Twenty miles north of Minneapolis, Central Avenue, or Hwy. 65, has become a center of controversy, fear and death.
It's a stretch of road "to be avoided at all possible costs," Ham Lake Mayor Paul Meunier said. But it's also one of Minnesota's busiest stretches -- at a recent three-year cost of eight lives and $12 million in damages.
Of the 200 intersections designated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation as costliest because of accidents, 19 were on Hwy. 65 in Anoka County, according to MnDOT's 2006-08 survey, the most recent completed.
No other stretch of state highway comes close, according to MnDOT's statistics. And with the migration to summer cabins revving up, the situation on Hwy. 65, which extends nearly to the Boundary Waters, is as pressing as ever.
A few years ago, when Anoka County Sheriff's Capt. Tom Wells consoled a former department employee whose wife had been killed at an intersection on Hwy. 65 in Ham Lake, Wells said, the man's teary response was, "I told her not to go that way."
Central Avenue, as it extends from Blaine into Ham Lake and through East Bethel, is a rarity among stretches of Twin Cities roads: a straight-away with a 65 mile-per-hour speed limit, but interrupted by frequent traffic signals that force drivers to come to sudden halts or, worse, race through turns as signals turn red.
The majority of Anoka County's Hwy. 65 intersections on MnDOT's list are in Blaine, one of Minnesota's largest cities and a suburb where traffic signals on Central Avenue are common. There were three fatalities and 305 accidents altogether at Central Avenue intersections in Blaine between 2006 and 2008, according to MnDOT.
But since 2002, six of the fatal accidents at intersections on the highway have been in East Bethel, and three were in Ham Lake. During that eight-year span, there have been 150 accidents resulting in personal injury on Hwy. 65 at intersections in Ham Lake and another 112 in East Bethel, according to Anoka County Sheriff's data.
Lack of concentration
"People get out of Blaine, into the northern half of the county, and see that 65 mile-per-hour speed limit and they start blowing right through red lights," Anoka County Engineer Doug Fischer said.
Businesses along the highway become increasingly scarce north of Blaine, and drivers, particularly those unfamiliar with the area, might not anticipate lights. But even drivers who know the area might fall prey to dangerous habits.
"Are they too busy concentrating on finishing their Big Macs, or their cell phone conversations or changing CDs?" Fischer asked. "Whatever it is, those fender benders that you see closer to Minneapolis become something more tragic when you're exceeding the speed limit at 75 or 80 miles per hour, like so many people do when they're on Hwy. 65 in East Bethel or Ham Lake."
Then there are intersections that seem to beg for signals but have none.
The intersection in East Bethel at 221st Avenue NE, which has no signal or turn lane, ranks as the 22nd costliest in the state, according to MnDOT, which considered fatalities, severity of accidents and material costs when compiling its intersections list.
There have been 23 personal-injury accidents at 221st Avenue over the past eight years. The last fatal accident there was in 2007, but Patrick Schnickels, owner of the Top-a-Truck store nearby, said the corner is blocked off frequently to allow rescue helicopters or ambulances to transport victims to hospitals.
"Can't they at least put in a turn lane?" Schnickels asked.
"It's terrible," said Jane Sell, who drives home on Hwy. 65 from her job at the University of Minnesota and has to turn left onto 221st Avenue during rush hour every day.
Requests for signal
Sell's husband, Doug, is East Bethel's city administrator. He said the city has received notice that Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have requested federal funding to study the stretch of Hwy. 65 from Athens Township in Isanti County to Ham Lake. MnDOT officials will be at Ham Lake City Hall on July 15 to discuss adding a J-turn that would allow left turns onto 169th Avenue, another troubled Hwy. 65 intersection and the site of a fatal accident in 2006.
A turn signal has been promised for the 221st Avenue intersection by 2014, MnDOT officials said. But East Bethel is so anxious to reduce the number of accidents that the city proposed fronting the money if a signal could be installed sooner, Fischer said. But he said that likely won't happen.
"Adding a signal does not necessarily reduce crashes," said Gayle Gedstad, MnDOT traffic engineer. "People have yellow-light syndrome. Some slow down, but many speed up. In a sense, the problems are unavoidable."
According to the MnDOT survey, the state's worst intersections are in St. Cloud, at the junction of Hwys. 15 and 23, where there were 146 accidents, including one fatality, between 2006 and 2008; and in Roseville, at Hwys. 51 and County Road B, where there were 143 accidents. There were 17 problem intersections on Hwy. 169, spread throughout the state.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419