I-94 traffic jams propel demand for more lanes

  • Star Tribune
  • November 22, 2008 - 9:48 PM

Not too long ago, an out-of-town VIP found himself in Bloomington at 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and needing to be in St. Cloud for a meeting by 4 p.m.

Getting on Interstate 94 and heading west, he thought he had plenty of time. Instead, he got stuck in traffic going from Rogers through Monticello and was late for his meeting.

Thus did Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, learn firsthand what people in that area have been saying for years: I-94 traffic jams are giving people headaches.

"We don't have anything [else] slowing us down -- just the traffic," said Kathleen Poate, president of the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce. "On any given [day] the freeway is just bumper-to-bumper."

Poate and the chamber are leading the charge for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to improve the Interstate by adding more lanes.

Just this month, the group created an I-94 West Corridor Coalition to push for the funding to widen the highway between Rogers and Monticello.

It was during the group's initial meeting that community officials and business leaders first heard about the Oberstar trip from a member of his staff, Melissa Jabas, who was with him on the trip and attended the coalition meeting.

"We're hoping that that helps us a little bit," Poate said. "He is the head of the Transportation Committee."

What the coalition wants is an extra lane in both directions from Hwy. 101 near Rogers to Monticello in Wright County.

Poate and the coalition estimate that turning the 14-mile stretch into a six-lane throughfare, and doing some bridge repairs along the way, would cost about $200 million.

Additionally, the coalition is proposing adding lanes in both directions from Hwy. 101 southeast to I-494; turning that stretch into an eight-lane corridor would cost $254 million.

"Having good and adequate transportation is something that is going to help everyone," said Doug Weiszhaar, a former deputy director of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and a coalition consultant. "It's a huge issue for people who live up there and work up there."

Among the members of the coalition are the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce and the cities of Albertville, Dayton, Otsego, Rogers and St. Michael. Poate said she and the chamber are working to get other municipalities, such as Monticello, involved as well.

Poate and others said traffic congestion in the area is costing the 750 businesses along the corridor a lot of money in lost productivity and sales.

"There already is [a] kind of economic choking going on," Weiszhaar said. "It's not a rush hour or a rush two hours. ... It's more like a rush six hours now. That costs money. It's a drain on profits."

As part of its campaign, the coalition has put together a brochure describing the problems along the I-94 corridor.

Currently, there are about 8,000 daily truck trips through the corridor, but that is expected to double to about 16,000 a day by 2030, the coalition says.

Although the group does not have specific numbers yet as to how much the slowdowns are costing area businesses, the group points out that UPS, the parcel delivery company, estimates that it loses $20 million for every minute of delay in its deliveries nationwide.

The group also says that General Mills estimates that it loses $2 million for each mile per hour in speed that its delivery fleet slows down.

The coalition is also concerned that people will become so frustrated that they will find alternate routes, spurning what is now one of the most popular tourist corridors in the state.

"They spend so much time on the road," Poate said, "that by the time they get to Rogers, they aren't willing to get off."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280

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