It's rush hour in Bloomington and, like clock work, the ramp from southbound I-35W to westbound I-494 plugs up and motorists attempting to exit queue up on the shoulder of 35W rather than staying in the far right lane. That creates a quandary for some motorists who wonder if they should take their place in line, head to the designated exit point and force their way in or continue on to the next exit.
"I drive a Mini Cooper and if I'm behind an SUV, I often cannot see the line of cars on the shoulder until it is too late to join the line," said Drive reader Cindy, who commutes daily from St. Paul to Bloomington. "Certainly lining up on the shoulder is not the intended outcome for this exit. It can sometimes be backed up close to 76th Street and can take drivers unaware. Is it better to 'follow the leader' and line up on the shoulder or follow the striping to the exit and slow down traffic in the right-hand lane?"
Motorists at this interchange, or any interchange for that matter, should not drive on the shoulder, said Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol. Shoulders are meant to be used by disabled vehicles and to leave motorists with an escape route in the event they need to take evasive action such as to avoid a crash or steer around an object on the road.
Drivers should be using the right lane and entering the exit ramp at the appropriate point. That way it would be clear to all motorists that there is a backup and drivers wishing to bypass the congestion can simply move left.
"As is currently being done by the 'follow the leader' mistake, southbound traffic is assuming that everybody who wants to exit is on the shoulder," Nielson said. Thus, motorists like Cindy hanging out in the right lane trying to merge their way into the line could potentially get rear-ended.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation does not intend traffic to queue up on the shoulder at busy freeway interchanges, but understands that it is an "unfortunate consequence" when there is heavy traffic backing up from a congested ramp, said Brian Kary, who is in charge of freeway operations.
The patrol is aware of drivers' bad behavior at the I-35W and I-494 interchange and has tried to curb the practice by ticketing a few offenders. However, the narrow shoulder and tight guardrail in the area does not give troopers a safe place to stop violators, and thus it's tough to enforce effectively, Nielson said.
That's not the case on I-35W at Johnson Street in northeast Minneapolis, where drivers have also been seen using the shoulder as an exit ramp extension. There troopers have enough room to pull over violators, with a low risk of being hit. In a recent effort over the course of three days, the patrol wrote more than 60 tickets.
MnDOT does not condone driving on the shoulder, but in a case like at I-35W and I-494 where more than 100,000 vehicles pass through each day, "following the leader" might be the safer alternative than having a motorist block a travel lane while waiting for an opening in the line, Kary said.
There is a sign just before the interchange that warns drivers that the shoulder ends and is to be used only by authorized buses.
MnDOT is looking into the area to see if there are opportunities to change the striping or signage that would improve the situation, Kary said.