Blaine has crafted a plan to fix traffic-choked Hwy. 65. The north metro city just needs the money to do it.
Mayor Tim Sanders and other city officials made a pitch Tuesday to members of the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee who stopped in Blaine as part of a tour scoping out potential projects to be included in a bonding bill next year.
The highway splitting the state's 10th largest city in two is "a massive, massive problem," Sanders said during a presentation at the National Sports Center. "It's an absolute disaster that we need your help with. We need to get people in and out of the city safely and efficiently."
The city is asking for $18 million to overhaul the intersection of Hwy. 65 and 99th Avenue NE. and $25 million for the intersection at 117th Avenue NE. The requests are part of a larger ambitious plan to address congestion, reduce crashes and improve transit between 97th Avenue NE. and 117th Avenue NE. The corridor contains four intersections that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has listed as "high priority" for upgrades.
Blaine took a unique step to advance the plan by becoming the first entity in the state to complete a Planning and Environmental Linkage (PEL) study instead of following traditional steps that often begin with a proposed design and require an environmental impact study, which can take years to complete. A PEL can speed up a project considerably, said MnDOT engineer Melissa Barnes.
By doing a PEL, the city went to stakeholders — residents and business owners — to learn what they hoped to get from a final product "rather than us saying we need three lanes in each direction," said Jon Haukaas, Blaine's public works director. "We asked where do you go, what are the issues trying to get to and from there, what is going to address everybody's concern at the highest level?"
With community involvement, plus initial input from watershed districts and federal authorities, Blaine developed about 15 alternatives for the corridor. The city has since narrowed plans to three and could choose one by next year. Construction could begin as soon as 2024, Haukaas said.
The stretch of Hwy. 65 through Blaine carries about 51,000 vehicles a day, according to the most recent MnDOT traffic counts. That's more than use nearby Interstate 35W, counts show.
Crossing Hwy. 65 is difficult, said Rep. Erin Koegel, DFL-Spring Lake Park, who said she avoids using the highway.
"At 4 p.m., it's stoplight after stoplight," she said. "The intersections are incredibly dangerous."
Blaine Police Chief Brian Podany said upgrading Hwy. 65 is a "critical need." He said congestion is to blame for at least 50 crashes yearly at each of the five intersections with stoplights. In the first six months of 2021, his department has responded to 102 crashes and issued 270 citations along the corridor.
Police and firefighters from neighboring cities, Anoka County commissioners and even school district superintendents were on hand Tuesday to show support for the project, in hopes of swaying committee members to push for the project when the Legislature convenes this winter.
"It is critical" for the committee to see that, Haukaas said.
Officials said Hwy. 65 acts as a barrier dividing the city and plans call for better walking and biking facilities to make crossing the road easier. Along with safer crossings and better transit amenities, drivers could see up to 50% faster trips, according MnDOT. Blaine has listed Hwy. 65 as one of its highest priorities.
About 5.5 million people visit the city each year for large events, such as the 3M Open golf tournament, and hundreds of smaller events at the National Sports Center. That makes upgrading Hwy. 65 not just a Blaine issue, but a regional issue, Sanders said.
"We have trouble getting people here because of Hwy. 65," the mayor said. "We need the state to take care of its infrastructure."