Motorists are about to have their patience tested even further as more orange cones go up on Minnesota roads.
On Thursday, the state Department of Transportation unveiled a list of 221 projects it will carry out across the state this summer, stressing that when fall arrives, roads will be much improved and congestion will ease.
Drivers have already started feeling the pinch, particularly on Interstates 35 and 35W, where five separate projects between Bloomington and Pine County north of the metro have the freeway squeezed to fewer lanes in spots, and more lane closures are on the way. The work on the heavily used north-south freeway that cuts through the heart of the Twin Cities is among 75 metro projects where motorists can expect to encounter bottlenecks over the next six months.
“It causes some stress out there,” acknowledged Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who was appropriately dressed in orange while announcing MnDOT’s 2019 construction schedule. “We empathize with those who need to plan extra time.”
Motorists can plan on longer drive times on I-35 and I-35W, and on Interstate 94 between Maple Grove and Rogers, on Interstate 494 from Inver Grove Heights to South St. Paul, and at the congested I-494/694/94 interchange in Woodbury.
Metro-area projects tend to be more high profile, but MnDOT is spending more of its $1.2 billion 2019 construction budget on outstate projects.
That includes replacing the Hwy. 63 bridge in Red Wing, expanding Hwy. 14 to four lanes between Owatonna and Dodge Center, and resurfacing 25 miles of Hwy. 65 through Aitkin County and Hwy. 61 along the North Shore.
Many of this year’s jobs have been in the works for 20 years, but without adequate funding, others on the waiting list won’t get done, Anderson Kelliher said.
“We have over 500 projects on the list we would like to complete for Minnesotans,” she said in lending support for Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal to raise the gas tax by 20 cents a gallon, money that would go to roads, bridges and mass-transit projects. “We need dedicated and sustainable funding or we won’t be able to announce lists like this.”
MnDOT projects an $18 billion deficit in funding over the next 20 years. The debate at the State Capitol over the gas tax comes as the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave Minnesota a grade of C for the state of its bridges and a D+ for its roads.
The gaping potholes that sprang up along I-94 near the Portland Tunnel in Minneapolis last month, blowing out tires on 14 cars, are a symptom of aging infrastructure, Anderson Kelliher said.
This year’s projects will help that effort. Drivers on I-35W near downtown Minneapolis will be shifted onto new concrete but still be restricted to two lanes between I-94 and 42nd Street as the second year of the massive $240 million Downtown to Crosstown project continues. Only two lanes plus a MnPass lane will be available on I-35W across the Minnesota River in Bloomington as MnDOT rebuilds the bridge and raises the freeway out of the flood plain.
In South St. Paul, a pavement rehabilitation and bridge repair project that begins this weekend on I-494 will take out lanes. And in June, MnDOT will try an innovative maneuver when it slides the southbound I-694 overpass into the median and keeps it open as it widens lanes on bridges spanning I-94 in Woodbury and reconfigures the loop from southbound I-694 to eastbound I-94, an area prone to truck rollovers.
The biggest delays, said metro district engineer Michael Beer, are expected on I-35W. The freeway will be down to two lanes between Roseville and Lino Lakes. Northbound drivers approaching the I-35E split will confront work that forces the freeway down to one lane. Long backups also are expected on I-35 between Harris and the Pine County line from May to September.
When it’s all done in the fall, Beer said the work will have resulted in better roads and less congestion.
Until then, “it’s going to test drivers’ patience,” he said. “There will be difficult travel routes.”