A highway with a traffic light for left turns.

Highway 280: Put It Back the Way It Was

There’s always so much going on in the country and world (even back when things didn’t seem like quite as much of a dumpster fire as they’ve been since 2015) that important things get lost. Bureaucracies may not mean to take advantage of that, but it has the same effect.

When the 35W bridge in downtown Minneapolis collapsed in August 2007, Trunk Highway 280 — which runs north-south just inside the Saint Paul border with Minneapolis from I-94 to I-35W in Roseville — was “temporarily” turned into a piece of the interstate system to serve as a detour. Its two completely at-grade access points (at Walnut Avenue and County Road B) were closed. By 2009, the ramps to Larpenteur/Hennepin Avenues were upgraded for safety reasons.

By that time, of course, the new 35W bridge had opened, as it did in record time. But somehow Highway 280 stayed in its new configuration, with its recently closed crossing in Lauderdale, plus sound walls that were unpopular with many people in Lauderdale.

Later came an increase in the speed limit south of Como to 55 mph, and other “safety” changes were made so that larger numbers of vehicles traveling at high rates of speed would be less likely to crash.

But the one-way frontage roads that lead to and from University Avenue, for instance, remain speedways, as the frontage roads along most highways tend to be.

A permanent freeway

There has never been any chance for the people who live in Lauderdale or the Saint Anthony Park neighborhood of Saint Paul to say what we think about the livability of having this relatively sudden incursion of a permanent interstate adjacent to them. Yes, TH-280 was a highway before 2007, but if you look through old copies of the Star Tribune, as I have lately, it’s always described as “sleepy.” The speed limit was 50 mph. It had multiple traffic lights on it.

Recently MnDOT completed a speed study that found the highway’s 85th percentile speed* is 60 mph, and therefore, plan to increase the speed limit south of Como to that speed. They have requested funding in 2024 to remove the last traffic signal, a north-bound left-turn light at Broadway. Once that light is gone, they would also raise the speed limit north of Broadway to 60 mph.

The loss of the Broadway turn light will mean a distance of 1.5 miles with no way off or across the highway for local traffic, let alone pedestrians or bikes, between the Larpenteur/Hennepin exit and Terminal Road. This road is a major barrier between Minneapolis and Saint Paul in this part of the metro area (and within Saint Paul and Lauderdale).

Highway 280 at Broadway, showing its last traffic signal, which MnDOT would like to remove in 2024. On the right, you can see the sound wall that now blocks what used to be a signalized crossing from Walnut Avenue in Lauderdale. (Composite photo by the author.)

Why is MnDOT removing the light? Because the left-turn lane and arrow are thought to increase crashes, though the 2014-2019 crash data show no severe injuries or deaths. It’s almost all fender-benders.

There have been both severe injuries and deaths on the frontage roads in South Saint Anthony Park in the same time period, but MnDOT hasn’t done anything to address those, including in the Rethinking I-94 process. Those areas fall outside the area under consideration, at least so far, even though the TH-280/I-94 interchange is a major concern of the “rethinking” process.

MnDOT also never seems to think about the increased crash risk or severity of crashes when the speed limit goes up and drivers feel greater permission to then travel even faster, since driver speed overall creeps up in relation to an increase in the posted speed limit.

What about livability?

MnDOT is currently holding a monthly series of Livability Workshops, asking how the public sees livability in general in relation to transportation. The next one is on June 24 (10 a.m. on Zoom) and it’s open to the public. The topic this month is Health. (Use the Contacts page in the Livability section of the MnDOT site to request access.)

Freeways obviously create multiple types of air pollution — from tail pipes as well as tire, brake, and road surface particulates — but also from constant noise, all of which affect health. Highway 280 went from sleepy to constant on all of these negative effects with no input from its neighbors.

And now MnDOT wants to make it worse with a higher speed limit and removing the last traffic light, just as many of us are increasingly aware that we’re in a climate crisis and freeways are not the future of transportation. It doesn’t seem like the time to spend tax dollars to make it easier for cars and trucks to go faster, inducing more car driving, rather than on other modes of transportation, or on ways to make driving safer both for drivers and for people who are not driving.

For instance, here is the recently released NHTSA data on motor vehicle fatalities per miles traveled in 2020. Fatalities are up 7% from 2019:

Data source

As you can see in the chart, road deaths per mile were close to flat from 2008 to 2019, after a decline over at least the previous 14 years. The 2020 data also show that the deaths were speeding-related beyond the overall increase (11% were speeding-related vs. the 7% overall increase). Minnesota stats are in line with these national figures.

On top of everything else, this makes me wonder if the pandemic is a time that MnDOT should have been doing a speed study anywhere. Basing policy on a time when deaths suddenly spiked upward, often from speeding, seems like the opposite of livability.

If you feel so moved, you can comment on the planned funding for removing the Broadway left-turn light in the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Improvement Plan here. Its $452,000 in expense is briefly described on page 77 of the plan here. There doesn’t appear to be a way to comment on the Highway 280 speed limit increases, however.

Or just remove the whole thing

Ultimately, if we were serious about climate change, my other intrepid suggestion would be to close and remove Highway 280 altogether to allow daylighting Bridal Veil Creek. With that, we could revegetate this brownfield area with native plants to provide wildlife habitat and create a regional park. I know that in our present day — with its emphasis on personal motorized vehicles moving at high speeds — that wouldn’t possibly be considered.

But I wanted to end this article by asking for what I personally really want. Addressing MnDOT and its questions about livability (and I suppose the Metropolitan Council as well): Daylighting Bridal Veil Creek would show a real commitment to a livable future.

*A brief definition: the speed at or below which 85 percent of all vehicles travel on a street or road when it’s in free-flowing condition. According to MnDOT, 85th percentile speed is generally 5 to 7 mph greater than the median speed. Here’s what Streets Blog USA has to say about the 85th percentile rule.

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the streets.mn Climate Committee.

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