Drivers this weekend got a taste of the misery ahead.
And in the coming weeks, it will only get worse.
Thousands of motorists who travel from the suburbs to Minneapolis for work each day are bracing for a nightmarish commute Monday, the first weekday since the state shut down the main entrances from Interstate 35W that lead into and out of downtown.
Office workers, restaurant servers, business owners, and city officials, among others, are busy preparing alternate plans — including taking public transit or even working at home — to avoid what is likely to be epic traffic jams through the summer.
For the next four months, the more than 200,000 motorists who use I-35W between downtown and the Crosstown each day will have to figure out a way to avoid the dreaded orange cones, which have appeared all around downtown Minneapolis.
The roadblocks will leave just one direct access point for northbound motorists heading into downtown on I-35W and two for those leaving.
The closure is part of a $239 million rebuild of the state’s busiest freeway that will make the commute smoother — but not until 2021.
Drivers got an idea of what’s ahead over the weekend, when both directions of I-94 were temporarily closed until Monday morning between I-394 and I-35W. Hundreds of visitors to the Open Streets festival in south Minneapolis and the Minnesota Twins game downtown found themselves snarled in stop-and-go traffic for hours.
“I’m not looking forward to a long drive,” said Nick Maciej, who came downtown Sunday to see the musical “Chicago.”
The crushing delays have people like Mulaw Zenebe, who has driven a cab for more than 20 years, thinking about alternatives. He said his only option is to use local streets instead of the freeway.
“My time is everything, you know,” he said. “What can I do?”
Mike Larson, a corporate sales and reservation manager at Holiday Inn Express in downtown Minneapolis, said he’s been encouraging guests at the hotel to take light rail whenever possible.
Still, the anticipation of gridlock has already created headaches: Some caterers have notified the hotel that they’re not delivering food because the traffic will be too difficult, and guests have had to reschedule meetings.
“We keep seeing more and more closures, so it becomes more of a challenge to divert people,” Larson said. “Unfortunately, it causes people to have a negative perception of [Minneapolis], that it’s a really difficult place to get around.”
Abigail Turner, 23, of Hudson, Wis., said she was already questioning her plans to relocate to the Twin Cities upon visiting the area over the weekend. The recent college graduate had long dreamed of moving to Minneapolis to pursue a job teaching social studies to inner-city children. Yet the city seemed awash in orange cones, detour signs and irritated motorists, said Turner, who was visiting Open Streets with her brother.
“I look around and can’t help but think, ‘Is it worth it to live this way?’ ” she said, pointing at the backed-up traffic. “Just getting around is so chaotic here. You can have one route planned and then find yourself stuck on another. By the time I get some place, I need a beer.”
The prospect of frustrating delays on the freeway during rush hour has transportation and city officials pleading with commuters to take public transportation, carpool, bike, walk or even work at home to help keep traffic levels down on I-35W. As an incentive to use public transit, Metro Transit is beefing up its service on 12 bus routes that serve the southern suburbs, increasing service by 40 percent along the corridor.
Heidi Lundgren, a server at the Local on Nicollet Mall, said her own commute by bus is affected more by construction on the 26th Street bridge than the highway closures.
“It keeps everyone in the city. You can’t leave,” Lundgren said. “It’s not often that I go to St. Paul or Duluth, but when I do it’s like every single exit is closed and I don’t know how else to get to those places.”
Boun Thongmanivong, who lives the Loring Park neighborhood near downtown Minneapolis, said he’s already girding for an increase in aggressive driving behavior, as impatient and irritated drivers attempt to avoid traffic jams by speeding down side streets. Just last week, he said, a motorist ran over a large turtle crossing a road outside his home, and Thongmanivong said he had to carry the dead turtle off the road. Since the ramp closures began this spring, speeds have topped 50 miles per hour, he said.
“There are families and children here,” he said. “I’m very concerned that someone will get seriously hurt.”