Neighbors of Interstate 35W have learned to live with frequent construction on the freeway with the same affection they reserve for windchills and wood ticks.
The latest remaking of a freeway is notable for its four-year timespan. But sometimes lost amid the angst of putting up with delays, detours and outright closures is a simple fact. So far, Minneapolis neighborhoods are winning the battle to keep the freeway within its noise walls.
That’s one bright spot in our love-hate relationship with the freeway. Maybe it will get us through the next four years.
But the recent closures brought to mind the 2007 exploit of my fellow Southwest Journal columnist, Jim Walsh, when he led his Lynnhurst baseball team on a lark down the closed freeway after the kids swept a doubleheader.
Think of the goodwill that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) could generate by opening the freeway to bikes and pedestrians when it’s closed to cars, much as the city closes Lyndale, Nicollet and other city streets for Open Streets days. Wouldn’t it be just compensation to freeway neighbors to offset a roar so loud that light sleepers like me need to run a window fan to drown out the freeway noise, or for the pollution, or for the racket of back-up warnings and piledriving during construction?
I’m not the only one that’s had that thought while biking over a closed freeway. Jennifer Downham, who works professionally as a fundraiser, acted on it. The Hale neighborhood mother took her 1965 Schwinn on a brief freeway ride between the 46th exit and entrance earlier this month.
Downham’s ride ended better than Walsh’s escapade, which involved a state trooper, handcuffs and a $250 ticket that didn’t arrive for months after the episode. “I brought my ID and credit card in case I needed to bail myself out,” she said.
Not surprisingly, MnDOT is not amused by the thought of cyclists and walkers swarming 35W during closures. “It’s just not something I don’t think that we’ve considered,” said spokesman Dave Aeikens.
MnDOT typically closes the south Minneapolis portion of the freeway when it needs to remove a bridge for reconstruction, a part of the current freeway project that also involves reworking 35W’s connections with Lake Street and Interstate 94. Aeikens said there will be eight to 10 such closures this year.
He said the closed freeway is used by trucks hauling away the bridge rubble.
“It’s not safe. There’s going to be trucks coming out, pieces of concrete flying,” Aeikens said. “We can’t have people in there.”
True enough, but it seems like those issues could be mitigated. Use barriers to keep recreational users of the freeway away from the bridge demolition. Route the trucks with demo materials on the still-open portions of our freeway system.
The construction project has had its share of head-scratching moments so far.
For example, Portland and Park avenues were closed for a weekend each in late April and early May to be restriped north of Lake from the normal two lanes to three narrower lanes, with their bike lanes also narrowed. This was publicized as necessary for creating special rush hour bus-only lanes to get south-serving buses to and from downtown to the next nearest 35W entrance and exit at 31st Street, once downtown’s connections to 35W were severed.
But some residents of the Portland-Park corridor grew suspicious when weeks passed and no signs demarcating those lanes were posted, seeing the restriping as a back-door attempt to pump more traffic through their neighborhoods. The signs finally went up in early June. Aeikens said that was because there was no point in installing them until the bus detours began. But that begs the question of why the restriping happened so far in advance of the need for it.
Even more puzzling, as I drove Park during one morning rush hour, there seemed to be no enforcement of the new order. Cars mingled in the left lane reserved for buses, not the just the left-turning ones also permitted there, and there were more buses in the middle lane than the one reserved for them. Meanwhile, the now-reduced bike lane crowded cyclists over to where they risked being doored by the drivers exiting parked cars, as I was several years ago.
All that speaks to the difficulty of accommodating a state freeway project by making changes on two county roads (Portland and Park) on which the city controls traffic.
Atop this complication, the southbound freeway entrance and northbound exit at 31st Street are closed to all traffic but buses until at least fall. That’s likely to cause a major snarl on weekends, when Latino shoppers from across the metro area flock to Lake Street to visit stores and markets.
But MnDOT could offset that by opening the freeway to others when it’s vacated by cars. Our Streets, the bike-pedestrian advocacy group that organizes the popular Open Streets events, has considered that possibility.
“It would provide a very unique perspective and take advantage of space that otherwise is just sitting closed for construction,” according to the group’s executive director, Ethan Fawley. “I certainly expect that many people would be intrigued by such an idea.”
Meanwhile, Walsh looks back with nostalgia at his freeway adventure with his boys of summer.
“I think about it pretty much every time I’m on 35W,” he said. “God, it was hilarious.”