It's not often that communities welcome the start of road construction and the traffic disruption it brings, but that's the case on a dangerous corridor in western Hennepin County.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation on Tuesday began work on a center median wall on Hwy. 12 to reduce head-on collisions that have too often resulted in fatalities. MnDOT is also putting in a roundabout to make it easier for drivers to get on and off the winding two-lane highway through Orono, Maple Plain and Independence that many in the area have dubbed the "Corridor of Death."
"This is a happy event," said Tina Langhans, who lost her daughter in a head-on crash on Hwy. 12 six years ago and has been pushing for safety improvements since. "For me, it brings closure. It's one of the best improvements that can be done."
Construction began about 2:30 a.m. on the $22 million project, which includes rebuilding Hwy. 12 between County Road 6 and Baker Park Road through Orono and putting in a 54-inch-tall concrete divider, similar to the 3½-mile concrete divider MnDOT installed through Wayzata and Orono after there were six fatal crashes between 2011 and 2015.
The roundabout will go in at County Road 90, an intersection with "challenging sightlines" that contribute to a higher-than-average crash rate compared to similar roads, said project manager Steve Barrett.
No new travel lanes on Hwy. 12 will be added. "This is a safety project," he said.
Safety advocates, city officials and residents like the Langhans formed the Hwy. 12 Safety Coalition in 2014 after a rash of fatal crashes. The stretch of Hwy. 12 from Wayzata to the Hennepin County-Wright County Line in Delano had 11 fatal wrecks between 2011 and 2016, killing 24 people.
Over seven years, the group was successful in getting centerline rumble strips put down on parts of the highway and plastic lane delineators installed west of County Road 90 to the Wright County line.
There has not been a fatal crash on that stretch of Hwy. 12 for the past two years, said Gary Kroells, director of West Hennepin Public Safety, serving Independence and Maple Plain.
But the extension of the center median from Orono to Maple Plain and the new roundabout in Independence will ensure long-term safety, he said.
"It's been a long journey," Kroells said. "We are excited for the safety improvements. They are long overdue."
For the next four months, businesses and residents in Maple Plain will feel the squeeze as Hwy. 12 will be closed in both directions on both sides of town. About 24,000 vehicles that normally pass through town will be diverted via County Road 92 and Watertown Road until construction is complete in September. Temporary traffic lights have been put up on those routes to help control traffic flow.
Maple Plain Mayor Julie Maas-Kusske is supportive of the project, but worries about the impact construction will have on businesses. To encourage patrons to shop and eat in the city, the West Hennepin Chamber of Commerce has launched a "Support Local, Buy Local" campaign, which includes gift card incentives and a blitz in local newspapers and social media to promote local businesses.
"It's not an ideal time, especially following a pandemic," Maas-Kusske said. "Construction is never fun, but human life is too valuable to not do the work. This is needed."
Langhans' daughter, Chelsea, was driving east on Hwy. 12 on her way to teach a Saturday morning yoga class in August 2015 when a westbound driver crossed the centerline and hit her head-on. The violent impact killed the 25-year-old and totaled her car.
A concrete barrier was erected a year later between county roads 112 and 6. Tina Langhans, who is secretary for the Hwy. 12 Safety Coalition, said she's been waiting a long time for the median to be extended from County 6 to near Maple Plain.
"It's kind of a milestone," she said. "We are so ready to have it done."
More improvements are on the way as Hennepin County this fall begins building a roundabout at highways 12 and 92, and a bridge to carry drivers on the county road over railroad tracks.
Kroells said the safety coalition will continue pressing for more enhancements, particularly on the segment of Hwy. 12 from Maple Plain west to Delano where there were 253 crashes between 2010 and 2019, including six fatal wrecks, according to MnDOT data.
Plans could be ready for public input in June or July, with designs possibly done within a year.
"Then we can go look for funding," Kroells said.
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768