I-35W Mississippi River Bridge

Summer 2021 Highway News Roundup

As the 2021 construction season moves into high gear, I thought I’d try something different and write about a few things that have gone on around the state the past year, interesting enough to present here but probably not deserving of their own full article.

The St. Francis Highway 47 Safety Project by St. Francis Middle School Gets a Suspension.

As reported here earlier, on Nov 20, 2018, two schoolgirls walking to St. Francis Middle School were struck and badly injured by a motorist who failed to stop for a rectangular rapid flashing beacon. Although you can obviously fault the motorist, there was fault to be found in the roadway design too. Highway 47 near here is a short section of rural expressway on a road that has no reason to be an expressway either from a traffic or interregional mobility point of view. AADT of 12,300.

View of the dangerous intersection in its original configuration in 2018.
The RRFB as it existed in 2018 (Google)
St. Francis Middle School (Photo: Author)

The immediate response was for MnDOT to erect a temporary, unwarranted traffic signal with the understanding it would only be in place until a more permanent solution could be studied and funded.

The new, temporary traffic signal above the intersection in St. Francis.
St. Francis Temporary Traffic Signal (Photo: Author)

Late in 2019 MnDOT arrived at a solution of narrowing the road to two lanes divided, narrowing the median, and building four roundabouts. The result would look more like a slow suburban arterial as opposed to a high speed rural expressway. A pedestrian bridge or tunnel was rejected because it was felt that a roundabout would be adequate provide a safe crossing and even with a tunnel or overpass, pedestrians would continue to cross the highway at-grade because it was shorter and a roundabout would provide a safe crossing without the expense.

MnDOT presented three potential cross-sections for Highway 47 in St. Francis. All three have dramatically narrower widths than the current road layout.
(Image: MnDOT)

Ultimately what happened is St. Francis liked the unwarranted signal and in early 2020 sent a message that they’d refuse to consent to a design with roundabouts. Meanwhile MnDOT stuck to their (general) policy of not allowing unwarranted signals on state highways even if a local agency paid 100% of the cost, which is rapidly approaching a half million dollars with elaborate overhead masts and accessible pedestrian stations. As a result this project is in a deep holding pattern until either MnDOT or St. Francis budges.

End of the Road for Trunk Highway 237

Highway 237 Sign
Highway 237 Sign (Photo: Author)

About 1950, MnDOT’s predecessor the Department of Highways was forced to take on many mostly “dead end” trunk highways to connect small towns or a state institution to the trunk highway system. MnDOT has been very slowly, at a rate about one a year, turning these back to the counties, always with a bribe of cash or a fresh reconstruction project. There was a previous article criticizing $20 Million spent on one of these reconstruction projects, the former MN 66 from Mankato to Good Thunder. It’s now the turn of Highway 237, connecting New Munich to I-94. The route was removed by the 2020 legislature, and will be transferred to Stearns County soon in exchange for a $700,000 cash payment.

New Munich, MN
New Munich, MN (Photo: Author)

Other Recent Trunk Highway Changes

  • A legislative change in 2020 was a correction to a previous change involving the turnback of MN 156, to clarify that the portion within St. Paul will remain a trunk highway.
  • An extension of MN 78 southward in exchange for the Grant County taking MN 54 (notable as being one of the original constitutional routes with it’s original number). In theory constitutional routes would require a referendum to amend the state constitution to eliminate. But in practice MnDOT subscribes to the idea that if you can get from Town A to Town B along the trunk highway system, not matter how indirect, the constitutional requirement of a trunk highway between those two towns is met.
  • MN 3 was extended northward over Robert Street from I-494 to downtown St. Paul. Upon completion of the Lafayette Freeway in the mid-1990s, US 52 was moved there, with Robert Street becoming an unmarked trunk highway (internally designated as 952A). MnDOT tried to turn it back with the recent reconstruction in West St Paul, but the amount of money the local agencies demanded to take control of the road was more than MnDOT was willing to pay. So stuck with it long term, MnDOT decided to sign it, and a northern extension of MN 3 was the logical choice.

