Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck Revisited

Downtown Minneapolis is surrounded by a moat. On one side, the city abuts actual water – the Mississippi River. The City and Park Board have done a good job of making that part of Downtown a welcoming and attractive place: The Stone Arch Bridge connects downtown to NorthEast, and walking paths, bikeways, and green space line the riverfront.

The other three sides of downtown are cut off from the rest of the city by highways and by the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck. These areas are less attractive. These man-made barriers dissuade potential downtown visitors from heading to or passing through what should be a focal point of our city.

There is some small degree of hope on the horizon: the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck is due for a make-over. The feds awarded the project $7.3 million and the City of Minneapolis will host a public open house on March 25 at the Walker Art Center.

The city’s project page for the bottleneck redesign states that project goals are to “improve pedestrian crossing[s]. . . rebuild traffic signal[s], improve pedestrian and bicycle crossing[s] and improve sidewalk[s]” at various intersections. It appears as though the city will leave the general shape of the bottleneck intact.

The bottleneck zone already includes some spots that, in isolation, could be considered nice bicycle and pedestrian facilities. For example, the east side of the bottleneck features a two way greenway and a separate pedestrian sidewalk. Nevertheless, walking from Loring Park to the Wedge Co-op is a generally miserable experience because 11 lanes of cars are whizzing by and because a respectable segment of the walk takes you under a highway.

The bottleneck needs a complete overhaul. It should be a place that is pleasant to walk, not just safe according to a formula. It is one of the primary gateways to downtown and should be treated as such.

Previous streets.mn posts proposed various redesigns for the area. With a public meeting just a few weeks away, the time is ripe to revisit this conversation. In this spirit, I offer a non-engineer’s idea for bottleneck reconstruction.

The bottleneck currently looks like this on google maps:

google maps

The tangle of overlapping streets/stroads and on- and off-ramps is a mess from a pedestrian’s point of view, with streets undulating over and under each other. However, if you were to knock down all the overpasses and smooth out the Hennepin Avenue dip between Franklin and the center of the bottleneck, the land does not actually vary in elevation all that much from the south to north. Therefore, it appears as though the city could construct a large roundabout in the area.

Which takes me to these three visuals:

The Circle

GAP on the Bottleneck

Columbus Circle on the Bottleneck

The top image is my roundabout vision for the bottleneck (no computer generated images here. . .). There are admittedly some issues with this idea which I have not worked out. First and foremost, could Lyndale be sent off as its own two way street on the north side of the roundabout? This would be an issue once Lyndale reached the Dunwoody Blvd. intersection – the current southbound Lyndale segment (on the west side of 94) is not wide enough for two way traffic. Lyndale and Hennepin could of course remain as they are north of the roundabout, but I liked the idea of giving those avenues some autonomy.

Next, I wonder if a highway on-ramp and off-ramp have ever entered and exited from a roundabout. I cannot think of a reason this would not work, but can certainly imagine some pushback.

The next two images are what I did to gut check the roundabout idea. The first image is a to-scale cut out of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, NY taped onto the bottleneck. It fits. The next image is of Columbus Circle taped onto the bottleneck. It also fits.

Grand Army Plaza and Columbus Circle appear to have similar traffic counts as the bottleneck. It is a little hard to determine the traffic counts in each of these areas (the City of Minneapolis claims the bottleneck hosts about 50,000 vehicles a day). However, you can get a sense of scale by comparing the traffic counts of all the streets that enter and exit the roundabout or bottleneck area.

The counts for the bottleneck are as follows: 15,334; 8,587; 7, 527; 8,440; 3,832; 32,261; 29,613; and 21,624.

The counts for Grand Army Plaza are as follows: 46,885; 29,407; 15,242; 42,057; 8,661; and 13,308.

The counts for Columbus Circle are as follows: 19,675; 37,934; 19,675; 34,713.

Again, these are all the traffic counts on all the streets and ramps going in and out of the respective roundabouts and bottleneck (I skipped counts that were in the middle of the roundabout or bottleneck for consistency). Thus, many cars are counted twice (once as they enter the bottleneck, and once as they leave). It is very rough but, as stated earlier, gives some basis for comparison.

Assuming a roundabout could work in the bottleneck location, it could become a wonderful gateway to the city. The pedestrian and bicycle experience would be improved because people would travel next to five or so lanes of traffic instead of 11, and because the tangle of bridged ramps and flyovers would disappear. In addition, the center of the roundabout could be given to the Walker Art Center, which sits on top of the bottleneck. Imagine an enormous sculpture framed against the downtown skyline, welcoming people to downtown or to the Uptown area, depending on the direction of travel.

