Drivers crossing Hwy. 65 in Ham Lake and East Bethel will soon have to change their habits. Instead of going straight across the highway or turning left, they'll turn right onto the highway, make a U-turn, and then head where they were going.
This change will be the result a Reduced Conflict Intersection (RCI) that the Minnesota Department of Transportation will start building this month at Hwy. 65 and 187th Avenue NE. Also known as a Restricted Crossing U-turn intersection, J-Turn Intersection or a "Michigan Left Turn," the RCI is one of six that MnDOT will put in along the north metro highway between Bunker Lake Boulevard and Sims Road. That stretch has the dubious distinction of having seven intersections on the state's Top 200 list of severe crashes.
Along with the new intersections, to be built this summer and next, MnDOT will build a double-wide left-turn lane on the ramp from westbound Hwy. 10 to southbound Hwy. 65 in Blaine. The agency also will lengthen left-turn lanes at 85th, 99th, 105th, 109th and 117th avenues and at Andover Boulevard, Constance Boulevard, Crosstown Boulevard and Sims Road to reduce backups and improve safety.
Over the past few years, traffic on Hwy. 65 has grown dramatically, making it harder for motorists to make left turns or cross the highway at intersections that don't quite meet the standard for a full-blown set of traffic signals but are "still not very safe," said MnDOT spokesman Kent Barnard.
Here is how RCIs work: A motorist on the main highway can make right or left turns as normal. But drivers coming from a side road will need to turn right onto the highway and merge into traffic. After going a short distance, they'll make a U-turn at a marked opening in the median, then head back toward the intersection, where they can either go straight or make a right turn to continue their trip.
RCIs prevent drivers from making left turns onto a highway and exposing themselves to the most common and severest type of crash, getting T-boned. With the number of conflict points reduced from 32 at a conventional intersection to nine at one designed with an RCI, some studies have shown a 70 percent reduction in fatalities and a 42 percent drop in injury crashes.
"Crossing four lanes of traffic is more dangerous than merging into traffic, and it prevents a lot of right-angle crashes," Barnard said.
Results in Minnesota have been even more impressive. A MnDOT study of eight RCIs found a 100 percent reduction in fatal and serious-injury right-angle crashes, a 77 percent reduction of all severe right-angle crashes and a 50 percent reduction of injury crashes.
"When crashes do occur, the injury level is typically lower than at standard intersections," said Derek Leuer, assistant state traffic safety engineer.
Minnesota's first RCI was built in 2010 in Willmar; there are 12 others across the state. With their safety record, and because they are cheaper and faster to build than a typical interchange, MnDOT plans to build at least 20 more in the next five years.
MnDOT will spend $5.9 million on the new RCIs for Hwy. 65. They will include the first in the state to feature stoplights. That one will go in next summer at Viking Boulevard, an intersection that is seeing more traffic than it was meant to handle. About 29,000 vehicles on Hwy. 65 and 6,500 vehicles on Viking pass through the intersection. Both roads are expected to see 20 to 50 percent more traffic by 2040.
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