For years, traffic has been backed up for as much as six hours a day at the Rice Street-Interstate 694 interchange between Shoreview and Vadnais Heights.

The two-lane bridge built in 1957 and flanked by four stoplights couldn’t accommodate the 18,000 suburban Ramsey County commuters who pass through there daily.

Now a $23 million reconstruction, including a new four-lane bridge with a pedestrian path, should mean smoother travels for motorists, cyclists and walkers, according to county planners. The Legislature allocated $20.5 million for the interchange in 2017.

“It’s a congested area. It was a known problem for years,” said Ramsey County civil engineer Nick Fischer, who’s overseeing the project.

Besides easing the gridlock, the new bridge and reconfigured interchange might also breathe new life into the aging commercial corridor near where the cities of Shoreview, Vadnais Heights, Little Canada and Roseville meet.

“It’s been a nightmare for commuters and residents over the years, especially when it backs up with inclement weather,” said Tom Simonson, Shoreview’s assistant city manager. “When the interchange isn’t flowing and up to design standards, it has a big impact on residents’ quality of life. This has been such a long time coming.”

A modest transformation is already underway.

In the northwest corner of the interchange, an aging Shoreview strip mall was torn down and replaced with a complex of townhouses and market-rate apartments called the McMillan. A new restaurant called Oliver’s will open next month in the McMillan, Simonson said. Shoreview owns 10 acres in the southwest corner that will be sold and developed, he said.

There are no plans for redevelopment in the northeast corner, which includes a Taco Bell, chiropractor’s office and liquor store in Vadnais Heights. Community Development Director Nolan Wall said that while the city isn’t actively pushing anyone to sell their properties, it’s open to collaborating with developers who acquire land.

On the southeast corner, Cardigan Ridge, a 120-unit senior living complex, has opened in Little Canada. A newly rebuilt Taco John’s and Subway also have opened.

A few blocks south on Rice Street in Roseville, a 60-unit affordable senior apartment complex is in the works.

“There is definitely some reinvestment going on,” said Little Canada City Administrator Chris Heineman. “These are major, long-term investments in the area.”

Work to end next summer

But construction on the interchange has led to a corresponding loss of customers, making the project difficult for existing businesses to endure.

A manager at Caribou Coffee on the southeast corner said customer counts dropped as commuters found alternative routes to work. They’re hopeful customers will return as the work nears completion.

That should be late next summer, more than a year after construction started.

Three roundabouts, with grass in the center, will replace the four stoplights. One is already constructed and handling traffic, which will remain slow until all three roundabouts are built.

“They function really well,” Fischer said. “You are not going through them very quickly, but you never have to stop.”

Studies show roundabouts reduce traffic delays by 20% to 30%, according to Ramsey County.

A pedestrian and bike trail on the east side of the new bridge and a sidewalk on the west side are important new features. The old bridge was especially treacherous for walkers and bikers, Fischer said.

“If you walked across it, you’d have to walk in traffic. It was scary,” he said.

Fischer said the new bridge and roundabouts are designed for growth and should be able to handle the 25,000 vehicles per day estimated by 2040.

“There will be great improvement for traffic flow, safety and access,” Simonson said.