I fear that if the Minneapolis spends $10 million on bottleneck enhancements in the coming couple years, the city will put off meaningful work on the area for decades. The bottleneck does not have to be miserable – it could even be iconic. But a few improved pedestrian and bicycle crossings will not solve the bottleneck’s problems.

42 thoughts on “Hennepin/Lyndale Bottleneck Revisited

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m wondering if this may be out of the scope of this particular project, but I like the out of the box (out of the triangle) thinking.

    To answer one question: it is quite common, actually, to have freeway ramps entering and exiting roundabouts. The best example is the new 169/494-5 interchange in West Bloomington, which has three roundabouts touching ramps. South St Paul has a more conventional diamond interchange with roundabouts at Wentworth Ave and 35E, and Medford (of all places) has a similar interchange at Central Ave and 35.

  2. jeffk

    What I like about this idea is it seems like, at least qualitatively, you’re sacrificing best-case travel times to ease the worst-case ones. That seems like a fair trade-off. It would be interesting if a professional could simulate such an interchange.

  3. Mike Seim

    Personally, none of those go far enough. I’d like to see the I-94 tunnel extended north past Dunwoody Blvd, and have Hennepin “T” into Lyndale at the north and south ends. The south intersection could continue east as the I-94 on/off ramps.

    I’m willing to give up an additional pair of 2 lane tunnels from 35W to 394 in return

    Imagine the sculpture garden and Loring Park only separated by a 4 lane Lyndale!

    1. Sam RockwellSam Rockwell

      I’m with you on connecting Loring Park and the Sculpture Garden. The scope of that project (our own big dig) would send us into the multiple billion dollar range, and I was aiming for a more contained ‘modest’ proposal.

    2. Froggie

      The problem with extending the 94 tunnel further north is twofold. First, the 94/394 interchange, which itself is shoehorned in due to the Basillica. Second, high groundwater in the vicinity of Loring Park. The existing tunnel location worked in part because it was an area of higher elevation. You don’t have that north of 15th St.

      1. mister.shoes

        Froggie, what’s your take on my [admittedly insane] deep-bore idea?

        I actually dug up (no pun intended) MN geological survey bedrock and depth-to-bedrock maps to see if we could get those tunnels down into rock where it’s easier to stabilize while drilling. As best as I could tell, the most questionable area is up by the Farmers Market where the tunnel would need to resurface at the north end. That’s the old creek valley/lake bed that’s likely little more than gravel fill and probably has water issues. The other end by the Convention Center could be down within the bedrock almost from the outset. The transition from “almost certainly within the bedrock” to “yeah, probably not” appeared to be just north/west of 394. Which makes sense, considering what we know about Basset Creek.

        1. Froggie

          I like the overall concept, though it’d be just as fantastically expensive as MnDOT’s earlier proposal to expand the existing tunnel. It’s location is not unlike “Line C” from the I-94 alignment studies: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ajfroggie/13088241504/

          Some comments/concerns:

          – I think there’s more that would have to be cut-and-cover than you’re thinking, especially north of I-394. This would be a major impediment to construction given the private lane (and large building) north of 394.

          – I don’t think this would have to be 5 lanes each way, but it’d likely have to be 4 lanes each way. A pair of 2-lane tubes each way (similar to the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore, MD) may be doable, with the rightmost tunnel expandable to 3 lanes in the future if needed.

          – As this would still be a tunnel, “prohibited” trucks would still have to use your new surface route. As such, I don’t think the roundabouts would fly. The lack of a direct connection from westbound 94 to the proposed surface route doesn’t help either. Such trucks would probably follow 15th instead.

          – The weird loop ramp from 3rd Ave to the westbound tunnel is unnecessary.

          – Still like my idea of a “Lowry Square” instead of a traffic circle at the Hennepin/Lyndale confluence.

          – Instead of the large traffic circle at Hennepin/Lyndale/Dunwoody, I’d make Lyndale a multi-way boulevard through the project area.

  4. Matt Brillhart

    “I fear that if Minneapolis spends $10 million on bottleneck enhancements in the coming couple years, the city will put off meaningful work on the area for decades.”

