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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
- 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.