“Rush hour” is at a near standstill this week between downtown Minneapolis and the west-metro area as a trifecta of major highway construction projects teams up with closures of key city streets. And there’s more to come for west-metro commuters.
The latest project to disrupt traffic is the resurfacing of westbound Interstate 394 between downtown Minneapolis and Highway 100 in Golden Valley. All outbound drivers are being diverted to the reversible carpool lanes via narrow entries that are causing backups and gridlock on downtown streets.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said David Haas, whose drive to Plymouth has grown from 20 minutes to 45. “MnDOT needs to do something about the entry to 394. You have four lanes coming out of downtown and everybody then is forced into one lane.”
But the bigger question commuters are asking is why the Minnesota Department of Transportation is working on three major highways at the same time.
Hwy. 100 through St. Louis Park is reduced to two lanes in each direction, and I-494 has only one or two lanes open in each direction between I-394 and the Fish Lake Interchange in Maple Grove.
And this doesn’t even count another project starting on Hwy. 100 next week, a pavement and guardrail repair project between the Crosstown Hwy. 62 and I-494.
“We recognize it is going to cause pain in terms of congestion,” said John Griffith, MnDOT’s west area manager, who said the agency opted for lane closures on 394 instead of a full shutdown.
“We are leaving it open as best as we can, giving people an alternative to use 394 and also trying to get the work done as fast as we can,” he said. “It takes people a week to get the timing down.”
But MnDOT is absolutely hearing commuters’ concerns, he said.
I-394 couldn’t wait
MnDOT has had to do repairs on I-394 every three or four years. To avoid overlapping with the projects on Hwy. 100 and I-494, the agency would have had to do the work two years ago, or wait another two years. The projects on Hwy. 100 and I-494 span two seasons, this year and next, and the pavement condition of I-394 could not wait for attention.
The good news is that when the entire $11 million resurfacing project is complete in August (the eastbound lanes will be done then), drivers are not likely to see major repairs for another 10 to 15 years.
For Gail Van der Linden, the end can’t come soon enough. She described her reverse commute from northeast Minneapolis to Plymouth on Hwy. 55 in the morning as a “white-knuckle” trip, and said it was the same on the way home.
“You can just see the frustration. You are just sitting there,” she said, adding that her former 12- to 15-minute drive has risen substantially. “It’s nuts. Plan B is going into effect tomorrow. There is no Plan C. Routing freeway traffic onto a two-lane highway is crazy.”
It’s not just I-394 drivers who are suffering. Logjams have also formed on Hwy. 55 as drivers seek alternate routes. The closure of portions of LaSalle Avenue and lane restrictions on Hennepin Avenue have also hampered non-freeway traffic heading south. The closure of Nicollet Mall has put Metro Transit buses on Hennepin, 2nd and 3rd avenues, putting extra traffic on those busy routes and sending a ripple effect into downtown. Buses passing through downtown Minneapolis were running up to 30 minutes behind schedule this week, said Metro Transit spokesman Drew Kerr. Some were even further behind.
“I waited 45 minutes for a bus; luckily I was not in a rush,” said Kelly Kugler, of Bloomington, whose Route 597 uses I-35W but could not get through town Tuesday. “I guess it’s the perfect storm. People are frustrated just standing there in gridlock. It might be worse if we had the hot weather like over the weekend.”
Patrols catching scofflaws
Somehow, even with the clogged roads, some drivers have managed to speed through work zones, punishable by a $300 fine. This week, the State Patrol stopped a woman going 75 miles per hour on I-494 in Plymouth in an area that has reduced speeds and lane restrictions.
Since June 1, the patrol has responded to 45 rear-end and sideswipe crashes on the 8-mile segment of 494 that is under construction, double the normal amount of wrecks. A majority of them happened during the morning and afternoon rush hours. As a result, the patrol is stepping up enforcement through October, looking for speeders and tailgaters, said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol.
This summer, MnDOT has roughly 20 miles of metro highways and freeways under construction, including I-35E in Maplewood and St. Paul, Hwy. 5 near the MSP Airport and several smaller projects. The future is calling for even more.
After wrapping up work on I-494 and Hwy. 100 next year, a full closure of Hwy. 169 is scheduled for 2016, work on Hwy. 252 at the I-94/694 interchange is planned for 2017 and a reworking of I-35W through south Minneapolis is on the horizon.