Dirt piles and cranes obscure the scenery along the heavily traveled stretch of Hwy. 10 that runs through Anoka County, where construction this summer has slowed motorists used to zooming along at freeway-like speeds.
At the site of the much-anticipated multimillion-dollar Armstrong Boulevard Interchange project in Ramsey, traffic inches along. That work is behind schedule, but county officials hope it will be completed by the end of the year. Construction then will move to other intersections along the Anoka-to-Ramsey stretch.
The headaches now may prevent heartaches later. In recent years, the road, one of the busiest in the north metro, has been the site of several fatal accidents and hundreds of collisions. It has been, in the words of longtime Ramsey resident George Tafoya, “a deathtrap.”
Construction will “get worse before it gets better,” said Tafoya, who lives a few miles north of the Armstrong intersection. To avoid it, he uses Bunker Lake Boulevard instead of Hwy. 10 when he commutes to his business, Tafoya Salon and Day Spa in Coon Rapids.
Most of Hwy. 10 — the part that runs through Blaine and Coon Rapids toward Anoka — resembles a freeway, with vehicles reaching speeds of 70 miles per hour. Then, as soon as drivers pass Anoka’s Main Street exit, it becomes a high-speed artery where vehicles continue to zoom along — but now through major intersections and traffic lights.
“Something has to be done; it couldn’t stay the way it was,” Tafoya said. “There were always accidents on those intersections. You got a highway going there and have to stop every mile or so. … It’s like a super boulevard — people travel on that highway at 60, 65 miles per hour, and I see people running the lights every day. It’s nuts.”
Most of the crashes on the corridor have been rear-end collisions, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Rear-end collisions usually happen when drivers slam on their brakes because they are not paying attention, the State Patrol says.
“This particular area is a long straightaway, so there’s really not a lot of good reasons why a driver wouldn’t see a stoplight or reduce their speed to avoid a crash,” said Lt. Tiffani Schweigart, State Patrol spokeswoman.
Hwy. 10 has long been Anoka County’s top priority for road reconstruction. At first, local officials dreamed of converting it into a freeway, which would have involved removing and reconstructing five major intersections, said Brian Olson, former director of public works for Ramsey from 2000 to 2012. He now holds the same job in Edina.
The cost of that project would have been $300 million, at a minimum.
“MnDOT told us there wasn’t enough money,” Olson said. “And a local community couldn’t take up those costs; it had to be a regional project.”
So plans were scaled down. The new plan would separate street traffic and put interchanges at Armstrong, Ramsey and Sunfish Lake boulevards in Ramsey and make similar changes at Thurston Avenue in Anoka. Fairoak Avenue would no longer have direct access to Hwy. 10; instead, there would be service roads in that area.
Funding for the Armstrong interchange was secured from different federal, state, county and city sources. Funding for the other intersections has not been obtained, according to MnDOT.
Four months, four deaths
Like dozens of other pedestrians, 16-year-old Hannah Craft decided not to cross Hwy. 10 at the nearest intersection that had a traffic light, which would have been Fairoak Avenue in Anoka.
Instead, she was navigating across the busy highway near Verndale Avenue, where there is no traffic signal, stop sign or marked crosswalk.
The Ramsey teen showed up at her fast-food restaurant job on a weeknight in November 2012 only to find out she wasn’t scheduled to work. Minutes later, as she headed home, she was struck and killed by a car on Hwy. 10.
Craft was the fourth person to die crossing the highway in a four-month period in 2012. Two of those deaths, including Craft’s, occurred away from crosswalks. The second occurred in August 2012, when a 49-year-old Ramsey man was hit by two cars while trying to cross Hwy. 10 near Ramsey Boulevard.
A couple from San Antonio, Texas, died on a Saturday night in September 2012 when they were struck by a vehicle heading east on Hwy. 10 at Sunfish Lake Boulevard. One of the victims then was hit by another driver. The couple was in the crosswalk but crossing against a red light, heading back to the Comfort Suites hotel after dinner at Willy McCoys.
“It’s a dark country road, but it’s fast,” one driver involved in the accident said. “So there’s no time. … By the time something is lit up and there’s lights, there’s no time to stop.”
Doug Fischer, Anoka County engineer, is well aware of the dangers. “We have a huge pedestrian problem in this corridor,” he said.
The next project after the Armstrong Interchange will be to place a barrier in the middle of the highway, which would “force people to cross at Thurston and Fairoak where the signals are at instead of crossing in between the signals,” Fischer said.
In the meantime, the area is a headache for the thousands of commuters who use it daily.
Missy Bettinger, a manager at Coborn’s Superstore in Anoka, switched to back roads on her commute from Elk River.
Last October, Bettinger was worried that construction might cut into business, but she’s found that many customers are also taking the same roads she’s been using.
“Everyone is just dealing with it,” she said. “But the construction is coming along. … It’s looking like there’s hope in sight. I can’t wait until it’s finished.”