In Defense of the Elk Run Interchange

It’s easy to laugh at the Elk Run “Interchange to Nowhere” with it’s roundabouts to cornfields, traffic signals with no traffic, and pedestrian push-buttons that don’t work.  While acknowledging we’ve wasted some money on the extent that we’ve built it to accommodate  vaporware, I prefer to look at the big picture and think of it in terms of how much we’ve accomplished building a safer, more efficient roadway network. In defense of it, I make four points:

Driveway to nowhere

Driveway to nowhere

Traffic Signals with no traffic

Traffic Signals with no traffic

An interchange has been planned at this location for many years as part of the master goal of converting US 52 into a freeway facility.

Look at Option 3C from the 2001 Oronoco to Pine Island sub-area study. Look familiar?


Option 1 was relocating the entire US 52 mainline to the west of Oronoco. Option 2 was building four new interchanges instead of three- what became the Elk Run interchange would have been built a bit closer to the edge of town and an additional one near where the interim ending of County 12 was on the north side of Oronoco. Besides being the lowest cost, ironically another reason 3 was accepted was- don’t laugh-  it was thought building interchanges close to the towns would encourage unwanted highway oriented development, while one in the middle of nowhere would not.  (Options 3A and 3B would have built the south Pine Island interchange a bit closer but still away from the developed area.)

Any movement towards progressing US 52 towards a freeway facility is a worthwhile goal, even if the priority is wrong.

US 52 is one of the most dangerous expressways in the state due to the heavy volume of traffic. Drivers on crossroads get impatient waiting for a gap and take foolish chances with tragic results, and compounding the problems most intersections are skewed and some have site distance problems. This section was rated 19th in the priority list (so far we’ve gotten about a dozen done), but regardless it would have been done sometime.  If the political will was there to get this one done as opposed to getting nothing done, so be it. I’m ambivalent about “popup projects” in that they short circuit planning priorities, but sometimes they’re the only way stuff gets done given the current funding situation.

It removes regional traffic from residential neighborhoods. 

I’m aware of the sentiment of some here that small town business districts should be bypassed. From my “suburbanist” mindset I personally don’t agree with it. When I’m traveling I want to exit, go through the McDonald’s drive through, stop at the gasoline station, and get right back on the freeway, not drive through an entire town. And although some of the traffic will be removed from the Pine Island business district, it’s also about removing cars from residential neighborhoods. I’ve annotated the above map noting the residential areas in yellow and the business districts in red, noting how regional traffic attempting to reach US 52 needs to drive through residential areas.


As a side note, I should note what’s going on with the Pine Island south interchange. It was originally proposed for removal, but is obviously still around. The thinking was, besides removing regional traffic from the residential areas, was that it doesn’t meet modern standards for ramp length and intersection spacing and rebuilding it to meet standards and tie in new frontage roads would be impossible due to the proximity of the creek and a tightly packed residential area. Pine Island took a dim view of that because even under option 2 their business district would still wind up miles from either freeway exit. Also this was before the current roundabout mania started, providing a partial solution to the spacing issue. It’s obviously now going to stay awhile, and a new roundabout now provides acceptable connections to the new east frontage road. I’m fine with it staying indefinately, considering the number of crossroads still present, and that even a new interchange with substandard ramps (the reason why is a long story) is going up on the corridor.

The interchange didn’t cost much more than a conventional diamond interchange.

Mn/DOT lists the cost of the interchange and frontage roads at $34.2 million. A 2007 document, before Elk Run was talked about, estimated the cost at $30 million. This makes sense since the big cost in road construction is overpasses, not traffic signals, and not short concrete stubs that end in grass. One of the main selling points on diverging diamonds is you can dramatically increase traffic capacity in the same footprint of a regular interchange. Had it not been built as a diverging diamond, it would probably resemble the south Oronoco interchange, with 3 lanes and complete shoulders it isn’t that much narrower than the Elk Run interchange with four lanes, no shoulders, and a trail.

Oronoco south interchange bridge. Bridges for conventional diamond interchanges are pretty wide too nowadays.

Oronoco south interchange bridge. Bridges for conventional diamond interchanges are pretty wide too nowadays. (This is much wider than it looks due to the weird lens the street-view cars use.

So whether you fault the planning process or not that selected this location over a decade ago, this wasn’t something that just materialized out of thin air for just the Elk Run project, and has no value to US 52 traffic. Back in 2001 the idea of a safe, modern US 52 freeway seemed like a fantasy, but is now closer to a reality. 9 of the top 11 priorities for US 52 have been either done properly of an interim fix implemented, and every traffic signal is gone.  Now it’s time to continue our investment and finish it systematically by extending the freeway sections north from Pine Island and South from Inver Grove Heights until they finally meet.

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

12 thoughts on “In Defense of the Elk Run Interchange

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary

    Is there a compelling reason TH 52 needs to be a full freeway? I know there are select situations where there have been multiple, deadly crashes (like Goodhue CSAH 9), and I fully agree that spending the money to upgrade those to interchanges makes sense. But is it a prudent use of dollars to make sure every farm driveway and minor road is either eliminated or turned into an interchange?

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      It’s desirable to have a system of freeways for continuity purposes, for long distance travel there’s less driver fatigue without cross traffic to look out for. There’s long portions of I-90, including some in Minnesota, with under the 10,000 AADT that would justify an expressway based strictly on numbers, let alone a freeway. But it’s viewed as important beyond that to have national freeway network for commerce and travelers. The Twin Cities to Rochester would seem to be a logical addition to the freeway network, especially since Rochester is a lot bigger and more important than decades past.

