Road construction has made it difficult to get out of downtown Minneapolis during the evening rush hours this spring, and drivers caught in gridlock are making matters worse for everybody by blocking intersections and crosswalks.
A classic case of chaos unfolded last Wednesday when 3rd Avenue S. was slimmed down to one lane in each direction at S. 2nd Street near the Mississippi River. CenterPoint Energy had lanes closed to replace a steel natural gas pipe.
At 5:30 p.m. a northbound motorist inching along 3rd Avenue tried to sneak her Smart Fortwo Passion across the intersection at 5th Street before the traffic signal turned red. She didn’t make it.
Tiny as it was, the rear end of the car stuck out over the light-rail tracks. That prevented a westbound Blue Line train from leaving the Government Center station. The train operator showed displeasure by blasting the horn. After all, trains do have a schedule to keep.
Two blocks over at 4th Street, right outside City Hall, the scene looked much the same. Two motorists caught in the same jam that stretched from 5th Street to beyond Washington Avenue blocked the westbound bus-only lane and the crosswalk. That forced pedestrians crossing 3rd Avenue to zigzag between narrowly spaced cars.
At the same time, a westbound Route 3 Metro Transit bus swung into the bike lane to bypass the obstructing motorists, causing two bicyclists to veer into the eastbound traffic lanes, where they were nearly clipped by drivers swerving to avoid them.
A second Metro Transit bus right behind simply waited through another light cycle for a clear path before continuing on its route.
The good news for motorists is that the CenterPoint project at 3rd Avenue and S. 2nd Street is supposed to wrap up by Monday and all traffic lanes will be reopened.
“Traffic is not fun at 5:30, ever,” said Becca Virden, a spokeswoman for the utility. “This is an inconvenience, and we apologize. But this is necessary.”
Although the weeklong disruption on 3rd Avenue S. should be over, longer-running projects such as the repaving of LaSalle Avenue and closures around the Vikings stadium continue. But the problem of motorists clogging intersections isn’t limited to construction zones.
It’s a chronic problem, and it’s against the law to block an intersection or a crosswalk, said John Elder, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department. Further, motorists should not enter an intersection until it is clear. The same goes for motorists who are attempting to make a turn, he said.
“We do send out police officers, and people do change their behavior when a squad is parked at problem corners,” Elder said. “Why should we obstruct other motorists when they have a green light? When drivers are being blocked, they say, ‘Why should I be delayed?’ ”
Traffic, though it might not be moving fast, generally flows better when motorists obey the rules. No one wins when intersections are one big knot.
“The good news is that our operators have experience looking for these things, but unfortunately that [blocked intersections] is not uncommon,” said Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla. “We have had experiences where cars have tried to beat the train, and cars are going to lose that battle.”