State officials on Tuesday awarded more than $400 million to four highway projects, including the overhaul of a regional interchange once called one of the worst bottlenecks in the country.
The four projects were picked by Corridors of Commerce, a Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) program that distributes legislative funding for highway improvements.
More than $200 million was budgeted for two projects upgrading the I-494/I-35W interchange that straddles Richfield and Bloomington. The cloverleaf loop, which carries about 275,000 vehicles a day, has one of the worst crash frequencies and rush-hour congestions in the state, according to MnDOT.
About $70 million of that would go toward building a direct ramp for northbound-to-westbound traffic, thereby eliminating some of the inner loops. The ramp could reduce 1,600 hours in total daily delays and about $1.8 million in annual crash costs, according to MnDOT.
The other $134 million would go to building an eastbound carpool lane along I-494 from France Avenue to Hwy. 77, and a westbound carpool lane from Hwy. 77 to I-35W. The lanes could cut down a total of 2,900 hours of delays a day and $2 million in annual crash costs, MnDOT officials said.
Bloomington officials, who submitted the interchange improvements to MnDOT for consideration, were joyous about receiving the funding.
“We are very happy today. This is a great thing for the region,” City Engineer Shelly Hanson said.
“It is a very important regional transportation corridor for the state and the metro area,” she continued. “This is the missing piece for our improvements.”
Following the announcement, City Manager Jamie Verbrugge tweeted that it was a “historic day.”
The interchange was built in the late 1950s, and state and city officials have clamored for improvements since at least the start of the century.
It sees more than four hours of congestion a day, according to MnDOT, and was once dubbed one of the worst highway bottlenecks in the nation by the Federal Highway Administration.
Tuesday’s selection is just the first part of a $300 million overhaul of the interchange designed four years ago by MnDOT. Construction could start in 2021.
“These projects have a lot of work to go before they’re ready for bid,” said Patrick Weidemann, MnDOT’s director of capital planning and programming.
Just northwest of Minneapolis, $157 million was awarded to convert Hwy. 169 in Elk River into a freeway, removing four traffic signals and building four interchanges. Another $56 million was awarded to expand the nearby I-94 from four to six lanes between St. Michael and Albertville.
U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., praised MnDOT for the funding in a news release, calling it “an incredible win for the constituents of the Sixth District.”
“This investment will kick start major change, directly benefiting Minnesotans in my district and across the state,” he continued.
But not everyone was pleased. Dave Smiglewski, Granite Falls mayor and president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said the program failed to help any needy highways outside the metro area, and he demanded the Legislature suspend MnDOT’s decision.
“There is far more to Minnesota than a 40-mile radius around U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, but you certainly wouldn’t know that from looking at the 2018 awards,” he wrote in a release.
About $300 million in bonds and $100 million in cash were given to the Corridors of Commerce program by the Legislature to be used over four years, according to Weidemann.
At least 100 projects were recommended for funding, according to MnDOT documents. Final projects are chosen based on a rubric that grades each one on seven criteria, including return on investment, economic impact and safety improvements.