It’s getting darker inside the Lowry Hill Tunnel, and the Minnesota Department of Transportation is scrambling to find a solution.

The problem is that semitrailer trucks and other oversized vehicles have hit eight of the overhead high-pressure sodium lights used to illuminate the tunnel and damaged the fixtures that hold them in place.

MnDOT can replace the lights, but “we don’t have any replacements” for the fixtures, said spokesman David Aeikens.

So far five of the 148 lights MnDOT uses to brighten the inside of the quarter-mile tunnel on the west end of downtown Minneapolis have been hit since late June, when the agency charged with caring for the state’s roads shifted all traffic to the eastbound lanes of Interstate 94 between Hwy. 55 and Interstate 35W. The configuration has two lanes of traffic in each direction inside the tunnel with a concrete barrier separating eastbound traffic from westbound. To make that work, MnDOT dropped the speed limit to 40 miles per hour inside the tube and reduced lane width from 12 feet to 10 feet, which put the right lane immediately next to the side wall where clearance is low.

For that reason, MnDOT prohibited all vehicles over 9,000 pounds from traveling through and installed signs along I-94 directing semitrailer trucks, buses and other big vehicles to alternate routes. But not all drivers of large vehicles have complied. Between June 28 and July 5, state troopers stopped 179 drivers and issued 159 citations. Most were for speeding, but truck drivers were caught, too. Still, trucks are driving through, and a crash Thursday night wiped out three lights.

“It would help greatly if we did not have any trucks going through,” Aeikens said. “We need to get that down to zero. We don’t want any more to get knocked out. We need to keep those lights intact.”

MnDOT did not plan on replacing the lighting fixtures as part of the $46 million freeway and tunnel upgrade underway this summer, and it has very few of the fixtures on hand. Complicating matters is that the company that supplied the fixtures no longer makes them, leaving MnDOT in a bind.

Aeikens said MnDOT will leave things alone until the week of July 24 when traffic is supposed to be switched to the east side of the tunnel. “Right now we don’t have an answer,” Aeikens said. “We’re trying to figure out the best solution.”

A big boost for Nice Ride

Nice Ride Minnesota’s fleet of shiny green bikes got quite a workout over the long Independence Day weekend, with customers taking more than 17,000 rides from July 1 to July 4, said Jim Vierling, marketing and development director for the bike-sharing program.

With ridership exceeding 4,000 each day during the Saturday through Tuesday period, it marked one of the highest-use periods on record since Nice Ride debuted seven years ago, Vierling said.

The high ridership was helped out by a number of factors: Light-rail trains were out of service in downtown Minneapolis for three of the days. There was construction on I-94 in the downtown area and thousands of visitors in town for a national volleyball tournament at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Beautiful weather probably helped, too. In total, bike-share users took 17,222 rides.

“The amount of events and everything else happening everywhere helped us put the weekend in the books,” he said.


Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.