August marks the start of four-and-a-half years of construction on Interstate 35W between Downtown and 43rd Street.
The roughly $265 million project is similar in scale to the Crosstown reconstruction of I-35W and Highway 62 a decade ago. It will involve shutting down I-35W access to Downtown via Highway 65 in mid-2018 (after the Super Bowl), diverting vehicles and buses to neighborhood streets. I-35W will remain open throughout the project with lane reductions beginning in 2018. Bridges that cross the highway will close one by one for reconstruction or re-decking, with the Franklin Avenue Bridge among the first wave of closures.
“It’s important that folks know it’s coming, because we’ve been talking about it for so long,” said Jeni Hager, the city’s director of transportation planning and programming.
When the project is completed in the fall of 2021, a new transit station will stand at Lake Street. New exit ramps will send vehicles toward the Lake Street business district from I-35W southbound to Lake Street and I-35W northbound to 28th Street.
Officials from the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation and other agencies are visiting neighborhood groups to report that after two decades of planning, funding is in place and construction is imminent.
“It’s a reality this time,” said MnDOT Project Manager Scott Pedersen.
Lake Street transit center
“The coolest thing about this is the transit station at Lake Street,” Hager said.
Like the bus station at 46th Street, the Lake Street station will stand in the middle of the interstate, featuring two levels and an indoor waiting area. It will accommodate the Orange Line, which is an all-day Bus Rapid Transit line that will connect Minneapolis to Richfield, Bloomington and Burnsville along I-35W — about 14,000 daily rides.
A transit-only access ramp will streamline the path between the transit station and Downtown for 700 buses each weekday.
“That’s going to be huge for the operation of the Orange Line transit and all of the existing service on the corridor,” Hager said.
Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, said advocates wanted to make sure the new transit center would not create a dark, foreboding place under the highway. He didn’t want to see “Hiawatha-Lake 2.0,” a reference to the unloved intersection.
“Here’s an opportunity to get it right the first time,” he said.
The station will include a ramp to the Greenway along the west side of the freeway next to Stevens Avenue, and funding for public art on the Greenway ramp is secured.
The project doesn’t require the acquisition of any homes. (Officials didn’t add a ramp from Lake Street to northbound I-35W to avoid taking homes north of McDonald’s, according to Hennepin County Engineer Jim Grube.) The new southbound ramp to Lake Street will displace Krav Maga and the Good Grocer, however. The Good Grocer is currently working to purchase a property near the current store, and the transaction is not yet finalized. Krav Maga did not respond for comment.
Grube said original freeway construction in the 1960s did not include access to Lake Street because planners thought the Lowry Tunnel couldn’t handle the additional traffic demand. Officials have now proved the extra traffic won’t be as bad as once thought, he said.
Years of debate
The final rendition of the project has been a long time coming. The previous $400 million-plus plan never secured full funding and proved controversial due to cost, an idea to relocate ramps to 38th Street, and a focus on freeway expansion rather than transit.
Longfellow resident Lisa Vecoli worked on the project on-and-off for 15 years, serving as part of the Project Advisory Committee.
She noted that the original freeway construction cut through the center of the city.
“There is a lot more awareness around the destruction of Rondo than the destruction of neighborhoods in South Minneapolis,” she said.
The committee consulted with community members to advocate for elements like public art.
“Freeways have never been great neighbors, but they can be better neighbors,” she said.
Construction starts in August 2017 with bridge closures at Franklin, 38th Street and Portland.
Following the Super Bowl in the spring of 2018, the construction impact becomes a little more painful. I-35W access to Downtown Minneapolis via Highway 65 closes entirely. I-35W and I-94 will remain open throughout construction with lane reductions.
“One of the biggest impacts is the detour of the regional buses from 35W to the local streets during that time frame,” Pedersen said.
