The Minnesota Department of Transportation is no stranger to criticism, and this summer the agency charged with maintaining our roads has received its share.
Construction has knotted up traffic on Interstate 494 in the west metro. Traveling in either direction on Hwy. 100 through St. Louis Park has been miserable, and making matters worse a new project kicked off last week giving motorists one less lane to use between the Crosstown and I-494 in Edina.
A resurfacing project last month on westbound I-394 brought afternoon rush-hour traffic in Minneapolis to a standstill. Now for the next two weeks, it's going to be a bear in the mornings as the eastbound lanes between Hwy. 100 and downtown are closed.
Oh, and let's not forget the havoc caused by the new MnPass lanes being added on I-35E through Maplewood and St. Paul and construction in other spots throwing commuting patterns into chaos.
With motorists seemingly stymied at every turn of the road, it's no wonder motorists are fed up with MnDOT. But maybe the ill feelings should also come with some love and gratitude. At least a smidgen.
"I will never say people don't have the right to complain about getting stuck in traffic. That does not feel good for anybody," said Brian Isaacson, MnDOT's construction program manager for the metro district. "They complain and say, 'Couldn't you have done this at a different time, or better?' Then you say, 'Here is what we are grappling with.' "
MnDOT has the unenviable task of keeping miles and miles of urban highways and freeways in shipshape — our punishing climate, growing traffic and budget constraints not withstanding. According to TRIP, the agency is doing a very good job.
The national transportation research group recently came out with its "Bumpy Roads Ahead: America's Roughest Rides and Strategies to Make our Roads Smoother" report. It found that 59 percent of our metro area freeways and highways are in good shape, while 16 percent are in fair condition, 19 percent in mediocre and only 6 percent in poor condition. Of cities with more than 500,000 people, only Nashville has better roads, with 65 percent in good shape. Nationwide, only 31 percent of urban highways are in good condition, according to the report, based on 2013 data on pavement conditions from the Federal Highway Administration.
Isaacson acknowledges that things have been "a bit haywire" this year, with I-394, Hwy. 100 and I-494 work going on simultaneously. But projects have to be done when the weather permits and money is available. That's now.
"We have a lot going on on our highways, and our folks take pride in working for the department and in doing a good job," he said. Road work, Isaacson says, strikes at the core of everyday life, and "we take that seriously."
Time is precious and most of us don't want to use it sitting in traffic. Bad roads — think major potholes and broken axles — could cost more than time. The average motorist is losing $516 annually in additional vehicle operating costs as a result of driving on roads in need of repair, TRIP says.
In that view, a summer of construction-related misery is worth it. Without it, our roads could become like those in San Francisco or Los Angeles, where nearly 75 percent of urban highways get a failing grade.