    I think that’s kind of the point. We don’t have the funding (start with a billion and go up from there) or any sort of plan to reconstruct or replace the Lowry Tunnel. Both the tunnel and the flyover ramps date from the 1960s, so they are certainly aging, but neither are at the end of their useful lives yet. We should probably start planning now, because it will take 15-20 years to complete the public engagement, environmental studies, and secure federal funding. This will be as large as the crosstown re-do, if not bigger.

    Improvement is absolutely needed in the short term, for all modes. Do I wish this project was more comprehensive? Absolutely. But the fact that it is getting done, and soon, is important.

    As far as bike ped issues not directly addressed in the plan, the two-way cycletrack on the east side of Lyndale absolutely must be extended down to Franklin, as Bike Walk Twin Cities has recommended. This isn’t in the plan yet, but it should definitely be done at the same time, if not sooner. We could have a temporary fix in 2014 by simply taking out the 3-4 on street parking spaces in front of Rudolph’s and setting up some jersey barriers.

    Also, that friggin bus stop for the southbound 4 in no man’s land has got to be fixed. That thing is just embarassing: https://streets.mn/2013/11/27/embarrassed-by-the-bus/

    1. Sam RockwellSam Rockwell

      Would you need to replace the tunnel itself in order to do a rebuild of the cap on top of it? I’m not sure. I think it could be possible do some fairly major work on the surface without affecting the tunnel. I honestly have no idea, however. In terms of rebuilding the tunnel, I think that opens up the question of whether to bury significantly more of I-94.

      Finally, I realize that we don’t have the money slated for this scale project at the moment. However, I can’t help but think of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the city and state found (in relatively short order) for various stadium rebuilds in recent years. I think it often comes down to political will. And in terms of economic development (the big argument for stadiums), dramatically improving the public realm in places like this have a proven track record (unlike stadiums): the Embarcadero, the Big Dig, Millennium Park. None of these are precise corollaries, but they were big projects that prioritized people over cars and fixed scars on the landscape.

    1. mister.shoes

      I swear to $deity that your comment wasn’t there when I posted mine (despite timestamps to the contrary). Thanks for the shout-out!

      Related: while there’s no way the cost of the tunnels could ever be covered by proceeds from selling the reclaimed land and capturing the increased tax revenue from improvements made thereupon, I imagine that the potential income is a significant non-zero number. The property values of the entire area would increase with the removal of that freeway trench.

      And don’t even get me started on how I think an improved SWLRT routing under Hennepin Ave would fit into this 😀

  5. Morgan

    I really like your idea as well as the other ideas that have been proposed on streets.mn.

    One thing about cost. Some people are saying that $10M is not very much money, and if this is true, then this could be an excellent partnership opportunity for philanthropy.

    1. Morgan

      whoever gifts the statue gets to decide. Streets.mn can do the fundraising for a Jane Jacobs statue.

  6. mister.shoes

    Because the UMSPers aren’t annoyed enough at me dropping in randomly with overwrought grand plans slapped together in Photoshop and/or Illustrator, I’m going to share my multi-billion dollar plan for this area over here at Streets.mn as well.

    The general plan came from others’ ideas, but here’s the finished product in UMSP context (scroll up a few posts for v1):

    And here’s the direct link to the full-size image for those who don’t want to read my words 🙂

    Brown: reclaimed land for development
    Lime green: reclaimed land for parks
    Dark green: also a park, but a special one connecting the sculptures to Loring

    1. Morgan

      This is cool but it makes me think if we even need the connection at all. I certainly don’t know, but I would think that most people driving from the north on 94 want to get downtown and that most of the people coming from the east on 94 also want to go downtown.

      Just screw the relatively little through traffic there is just and tear the thing out!

        1. Morgan

          That stretch of 94 just north of downtown can be pretty barren. It’s almost never congested.

          1. mister.shoes

            Also true. It’s incredibly overbuilt. It seems to me that a significant number of tunnel users come from/go to 394.

      1. mister.shoes

        From an entirely personal and selfish point of view, the tunnel is useful to get from my house in South Minneapolis to northbound 94 and out of the Cities. 35W N -> 94 W and vice versa on the way home.

        I think a deep bore tunnel of this nature would reinforce 94 as a route to use on through trips and discourage people using it as a quick way to get from one end of DT to another. How many people get on at 3rd and off again at Lyndale as part of a local trip? If even 1, it’s too many.

        But really, this entire idea is intended as a bit of a Trojan Horse. It looks like a huge highway project that improves travel times for commuters and other through-drivers (and it is, frankly), but really the entire motivation behind the idea was to reclaim all that high-value land and restore Hennepin/Lyndale as a useful, beautiful, human-scaled urban area. The entire scar from 3rd Ave to the triangle and up to the Basilica could be healed and designed around people again.