The I-35W Minnesota River Bridge is done.

Last weekend the final coat of paving was applied to the new I-35W Minnesota River Bridge and approaches. Although it’s unfortunate it has substandard lanes (the two inside lanes are 11 feet instead of the standard 12 feet) and substandard shoulders due to value engineering, it’s still a much welcome replacement with wider shoulders and a new northbound auxiliary lane. Previously you worried about scraping your mirrors on the concrete barrier going southbound where they shoe-horned in an auxiliary lane on what used to be a shoulder. Going northbound traffic would back up to Iowa every time a slow moving gravel truck from the nearby quarry tried to merge in on Cliff Road.

I-35W Bridge
The I-35W Bridge under construction (Photo by MnDOT)
The I-35W Minnesota River Bridge (Photo: Author)
The I-35W Minnesota River Bridge (Photo: Author)

Also notable in that the bridge now includes a multi-use path; the distance from Bloomington’s Oxboro neighborhood to Burnsville’s Heart of the City neighborhood by bicycle is now about 5 miles, as opposed to 11.5 miles via the Old Cedar Bridge.

I-35W Minnesota River Bridge (Photo: Author)
I-35W Minnesota River Bridge (Photo: Author)
View from the trail on the I-35W Minnesota River Bridge (Photo: Author)
View from the trail on the I-35W Minnesota River Bridge (Photo: Author)

Met Council TAB grants Decided.

The reality of transportation funding is that regular MnDOT funding basically only pays for maintenance, while badly needed capacity and safety improvements come as what I like to term “pop-up” projects, the inception of which is based largely on the wherewithal of local agencies. A significant source of funding for these comes from the Met Council TAB—Transportation Advisory Board—in the form of grants which are awarded to highway, nonmotorized transportation, and transit on a biennial cycle. When combined with Highway Safety Improvements Program grants, $200 million was available for 2020. Each project submitted by a state or local agency gets a numerical score and is categorized in one of a eleven categories. The Met Council starts by awarding money tp the highest-scoring projects, then spreads the remaining funds to projects across the remaining categories until they run out.

This year, in addition to moving $5 million to transit projects, there was was some discussion this year about changing the historical process. Options included more focus on bike and projects, focusing on many smaller projects or focusing on fewer but larger projects. Adding to this discussion was the realization that Scott County would not get a single project under scenarios other than the historical process and then by only partially funding three projects.

Although it was noted that Scott County only bothered to submit two projects, and over the past decade they have gotten projects proportional to their population, the Met Council still decided to make sure Scott County got at least one project this time around. Additionally, MnDOT expressed concerns about the runner up alternative choice—focusing on more but smaller projects, since the management burden does not scale down linearly with the size of the project.

Here’s some of the major ($3.5 million or more) highway projects awarded, dollar figures are in millions:

Traffic Management Technologies

  • Minneapolis City-Wide Signal Retiming ($2.5)
  • Dale Street Traffic Signal Modernization [Rebuilding signals at Grand, Summit, Shelby, and Marshall and replacing the fiber-optic interconnect on Dale] ($2.0)

Spot Mobility and Safety

  • Johnson St NE / I-35W S Ramps Intersection Improvements ($1.5)
  • Hi/Lake Safety [converting the interchange from a SPUI to a tight diamond)]($3.5)
  • US 212 and CSAH 51 Intersection Safety [building a reduced conflict intersection at the Bongaards Creamery near Cologne]
  • Roundabout: CSAH 11 and Burnsville Parkway ($1.4)

Roadway Strategic Capacity

  • TH 252 / Brookdale Drive Intersection Improvements [In practice, this and previously funded pop-up projects on 252 are paused while a larger study of the entire I-94 / MN 252 corridor takes place.] ($10)
  • TH 65 at 99th Ave NE Intersection Improvements [new interchange ] ($10)
  • Ramsey Blvd and Highway 10 Intersection Improvements [new interchange] $10
  • Lake Elmo Ave and TH 36 Intersection Improvements [new interchange] $10
  • Hwy 5 Arboretum Area Mobility and Access Improvement [Extending the MN 5 expressway past the arboretum and provisions for lining up the entrance with a new traffic signal at Minnewashta Parkway] ($10)
  • Hwy 41 and CSAH 10 Mobility and Access Improvements [Engler intersection expansion and two roundabouts on Engler] ($7)
  • TH 169, TH 282, and CSAH 9 Intersection Improvements [Jordan Interchange] ($7)

