A chilly group of public officials on Tuesday made a heated call for state spending on Minnesota’s transportation network.
Gathered on a highway bridge overlooking the interchange of interstates 35W and 494, local and state leaders made their pitch in support of Gov. Mark Dayton’s 10-year, $6 billion spending plan. The site was chosen because the I-35W/I-494 interchange was recently named one of the nation’s 20 worst highway bottlenecks by the Federal Highway Administration.
“Hundreds of thousands of people drive through this interchange every day on their way to work or school, and back again,” said Lt. Governor Tina Smith. “Nearly all of those Minnesotans needlessly waste hours of their time every week stuck inching through bumper-to-bumper traffic. The time for admiring this problem is over. It is time to roll up our sleeves and do something about it.”
The major part of the plan calls for a turbine interchange, which features a series of ramps and loops that take all left-turning traffic on a circle around the central bridges where the freeways cross in a counterclockwise direction. This design would eliminate the short-merge areas from the ramps, make the interchange safer, and provide more capacity.
It would be built in phases, with the first portion costing up to $75 million. But first, state legislators would have to sign off on the governor’s proposed $6 billion plan to fix the state’s roads and bridges. Smith and State Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle teamed up to put the pressure on Tuesday.
“The sooner we can get started on this project, the better,” said Zelle. “If we do nothing, traffic will keep getting worse and the costs of rebuilding this interchange will only grow higher. A half-century of waiting has produced one of the worst traffic jams in the nation.”
Richfield Mayor Debbie Goettel endorsed the wholesale gas tax that would pay for Dayton’s transportation plan. “We need a long-term solution, and I think this time the gas tax is the best way to address it,” she said.
The governor’s plans directs MnDOT to study the possibility of adding MnPass lanes on I-494, the Crosstown or a combination of both. Adding the MnPass option would cost an estimated $180 million to $240 million, and would be financed in part by MnPass fees paid by commuters who use the new lanes. MnPass lanes are free to carpools but solo drivers can pay a fee to use them.
The third part of the plan includes a new bus rapid transit station with a 500-space park-and-ride ramp at American Boulevard. The proposed Orange Line Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) route would run along I-35W from Burnsville to downtown Minneapolis. Buses would operate along that route within a dedicated right of way to avoid congestion at the interchange.
Built in the 1960s, the interchange that carries up to 290,000 vehicles a day has seen few improvements since. The segment of I-35W between 90th Street and 76th Street experiences 3 to 5 hours of congestion each weekday while the segment of I-494 between Penn Avenue and Lyndale Avenue experiences more than six hours of congestion each weekday, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.