After four pedestrian deaths in four months, transportation officials say that they'll conduct a new study of Hwy. 10 in western Anoka County to find solutions to make the road safer and free it from a decade of political infighting.

Converting a four-mile stretch of Hwy. 10 in the cities of Anoka and Ramsey to a freeway would cost $300 million, a plan that Minnesota Department of Transportation and local officials abandoned nearly six years ago when funding was deemed unrealistic.

Then came the latest pedestrian fatality: Hannah Craft, 16, of Ramsey, was killed Nov. 26 when she was struck by a westbound car while crossing Hwy. 10 near Verndale Avenue in Anoka, where there is no traffic signal, stop signs or marked crosswalk.

"It's just tragic," said Doug Fischer, Anoka County engineer. He said MnDOT had proposed a new study long before the latest death, "but the $300 million question is how do you make low-cost, high-impact improvements short of removing signals and building a freeway?"

Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, a Ramsey resident and member of the county's transportation committee, said Hwy. 10 has long been the county's top road priority and he's angry that the Metropolitan Council has not put more pressure on state and federal officials to fix the road. But state officials say they don't have the minimum of $300 million needed to convert one of the busiest stretches of road in the northern suburbs into a freeway, which would involve removing and reconstructing five major intersections.

Lakeisha Craft, whose daughter would have turned 17 on Dec. 10 , reacted tersely, saying, "All those lives are worth more than a study.

"My daughter is not the only one to die crossing Highway 10 this year," Craft said. "How many more are going to perish before they see something needs to be done?"

Immediately west of the Interstate 35W junction in Arden Hills, Hwy. 10 functions as a freeway through Blaine, Coon Rapids and part of Anoka, with speed limits reaching 70 miles per hour. But west of Anoka's Main Street exit, the freeway evolves into a densely used artery with vehicles rushing from both directions and ripping through major intersections and traffic lights at 60 miles per hour.

Hannah Craft, like dozens of other pedestrians each day, did not cross Hwy. 10 at the nearest intersection with a traffic light -- in this case Fairoak Avenue. For years, pedestrians have been seen dashing across Hwy. 10 where there is no crosswalk within reasonable distance.

"We see it every day," said Krissa Jeffers, who has worked at the SuperAmerica near the Fairoak Avenue intersection for 17 years. "A few years ago, a lady with kids tried weaving in and out of traffic as she ran across Hwy. 10. She didn't die, but she was holding a child when she got hit."

An eight-year lull, then death

After an eight-year lull in which no pedestrians were killed on this stretch of Hwy. 10, MnDOT officials held their collective breath when a pedestrian was struck and killed by a car in early 2010. Then in January, there was another pedestrian death, this one a suicide.

But of the four recent deaths, two accidents occurred away from crosswalks. In August, a 49-year-old Ramsey man was hit by two cars while trying to cross Hwy. 10 near Ramsey Blvd. at 10:30 p.m. An elderly couple died crossing against a "don't-walk" light at Sunfish Lake Blvd. in Ramsey in September, said Gayle Gedstad, MnDOT traffic engineer.

"These are pedestrian errors," he said. "Does it make sense to build a pedestrian bridge or wait and do a full freeway? Unless you build a freeway with walls and fences, people will run across at the point of least resistance."

After the September accident, Ramsey Mayor Bob Ramsey reiterated the need for overpasses, at the very least, at the busiest intersections.

"Highway 10 is dangerous," he said. "I don't know how MnDOT can say it's not."

Look was even more direct, saying, "I want to tell federal officials, 'It's your road. Fix it!'"

Harry Blair, who owns the SuperAmerica franchise store at Fairoak Avenue, said that, after watching a woman run across Hwy. 10 pushing a stroller, he would like to see a chain-link fence or median built to deter pedestrian traffic.

"Our city has been concerned for years," said Tim Cruikshank, Anoka's city manager. "Then funding for the [highway] project proved not to be realistic. It's fallen off the radar."

According to figures verified by Anoka County and MnDOT, the cost of converting intersections would include $140 million at Ramsey Boulevard and Sunfish Lake Boulevard, both in Ramsey; $125 million for Thurston Avenue and Fairoak Avenue, both in Anoka, and another $35 million for the Armstrong Boulevard exchange. That totals $300 million, including right-of-way costs to acquire property and relocating homes and businesses, Gedstad said.

"If that's what it takes," said Lakeisha Craft. "How much will the next life we lose be worth?"

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419