A parade of construction projects stretching from Forest Lake to Bloomington along Interstates 35 and 35W will put a summerlong crimp in commuting and slow trips for those heading north to the cabin.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation will dig into a new project to add MnPass express lanes on I-35W from Roseville to Blaine and resume work on other projects already underway, including resurfacing in Forest Lake, rebuilding the freeway in Minneapolis and repairing the bridge over the Minnesota River in Bloomington. For drivers, that means more orange cones, lane closures and backups along the 35-mile journey.
“There will be a few miles of no construction, then bam, they will be back into it,” said MnDOT spokesman Kent Barnard. “We know it will be disruptive for people.”
It will come at a time when another escape route to the north — Interstate 94 from Maple Grove to Clearwater — will also be under construction.
In Forest Lake, where the resurfacing work and Hwy. 97 bridge repair started last year, businesses are already bracing for another tough traffic season.
Many drivers have opted for Hwy. 61 as an alternate, and as a result traffic in the city’s downtown has grown exponentially, said Nannette LaNasa, executive director of the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It is almost impossible to make a left turn out of the parking lot,” she said. “It makes for a general sense of anxiety on how to get around the area. I will be ecstatic, so will many businesses, when things get back to normal. It can’t get done soon enough.”
The $200 million North MnPass project that has been years in the planning has the support of city leaders who say it is necessary to address a growing population and improve safety and mobility issues in the north metro.
Over the next three years, MnDOT will put a MnPass lane in the center of I-35W from County Road C in Roseville to Lexington Avenue in Blaine. The agency also will rebuild bridges at County Roads C and I, repave entrance ramps at several interchanges and put up noise walls at seven locations. From April to November this year, traffic will be squeezed down to two lanes in each direction with an occasional third travel lane available.
As the construction season looms, city officials are concerned that city streets, county roads and even Hwy. 65, which already carries as much or more traffic than I-35W, will receive extra traffic as drivers seek asylum from anticipated freeway bottlenecks.
MnDOT predicts up to 5,000 drivers on the northern end of the project will leave the freeway and use local roads that are within 2 miles of I-35W. Those numbers are expected to jump to between 12,000 to 15,000 vehicles on the southern end of the project, putting extra pressure on local roads in places such as Mounds View, New Brighton and Roseville.
New Brighton already acutely feels the effects of congestion on I-35W. With construction starting, the city is bracing for even more people to cut through the city instead of using the freeway, said Craig Schlichting, the city’s director of Community Assets and Development.
“When the freeway backs up, we see increased traffic, so we know some of what people’s patterns are,” he said. “We are trying to get out in front of it.”
To facilitate traffic movement in New Brighton, MnDOT is adding extra left turn lanes and retiming signal lights on roads such as Old Hwy. 8, Silver Lake Road and Long Lake Road that are expected to see a big uptick in traffic. Notices have also been placed in city newsletters to alert residents.
In neighboring Mounds View, City Administrator Nyle Zikmund said Mounds View Boulevard should be able to handle more traffic because the road used to see 50,000 vehicles daily before Hwys. 10 and 610 opened.
Last summer, MnDOT reconfigured the I-35W/Mounds View Boulevard interchange and retimed traffic lights to improve traffic flow in anticipation of this year’s work on I-35W. Even so, he said, motorists should not expect totally smooth sailing.
“The first year will be a difficult year,” Zikmund said. “Start making your adaptation plans now. Getting mad won’t make the project get done any faster.”
The MnPass lane, which is the metro area’s fourth, and improvements on I-35W are worth a season or two of chaos, said Jon Haukaas, Blaine’s director of Public Works.
“These north-south corridors need some help,” he said. “It needs to be done. It will be a big help for the region. As much as we have been looking forward to it happening, we are looking forward to it being done.”