The commute could have been chaos.

But it wasn't. Not even close.

A miles-long backup was feared on Interstate 35W Monday morning with thousands of northbound vehicles passing through a major construction zone leading to downtown Minneapolis, where all but one exit was closed.

Instead, the morning traffic moved along reasonably well, both on the freeway and on city streets, but the evening commute was a bit slower.

"We had to hold our breath and watch," said Allan Klugman, a traffic engineer with Minneapolis Public Works. "Things were pretty low-key. The city operated well."

Many anticipated long, frustrating traffic jams after the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) over the weekend closed off the exits from northbound I-35W into downtown — to 11th Street, Grant Street and 5th Avenue — because of bridge construction. The closures forced the 43,000 motorists using those exits daily to find alternate routes.

The official detour pushed drivers to the 3rd Street/Washington Avenue ramp, and many braced for an influx of traffic on city streets if freeway motorists bailed in hopes of finding new routes into town.

As it was, traffic stacked up in the northbound lanes of I-35W around 42nd Street at the peak of the morning rush, but that's not unusual for 8 a.m. on a workday. Trips from the Crosstown to downtown at that time were taking 12 to 15 minutes, hardly the paralyzing gridlock that construction along the state's busiest freeway could bring.

Congestion on Hiawatha, Chicago, Lyndale, Hennepin and Park avenues was spotty, but the routes were not traffic-choked, Klugman said.

"I left my southwest Minneapolis home at 7:05 and was in my office by 7:28," said Erik Gilg, who took Lyndale Avenue to Hennepin Avenue. "Not terrible!"

A woman who rode the bus tweeted that she arrived at work 45 minutes early.

A few hiccups

To be sure, not everything went smoothly.

Motorists heading downtown on northbound I-35W were greeted with an unpleasant surprise as just one lane was open from 26th Street to Interstate 94 until about 6:15 a.m.

By the time a second lane opened, traffic had backed up to beyond 35th Street as motorists were squeezed into two general purpose lanes and a MnPass lane.

Over the weekend, MnDOT had planned to add a third general purpose lane north of 26th Street to 3rd Street/Washington Avenue to improve traffic flow. That project, however, was delayed by Saturday's rain and rescheduled for Tuesday night.

While buses made decent time, said Brian Funk, Metro Transit's director of bus operations, a few were slowed by motorists who used the bus-only ramp to 31st Street and drove in the special lane set aside for buses on Park Avenue.

"There were few hiccups," Funk said, adding that most of the buses started the week off ''on the right foot" with their new routes.

Slower-than-normal drives were reported from commuters heading out of downtown Monday night. Metro Transit tweeted bus delay updates every 20 minutes during the evening rush hour.

Though the consensus was that the exit closures weren't as bad as expected, commuters still complained about their end-of-day ride home.

Sam Adriaens tweeted that it took him 35 minutes for his bus — the 156 — to even get on I-35W after work. "The upside to the construction is 35W is a ghost town," he tweeted.

More changes coming

Howie Padilla, Metro Transit spokesman, said he wasn't sure what changed between the two commutes, though there were some car crashes reported in the evening that could have contributed to the slower pace. With so many variables, it's hard to pinpoint exactly what causes delays, he said.

Commuters may have caught a bit of a break Monday because, in general, traffic volumes are often lower Monday than during the rest of the workweek.

With more changes coming, the challenge of settling on the best route could start all over again, said David Aeikens, a spokesman for MnDOT.

On Friday, MnDOT will close I-35W in both directions from the Crosstown to downtown from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. Monday. When it reopens, MnDOT will close off more lanes between downtown and Lake Street, leaving two lanes in each direction plus a northbound MnPass lane. With that, the freeway will shrink from 10 travel lanes to five.

MnDOT also plans to close one lane of westbound I-94 starting next Monday — taking it to two lanes between Chicago Avenue and Nicollet Avenue.

"People need to continue to be diligent and continue to plan ahead," Aeikens said. "Things are going to be more challenging going forward. We need people to consider that."

Staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report. Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768