Roadway Reconstruction and Modernization

  • Franklin Ave Reconstruction ($7)
  • Lowry Ave NEW Reconstruction($7)
  • Robert Street Reconstrucion ($7)
  • Minnetonka Blvd Reconstruction ($7)

Bridges

  • Rockford Road over US 169 ($6.88)
  • Third Street Viaduct ($7)

Of these projects, I’m most happy with the inclusion of the Lake Elmo and Jordan interchanges. Isolated interchanges on rural expressways are dangerous as well as inconvenient, The Lake Elmo intersection has had 90 crashes and one fatality in recent years. If this intersection isn’t fixed it’s only a matter of time until fatality number two happens.

Lake Elmo Ave and Highway 36 (Image: Google)

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.

11 thoughts on “Summer 2021 Highway News Roundup

  1. Sheldon Gitis

    Great story and photo of the death trap next to the St. Francis Middle School. Only the Highway Department, euphemistically renamed MnDOT, could conceive of a roundabout as a solution to pedestrian safety. The rocket scientists who designed the 4-lane highway with the pedestrian crossing that severely injured the students should be convicted of a crime. Or better yet, make them stroll or bike across the roundabout mess they created at the Rice-694 interchange.

    1. Brian

      What type of intersection would make pedestrian advocates happy? Don’t want traffic signals, don’t want roundabouts, don’t want pedestrian bridges or tunnels.

      1. Sheldon Gitis

        With regard to the intersection near the middle school on St. Francis Blvd., eliminating the 2 excess lanes, one in each direction, and reducing the speed limit to 30 mph, would be major safety improvements. Getting rid of the 2 unnecessary and hazardous traffic lanes would also probably save money, eliminating the cost of maintaining the excess pavement. Also, a pedestrian activated stop light, school crossing signage, and major fines for any driver speeding through the intersection or failing to stop at the light would make the crossing safer.

        If you think roundabouts work for pedestrians and bicycles, try walking or biking through the Rice-694 interchange sometime. Maybe we could weed the gene pool by marching the traffic engineers who designed it through their looney-lane roundabout mess.

        https://www.ramseycounty.us/sites/default/files/Roads%20and%20Transit/694%26Rice.JPG

        If pedestrian safety is the issue, you’d have to be nuts to propose a roundabout as the solution – or maybe just a typical traffic engineer.

        1. Brian

          I never said roundabouts work for pedestrians. I am trying to figure out what type of intersections pedestrian advocates like because they don’t like roundabouts, generally don’t want new traffic signals, and most don’t like pedestrian overpasses or underpasses.

        2. David F.

          The St. Francis intersection is a fiasco. Highway 47 is a narrow 2-lane road for a few miles south of St. Francis and it is a narrow 2-lane road to the north all the way to Oglivie.

          For some reason, way back in the early 60s, they widened 47 right at St. Francis. So instead of slowing traffic through town it accelerates traffic through town. It’s backwards.

          There’s no reason for there to be more than two lanes there. Of course there could be turn lanes, but there’s no reason for more than one lane of thru traffic.

  2. Brian

    Why would any county want to take over a state highway that has not been rebuilt, even for a payment of $700,000? Granted, 237 is less than three miles if my map reading is right. One repaving of the highway would use up most of that money let alone annual costs for mowing, snow removal, and other maintenance.

