Traffic backups of a mile or longer occur frequently during peak periods on weekdays and summer weekends on the segment of Hwy. 10 that passes through Ramsey, where a crash happens every eight days, on average.
The Anoka County Transportation Department and the city of Ramsey are leading an effort to remove two traffic lights identified as the root of the problems and replace them with grade-separated interchanges similar to one put in at Armstrong Boulevard in 2016.
“The goal is to convert the existing expressway corridor to a free-flowing, freeway style corridor,” said Joe MacPherson, an Anoka County traffic engineer.
Traffic signals are already scheduled to be removed and interchanges rebuilt at Thurston and Fairoaks avenues to the east in Anoka. To the west, MnDOT plans to upgrade Hwy. 169 where it splits from Hwy. 10 in Elk River into a freeway.
When those projects are completed, signals at NW. Ramsey and Sunfish Lake boulevards would be the only two remaining on the vital commuter and freight corridor that carries about 55,000 vehicles a day, which is more than I-35W carries through Blaine and Lino Lakes.
“That’s what makes this so important when you have free-flow conditions from downtown all the way out, and then the two signal lights,” said Elwyn Tinklenberg, who served as state transportation commissioner from 1998 to 2002 and is a lobbyist for the Ramsey Gateway Project. “The state will have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the corridor. If you don’t get rid of those two signals, they would impede the full realization of the benefits of the improvements that have been made.”
It will cost about $138 million to upgrade the intersections and reroute adjacent roads. The city of Ramsey previously secured $3.5 million for right of way acquisition and has submitted federal grant applications for more funding. Anoka County has also applied for federal grants and is preparing to apply for more money through the 2020 Met Council Regional Solicitation program, which distributes federal transportation dollars. Both the county and the city are looking at other funding sources, including Corridors of Commerce funds allocated by MnDOT. They also are seeking $40 milion to$45 million to be included in this year’s bonding bill still to be debated at the Capitol.
As many as 80 freight trains and 14 passenger trains operate daily on tracks next to the highway, which worsens bottlenecks, said Ramsey City Administrator Kurt Ulrich. Trains, he said, interfere with the signal sequence, limiting the amount of time for traffic movement. The result is traffic on the highway at a standstill and backups on county roads that spill onto local roads.
Over the past five years, MacPherson said, there have been about 218 crashes and four deaths along the corridor extending from Anoka on Ramsey’s eastern border to Elk River on the west, with a high percentage of them rear-end type crashes. That suggests congestion is a problem, he said.
Based on current projections, backups in 2045 could exceed 4 miles if no improvements are made, MacPherson said.
Crash trends, already at double the average for similar four-lane highways in the state, are expected to increase if no improvements are made, according to a 2019 study by the engineering, planning and consulting firm Bolton & Menk. And the corridor will have “multiple areas with failing operations” as soon as 2025 if no improvements are made, the analysis said.
The numbers don’t surprise Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who said the Hwy. 10 project is a top priority for the county.
“We’ve had broadside crashes and pedestrians getting hit,” Look said. “It’s a highway built to 1950s standards and has not improved since then. It’s a necessary project.”