Minneapolis officials are calling for major changes to Olson Hwy. that would coincide with construction of the region’s fourth light-rail line, saying the existing seven-lane road through the North Side is “hostile” to people on foot.

The mayor’s office said city officials have learned their lesson from the Blue Line, where a barrier of high-speed traffic has hurt potential development along Hiawatha Avenue. The proposed Bottineau project would extend the Blue Line to Brooklyn Park, traveling along Olson Hwy. — or Hwy. 55 — before breaking off and heading north.

A City Council panel receiving updates about the project Tuesday asked how pedestrians would reach the two stations at Van White Boulevard and Penn Avenue N. Some mulled the idea of bridges to accommodate walkers or bikers, but Mayor Betsy Hodges’ policy director, Peter Wagenius, said those alone won’t be enough.

“The mayor’s fear is that having that conversation about, for example, pedestrian bridges over Olson Hwy. might have the effect of declaring surrender that Olson is always going to be as hostile to pedestrians as it is today,” Wagenius said. “And that’s not just acceptable.”

Although the Bottineau route skirts the heart of the North Side, Wagenius said it is otherwise ripe for development because it is surrounded by a lot of publicly owned land. But spurring development of housing, retail or offices might be difficult if people have to cross extensive traffic on Olson.

“There isn’t going to be a scenario where we maintain seven lanes of traffic exactly as it is today and we dramatically improve the pedestrian experience,” Wagenius said.

The highway was the site of a pedestrian fatality in July 2013, when a car struck a 37-year-old man crossing legally in a wheelchair at James Avenue N.

Bottineau project manager Dan Soler told the panel that significant consideration is being given to the road design. “The station’s only as good as the ability for people to use it, which means they have to be able to get there,” Soler said.

He added, however, that as a state trunk highway located in the city of Minneapolis and featuring a light-rail line, “you’ve got a lot of players to work with.”

The state Department of Transportation said Tuesday it has no official position yet on the road’s future design. “I can tell you that all options will be considered, including lane reduction, in determining the best alternative for the Hwy. 55 corridor,” MnDOT spokesman Nick Carpenter wrote in an e-mail.

Council Member Cam Gordon said perhaps the Bottineau line can avoid some of the traffic snarls created by ground-level tracks along most of Hiawatha Avenue. “If we could have just dipped and done something to separate those grades, it would have been incredible,” Gordon said.

The design of the road could affect future transit projects, including a bus rapid transit (BRT) line that would travel along the highway to Medina.

A study of that concept, completed in February, concluded that pedestrian environments around the highway were “challenging or nonexistent” and the road would need major changes to accommodate bus shoulders.

The BRT corridor, which includes the General Mills campus in Golden Valley, otherwise scored well among several highways considered for bus rapid transit.

The city of Plymouth, which pushed for the study, has not taken an official position on the project, Plymouth City Manager Dave Callister said.

The Metropolitan Council is also planning to build a high-frequency rapid bus line — without dedicated lanes — along Penn Avenue in 2016, which would intersect with Olson Hwy.

The $1 billion Bottineau line, expected to be opened in 2021, has also attracted recent attention in Minneapolis and Golden Valley because project managers are deciding whether to eliminate a station at Golden Valley Road or Plymouth Avenue. A decision is expected this year.

 

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