I spend a lot of time thinking about the 494 strip. I work out of a coworking space near 494 and 100, and live less than a mile north of the highway in Richfield. As a Richfield planning commissioner, I have seen many projects revolve around 494 visibility and access. On a broader level, Richfield has ambitious goals for high-intensity development along the strip.
Richfield isn’t alone. The 494/5 commons between the airport and Eden Prairie has one of the highest concentrations of destinations in the region, having been classified as an “edge city” in the planning book by the same name. The Southdale District is a particularly large concentration of development just north of 494. And all three of Bloomington’s “development districts” center around 494.
If you talk to the average car commuter about this section of I-494, the first thing they’re likely to talk about isn’t the concentration of destinations. They’re likely to talk about the congestion. The area immediately around 35W experiences over six hours of congestion per day. The only solution to this problem? More lanes, and better interchanges.
Building more lanes will kick the can down the road for another few years, but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: each city wants to build high-intensity, auto-oriented destinations along a highway that will only get more congested.
After decades of drawing attention to the matter, we have made no serious progress on expanding 494 or the the 35W interchange. If we’re lucky, we’ll get $75 million for a partial improvement to westbound 494. But what then? 494 will hardly become uncongested — even on day 1 of an improved interchange. And if the cities along the strip achieve their goals, much more traffic will continue to pour onto the freeway.
To get a sense of just how intensely new development wants to add to traffic congestion on 494, check out this staff report on Edina’s Pentagon Park, which includes a consultant’s report describing the local street improvements needed for the development to move forward. Among the changes needed:
- Additional southbound lane on France Ave
- Double-left turn lanes at nearly every signal within a mile’s drive of the development
- Upgrading the existing 5-lane 77th Street Bridge over TH 100 to a minimum of 8 lanes.
Despite the detailed, comprehensive vision on the auto improvements needed, this is the entirety of what they describe for bicycles, pedestrians, and transit:
This lacks the rigor of the auto analysis, and fundamentally assumes one thing: nobody walks.
For an auto-oriented strip, 494 has reasonably good transit options. In addition to express routes to downtown and the future Orange Line near 35W, 77th/76th St and American Blvd both have all-day local bus options. But the streets are not set up for the walking and biking needed to actually use transit. And development often turns a blind eye to people walking or arriving from transit. As a result, even achieving the live-work mixes we hope to add in the strip, few would choose to use transit if they have the option to drive their own car.
Including walking, biking, and transit
To grow the 494 strip to cities’ goals, we need to rethink our approach to development and the streets in the corridor. I fully expect that developers’ main interest in 494 will be driven by its high auto traffic. But cities need to channel that interest into something that works for a multi-modal future. Cars are a big part of that future — but they can’t sustain 494 alone.