Traffic will detour to city streets including 31st Street, Blaisdell Avenue, Grand Avenue, 1st Avenue, Park Avenue and Portland Avenue. Contractors will have financial incentives to reopen Downtown access as soon as possible, and MnDOT staff hope they can limit the Downtown closure to a single construction season.
Blocking access to Downtown provides room for bridge reconstruction. Two are flagged in critical need of replacement: the “flyover” bridge from northbound I-35W to westbound I-94, and the I-35W “braid” bridge near 24th Street. The bridges were highlighted as a top priority in a review that followed the 2007 collapse of the I-35W river bridge.
Also in mid-2018, bridges slated for closure include the 26th Street bridge, 24th Street pedestrian bridge and 40th Street pedestrian bridge. Ramps at 35th Street will close, in addition to the 36th Street ramp to southbound I-35W. The number of lanes will shrink on I-94.
Construction on the Lake Street transit station is tentatively slated for 2020. Pedersen said Lake Street would lose a lane in each direction during construction, but Lake Street would remain open through the duration of the project.
The construction timeline will be finalized following selection of the contractor later this summer.
Several local streets and sidewalks would be reconstructed around the highway. Bridge reconstruction includes pedestrian-scale lighting and wrought-iron railings replacing chain link fencing.
Along the freeway, seven out of eight neighborhoods voted against construction of new noise walls where they don’t exist today. The Phillips West neighborhood did vote to add a noise wall along 2nd Avenue between Lake Street and the Greenway.
Safety on I-35W
A 2007 MnDOT study found there are more freeway crashes in the I-35W/I-94 Commons area than any other place in Minnesota, with an afternoon peak hour crash rate 15 times the metro average. The combination of heavy traffic, quick merging and travel demand patterns contribute to more than 1,000 crashes per year.
To help improve safety, the “flyover” bridge from northbound I-35W to westbound I-94 will shift to the left side of the highway, to eliminate the widespread merging that most traffic currently takes ahead of the Hennepin/Lyndale exit on I-94.
Pedersen said residents should not expect to see the end of traffic slowdowns on I-35W, however, given the roadway’s high demand. He said the highway is not adding capacity.
“We’re making small improvements that are going to improve the safety, but you’re not going to eliminate congestion,” he said, explaining that rear-end crashes related to congestion are a big cause of accidents in the area.
Average daily traffic on I-35W approached 200,000 in 2013, according to MnDOT, and traffic is projected to hit 257,700 in 2038.
The neighborhood impact
Neighbors are bracing for construction.
“Anytime there is a major construction project it’s going to impact business,” said Aaron Meyerring, co-owner of Electric Fetus. The record shop will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year in the midst of construction. “It’s just going to be another hurdle that we’re going to have to get past.”
At an April meeting of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, residents asked questions about lighting and pedestrian safety during detours.
“There are lots of parks and schools along these routes,” said one attendee.
Pedersen said they expect traffic diverted to local streets will span from Hiawatha Avenue on the east to Lyndale Avenue on the west. Workers don’t plan to take away parking or bike lanes to speed commutes, he said.
MnDOT will partner with Move Minneapolis to promote carpooling, biking and transit throughout construction. They’re hoping to fill park-and-ride lots that are typically half full along regional bus routes.
Pedersen said they intend to keep communication lines open with sidewalk talks, email blasts and social media updates.
“I just think that the transit station is key, and after working on this for as long as we have, I think the whole region is ready to do the project,” Grube said. “…When it’s over, MnDOT will fundamentally leave South Minneapolis alone, in terms of 35W.”
For more information and project updates, visit dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/i35wminneapolis.
-New Lake Street transit station will serve as a hub for “Orange Line” Bus Rapid Transit, with a ramp to the Midtown Greenway
-New northbound I-35W ramp to 28th Street
-New southbound I-35W ramp to Lake Street
-Permanent MnPASS lanes on southbound and northbound I-35W from 26th Street-46th Street
-New and rehabbed noise barriers