        1. Morgan

          Do you take that route everyday to work or just sometimes?

          And why couldn’t you just take Lyndale? It would still hook up with 94 where it does today on your map right?

          1. mister.shoes

            Oh, just sometimes. Like, not even enough to count. And honestly, we often go through DT instead of the tunnel anyway because it’s less backed up (and it’s a more interesting drive).

            I’d love to tear out the tunnel altogether. Make 94 blend seamlessly into 35W at one end and 394 at the other. But never in a million years would it be politically possible to remove that section altogether and replace it with a multi-way boulevard and big old roundabouts. But a shiny new deep-bore tunnel? That’s the bargaining chip. The $1BB+ bargaining chip… 🙂

      2. Monte

        Are you talking about the tunnel? Quite a few people do want to go someplace other than downtown. The latest traffic map shows 156,000 vehicles a day, I assume this is almost all “through” traffic, since it doesn’t make sense to use the tunnel if your destination is downtown unless you’re maybe going to the extreme opposite end of it. And the congestion in the tunnel would seem to deter than kind of usage.

        1. Morgan

          What do you think the “trade area” or collection area for the tunnel is? I think that it’s probably about a 3 mile radius, outside of that it is probably better to take another route around the downtown core. I think that most of those trips would be fine without the tunnel and that a lot of the demand is probably induced by the fact that the freeway is just there.

  7. Alex

    I agree that a roundabout concept deserves exploration as a possible replacement for the tangle of over/underpasses. It will be an important question for this meeting just how the current reconstruction plans will affect the possibilities for a more comprehensive redo of the bottleneck.

    1. Froggie

      As best as I can tell, the current reconstruction plan largely rebuilds the joined Hennepin/Lyndale section, so it wouldn’t preclude future consideration of a traffic circle.

  8. Anders ImbodenAnders

    Funny, I am visiting New York and just walked by Grand Army Plaza this morning. It definitely feels more safe and comfortable than the bottleneck does. You may be on to something here.

  9. Adam MillerAdam

    The saddest thing is that the bit of the walk from Loring to the Wedge under the freeway is the most pleasant part.

    Also, the stretch of sidewalk that is entirely painted as a two-way bike lane always confuses me. Where’s the pedestrian supposed to go? (I think there are now signs saying to share the sidewalk, but I think there didn’t used to be).

  10. Froggie

    In case you guys didn’t know, MnDOT considered a traffic circle at the Hennepin/Lyndale confluence back during their 2007 downtown freeway study. They expected such a circle would require signalization (as do many of the Washington, DC traffic circles), but it would eliminate the eyesore of overpass ramps and flyover ramps that currently exist there, and open up a fair bit of land.

    I initially ran with that idea when I mapped out my downtown freeway system, but since then I’ve changed my tune. IMO, a better fit for that area would be, simply put, rebuilding the street grid, and putting a bona-fide city block in that space. Here’s a visualization:


    I dub it “Lowry Square”.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      Just out of curiosity, what makes a circle “require” signalization? Many of those circles in DC seem like they would work a lot better if they did away with their signals.

      Maybe traffic is just too heavy at rush hour on Dupont Circle (or maybe not). But I used to commute (on foot) past Logan, Scott and Thomas circles and all would probably work better without signals.

      1. Froggie

        Both vehicle volume and pedestrian volume play a factor. Peds would never stand a chance outside of rush hours if the DC circles weren’t signalized. Non-signalization can also lead to gridlock, though Dupont is often gridlock anyway.

  11. Ari Anderson

    There is a large amount of land that the interchange takes up. I would argue for a plan similar to this one:

    Currently where Hennepin and Lindale intersect is a mess of confusing stoplights. By simplifying the intersections, and recreating a street grid one continues the street corridor, creates new development opportunities, creates public space between Loring park and the walker, and allows the urban fabric to continue from South Hennepin to downtown.

    1. Jeremy

      This is one of the best proposals I’ve seen yet. I might just well print it out and tack it on one of the boards at the Bottleneck event at the Walker. It embraces Lyndale just north of Vineland as the best main artery (which it is), it maintains freeway access, eliminates those vile and hellish flyovers, and stays true to the spirit of the area.

      I wonder how the Bryant Ave bike bridge fits in. I use that thing everyday.

      Anyway, awesome plan!

  12. Pingback: Then & Now: Lyndale and Hennepin | streets.mn

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