic and Parking Service Division.

Kyle Ness, a frequent Hiawatha driver, said he's seen an improvement in wait times. Ahna Brutlag, a south Minneapolis resident, said the recalibrated signals have made her drive on Hiawatha a "much more pleasant commute."

Colvin Roy said a Metro Transit bus driver wrote to her to say, "I can keep my bus route on time."

But not everybody agrees that things are better. Lynn Marquardt, who has lived in the Longfellow neighborhood for 33 years, said that in the evenings she sees traffic backed up over a block at times on 32nd, 35th and 38th Streets.

"It's such a bugaboo," she said. "It's still as hard as ever to get across Hiawatha; there is no change in how traffic flows. They told us, 'It will be soooo much better.' Well, not so."

City officials agree that not everything is perfect for the 23,000 motorists who use Hiawatha daily on the south end, and 32,000 to 37,000 who use it on the north end near downtown Minneapolis.

Traffic engineers have called the four-lane state highway the nation's most complex corridor.

A source of plenty of complaints

Council Member Gary Schiff, who represents the city's Ninth Ward, also on the south side of the city, said he's received more complaints from constituents about red lights and traffic on Hiawatha than any other issue before the system was installed.

Since then, feedback has been mostly positive, he said.

"The public is going to tell us if this is a success," he said. "If they are waiting at a red light and it's taking too long, they should complain. That is the only way we will get this right. This is a work in progress."

City officials say they are pleased with the results so far and will continue to fine-tune the signals and make adjustments as needed.

"People are tired of being tied up in traffic," Schiff said. "With the new technology and new software, this is what is to come for neighborhoods across Minneapolis."

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768

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