      Having said that, it’s no secret that we have funding issues. The idea for converting US 52 to a full freeway came during the Moving Minnesota projects and studies, when a burst of money was pushed into the system. Now more than a decade later the only high priority projects that haven’t been addressed at least on an interim basis are Hader interchange, which will cost about what Elk Run cost, and County 42 and Highway 55, which will cost a lot more money. When it comes down to spending money on eliminating driveways and crossroads vs other projects, I have a feeling we’ll have crossroads for a long time.

      1. Al DavisonAl Davison

        I agree, having the entire distance of 52 from St. Paul to Rochester be a full limited-access freeway would be logical in the long-run.

    2. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

      The fatality crashes were the main impetus/motivation behind pushing for improvements, but the entire corridor has a pretty dismal safety record. It’s no secret that high traffic volumes and a large number of access points don’t mix well, hence the desire by just about everybody along the corridor (save perhaps those farms who would lose direct access) to convert it to a freeway.

  2. Mike Hicks

    The traffic volumes we’re talking about bypassing here are not anything special, though, particularly in Oronoco where the old road had an AADT of 2700. Some of that is local. As for Pine Island, I’m suspicious that the through traffic is really more interested in going north rather than south (I go through Pine Island when visiting my hometown of Byron, for instance). The town residents probably want to go south in a greater proportion than others in the region do. Look at the volumes on County 3 and County 5 — folks there could take other roads to get to County 12 on the south side of Oronoco rather than going through Pine Island.

    The interchange that was built is clearly designed for traffic volumes much higher than what currently exist in the area, which would only occur if the Elk Run development got off the ground.

    There is some value in making it harder to get onto a freeway, but there’s a limit to the practicality. If I’m reading your statements right, the current full interchange in Pine Island is supposed to disappear, so people who want to get onto the highway that slices through their town will have to go to another interchange 3.2 miles down the mainline (though it probably requires going 5 miles on country roads to get there).

    I don’t have a grand unified theory of sprawl, so I don’t know what the best solutions would have been here, but this new interchange is almost certainly going to draw people away from these small towns. Redirecting the traffic also means redirecting the money they carry. This sort of project can turn a town inside out, pulling businesses that could be along a propserous Main Street out onto sparse frontage roads. I’ve seen that happen in Byron, where businesses that could be in a nice little downtown a couple blocks in size are all sprawled out along two miles of highway.

    I really think that destroys the soul of a place, but businesses do it anyway because they want to be seen along the busy corridors (“location, location, location”, after all). Freeways shouldn’t go through the center of town, but it makes a lot more sense for rural county highways to go through town before hitting the freeway, allowing the town to capture dollars that would get spent on the fringe of the next town or city along the freeway, or to allow commuters using the freeway a place to stop at the beginning or end of the day.

    Doing that correctly can also improve the ability to serve towns with intercity or commuter bus services. I went and mapped the Jefferson Lines network in Minnesota a few years back, and it was really disturbing how many stops were McDonald’s parking lots along the highway when a much more comfortable business district was only a few blocks away. But the configuration of the highway just didn’t lend itself to serving the center of town, so people get unceremoniously dumped onto a splotch of asphalt with little or no shelter from the elements.

    Anyway, long story short, this interchange has put waaay more effort than necessary into deflecting traffic from towns that could actually benefit from it.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      We’ve both stated our different opinions here and on the forum and we’re not going to change them, so at this point I’ll just try to clarify about the existing Pine Island accesses. Here’s the summary:

      1) Mn/DOT wanted both the interchange and the north junction to disappear. Although the desire to have bypasses for regional traffic was one stated reason, more important was the interchange doesn’t meet modern design standards and with a creek to the west and a dense residential area to the rest there’s no room to expand it, and Mn/DOT planned to tie the new frontage roads into where the interchange is.

      2)Pine Island was less than thrilled, and wanted at the minimum the ramps towards Rochester to remain. The Elk Run project didn’t originally address removal one way another since the frontage roads weren’t planned to be completed to Pine Island.

      3)Later Pine Island decided they wanted the frontage roads completed, and was willing to put more money into it. This included a roundabout at the existing interchange to partially solve the problem of intersection spacing. As part of the compromise, since it’s obvious the existing interchange would remain, the northern junction, with that dangerous northbound “ramp” crossing the southbound mainline, would be closed

      4) Pine Island doesn’t like the north access being closed either, but that was part of the deal. Right now they’re exploring whether paying for interim acceleration lanes to maintain a right in / right out is worthwhile or whether they should pursue funding for a permanent north interchange, and are worried about if the existing interchange can handle the extra traffic if the north junction were shut down. As part of the agreement some of Pine Islands contribution to Elk Run was also forgiven.

  3. Al DavisonAl Davison

    Thanks for the article Monte, I have to admit it’s refreshing to see different perspectives on matters like this.

  4. T

    Good stuff. I was always under the impression that this was built because the new Mayo biowaste facility was going to be put here, and following that a whole butt load of development. The biowaste facility was about the only thing that could be put here due to some CWD being found at the elk farm that used to be there. Is there where that is or am I confused? I always travel 52, but have never heard a true confirmation about what the plan was.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      I wasn’t aware of this so I had to look it up.(I’m more familiar with the highway project than the associated proposed development). It seems CWD would require some precautions in construction, but isn’t a show stopper. The issue has always been that it seems no one actually wants to locate their company in the middle of nowhere.

  5. John

    This is probably the most wasteful project that MnDOT has done. It is a $34 M project for no reason. No traffic congestion. No safety problem. No business access need. It was built on-spec in anticipation of a huge bio-park that was a fantasy development and never occurred.

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