State wants to bust Downtown bottlenecks

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May 30, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

It won't happen tomorrow, but effort refuels highways-versus-transit debate

The I-35W/I-94 Commons is the highest-volume, highest-crash interchange in Minnesota, and state transportation leaders are in the early stages of drawing up options they say would make it safer and more efficient.

It would be the latest in a series of I-35W projects stringing south of Downtown and the latest to spark battles between road building and transit upgrades.

Plans could include adding lanes, making traffic weaves less treacherous, adding more pay lanes and/or more transit infrastructure.

But whether you want your bottleneck busted now or are ready to throw yourself in front of the bulldozers, don't get your undies in a bunch quite yet.

Major work on the 35W/94 Commons wouldn't happen until after 2030, said Tom O'Keefe, West Metro area manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT).

So why the push now? Plans to add an I-35W bus rapid transit/high-occupancy vehicle lane (BRT/HOV) south of Downtown have accelerated the long-range planning schedule.

The new study would help define the state's eventual plans for the 35W/94 Commons and make sure any nearer-term work - such as BRT/HOV lane connections into Downtown - don't preclude future freeway improvements, O'Keefe said.

The 35W/94 Commons study includes I-94 roughly between the U's East Bank and International Market Square, and I-35W roughly north of Lake Street to University Avenue. The Commons covers 7.3 miles of interstate, 12 interchanges and 58 ramps. It carries 555,000 vehicles a day - double the volume of I-35W/I-494, the state's second busiest interchange, according to Mn/DOT data.

The 35W/94 Commons has the state's highest crash rate, averaging three per day at an annual cost of $22 million a year in property damage, injuries and death, O'Keefe said. The area is severely congested; five hours a day, average speeds drop below 20 mph.

O'Keefe outlined the Commons study to the City Council's Transportation and Public Works Committee May 17. The state would work with city, county and other public entities to choose a consultant, he said. The state plans to hire the consultant this summer. The study will last 18 months.

The consultant will develop three alternatives: the minimal, or "accommodation" plan, a reconstruction plan and an expansion plan, O'Keefe said.

Any work seems a long way off, but the study already has its skeptics.

City Councilmember Robert Lilligren (8th Ward) said the presentation stressed adding lanes instead of adding transit. (He represents a portion of the Phillips neighborhood, which borders the project area.)

"They are planning to put more lanes down so we can put more cars through this corridor," he said. "This looks like classic poor planning to pave our way into more congestion."

Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward), who represents the Whittier and Stevens Square neighborhoods that border the project area, said Mn/DOT had its "head buried in the sand."

The state is designing a system for 25 years from now when petroleum could be in short supply, he said. "What they should be doing is working on transit system that will be significantly more efficient than what they have there," he said.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents Downtown, declined comment because she did not have enough details, said her aide, Doug Kress.

What needs fixing?

One possible fix is the I-35W curve southbound near Downtown. It has a 35 mph limit; current design guidelines say it should have a flatter curve allowing traffic to go 55 mph, O'Keefe said. Mn/DOT also wants to review problematic traffic weaves, such as the stretch where drivers merging from I-35W cross paths with westbound I-94 drivers trying to exit at Hennepin/Lyndale avenues south.

The study would also review past plans for double-decking the Lowry Hill tunnel to increase traffic flow, he said, referring to the tunnel as "the eye of the needle for the metro freeway system." It would review the "Industry Square" interchange, the ramp tangle between the Metrodome and Washington Avenue South.

The consultant also will review possible additions to the toll road system and possible near-term safety improvements, O'Keefe said.

Mn/DOT would hold focus groups or workshops to make sure state officials and the consultants understand neighborhood values, O'Keefe said.

In response to Lilligren's comments, O'Keefe said the study has a significant transit focus. It would evaluate adding BRT/HOV lanes on I-35W north of Downtown - a transit upgrade not now on Mn/DOT's long-range plan. The study would evaluate how the Central Corridor, a light rail link between Minneapolis and St. Paul, would work in the Commons area, as well as the Southwest Corridor, a commuter rail link to the southwestern suburbs.

O'Keefe said he focused more on possible expansion plans to reassure city leaders that even at its most aggressive, the plan would not be the mega-project floated in the 1990s.

"It is hard for me to envision us affording a major expansion project in this area," he said. "It [expansion] is not an expected outcome."

Mn/DOT is also pursuing the I-35W Access Project, which will reconfigure South Minneapolis ramps and on the Crosstown Commons project, which would add lanes and other changes around the I-35W/Crosstown junction.

One nearer-term improvement initiative is major repairs and redecking of the I-35W Bridge across the Mississippi River sometime around 2012, O'Keefe said.

For the Mn/DOT "Downtown Commons" PowerPoint presentation, surf to tinyurl.com/bpgz2. For more on highway crash data, surf to tinyurl.com/9kche. Both will take you to the correct governmental Web page.