    The reality is the county will probably take the $700,000 and spend it on other things. When the highway needs repaving they will be scrambling to find the money for it. Does MNDOT or the county pay to replace the bridge over I-94? If the county has to pay for the bridge $700,000 is barely a down payment on the cost.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      So, if MnDOT has X amount of dollars to spend resurfacing roads, which roads do you think are going to get it? I-94 and US 169? Or MN 237 and MN 263. So lot of these dead-end roads have narrow, unpaved shoulders and are filled with ruts and potlholes. Mist County complains about the condition of the trunk highway to Lake Wobegone, and the state says. “Sorry, we have no maintenance money available anytime soon. But if you want to take the road, there’s turnback money available for us to do a project or to give to you to do a project”. It’s also worth noting that these routes generally join the county state-aid system, so there’s still state money available for projects.

      Local road overpasses are owned and paid for by MnDOT.

      1. Brian

        If I was a county taxpayer in that county I would pissed that I am getting even less for my fuel taxes and now have to pay more property taxes for road repairs.

        Why would MNDOT turn over these roads to the county if it wasn’t saving MNDOT money? I bet the state aid dollars aren’t as much money as it would have cost MNDOT to maintain the road effectively transferring at least some cost to county taxpayers.

  3. Trademark

    Love to see the lake elmo interchange for 36 added to the list of future projects. Any news on if/when century ave and 36 will get grade seperation?

    Also if a intersection for MN-65 and 99th is approved does that mean that they have decided on final concepts for the possible freeway/impovement project between bunker lake and county 10 on MN-65. IIRC there were different concepts for an interchange depending on the results of it.

    Question for you Monte? Where in the metro area do you see the most need for new interchanges that aren’t being funded already?

    1. Brian

      Interesting that I can’t find any mention of a Hwy 65 and 99th Ave interchange on MNDOT’s website. The only thing I find on MNDOT’s website is a statement that no work on Highway 65 in Blaine is in the 2040 transportation plan. They have come up with three preliminary concepts, but no funding.

      I am a bit upset that Elk River is getting a conversion of Highway 169 to a full freeway while highway 65 gets nothing. If MNDOT said Highway 65 was next on the list I would be happy, but MNDOT’s current answer is there is no funding until after 2040 and no guarantee of funding after that. Highway 65 really needs to be repaved in concrete north of Highway 10. There are big dips at every traffic light due to heavy volumes of traffic stopping for the lights.

      I am glad I live off Lexington Ave (County 17) and not Highway 65 I was taking the bus from the 95th Ave park and ride before COVID, so I rarely used highway 65.

    2. Monte Castleman Post author

      So, I wouldn’t expect Century any time soon. There’s obviously no money in the regular MnDOT budget, Washington County didn’t even ask for money this time with a regional solicitation application, the pot that largely funded the Hadley “popup” project, the Transporation Economic Development program is lean this year and it’s been several years since the legislature at all funded Corridors of Commerce, and there’s no bonding money in the budget. For some reason there was more excitement about Hadley then Century, and Hadley had to go first because if Century were temporarily closed first traffic would have overwhelmed the narrower Hadley intersection.

      I’m not particularly knowledgeable about this particular project. Reading the application there’s still two different concepts for the 99th area- either a tight diamond at 99th or a grade separation on either side with ramps to the frontage road where 99th is.

      Unfunded interchanges I see a need for (limited to what I think is remotely realistic)
      1) MN 252, despite several rounds of special funding they don’t have enough to do all of them.
      2) CSAH 66 at US 52, this is the last interchange location for the US 52 corridor that was identified in the c2000 corridor study (other than a Cliff Road extension that’s likely never going to happen) that hasn’t been built. MnDOT built a reduced conflict intersection here a few years ago, but to my perception there’s too much traffic for it to be safe or work well.
      3) The signalized RCI at MN 65 and Viking Blvd has been an absolute disaster safety-wise, so unless they can find a cheap engineering fix…
      4) MN 13 at Nicollet, based how pedestrian unfriendly it is as well as congestion and how 13 separates the Heart of the City from the transit station. (There’s an alternative to widen 13 to six lanes and build a pedestrian bridge as well as taking the entire Nicollet Ave over 13 on a grade separation.).
      5 MN 36 at Century Ave.

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