Summer 2022 Highway News Roundup

Google Maps Silliness

Minnesota has about a hundred legally named highways and bridges, written into law in Minnesota Statute § 161.14. Some of the early ones like the Viking Trail and the Sioux Trail were possibly intended to mark motoring touring routes. But overwhelmingly the highways are named in memory of local politicians, veterans or State Troopers killed in the line of duty. Thus, they’re commonly known as “Memorial Routes”. Of these, only a stretch of Floyd B. Olson Memorial Highway (which actually stretches the entire length of marked highway 55) in Minneapolis is commonly known by its official name.

MnDOT doesn’t have any control over this process and is required to erect signs, provided someone other than state taxpayers pay for the signs. Generally, they’re a square marker with “John Doe Memorial Highway” in standard lettering. Originally the signs were green, but probably to emphasize that they’re not intended for navigational use, newer ones are brown.

New Memorial Route Sign
New style Memorial Route Sign in Montevideo. Theodore Christianson, from rural Dawson, was the 21st governor of Minnesota. (Photo by Author)

Nevertheless, recently Google Maps started incorporating these as street names, leading to some rather absurd depictions on their maps. Consider this map of Red Wing, on a highway that’s locally only known as US 61:

Red Wing Map

Here’s one from downtown St. Paul:

Downtown St. Paul Map.

And South Minneapolis:

South Minneapolis Map

A Safety Message Backfires

According to a recent media article in the StarTribune, a University of Minnesota and University of Toronto study found using variable message signs to display the number of deaths on the road… wait for it… increases crashes and deaths. Seems that with such a somber message, drivers start brooding about their own mortality and in doing so, ironically stop paying attention to their own driving. Looking at statistics in Texas they found:

Crashes increased 4.5% in the 10 miles immediately after drivers passed a sign during weeks when the grim numbers were posted versus the other weeks of the month when the death count was not. Crashes increased each month as the death toll rose, with the most wrecks occurring in January when the grand total from the previous year was displayed… The safety messages contributed to an additional 2,600 crashes — most involving multiple vehicles —and 16 deaths per year in Texas, costing $377 million annually.

Minnesota has never done this, and doing so is specifically a MUTCD violation. With the exceptions of AMBER alerts and occasional lighthearted motoring-related safety messages, only information immediately relevant to driving conditions is allowed. “Death totals” or messages of the nature of “Explore Minnesota!” or “Wear Your Bicycle Helmet Whenever You Ride!” or “Visit www.mndot.gov!” or “This Sign Sponsored by US Bank” are specifically not allowed.

An intersection design backfires

MnDOT has always been an eager adopter of new innovations in traffic efficiency and safety, being one of first to test out flashing yellow arrows. Another new design is the “Reduced Conflict U-Turn (RCUT). Typically used where a minor to moderate highway intersects an expressway, they force all traffic on the side road to turn right. Motorists that want to cross or go left then make a U-turn down the road at a designated turning bay for such. As shown in this image from Virginia DOT, it reduces conflict points from 32 to 18.

RCUT intersection (VDOT)
RCUT intersection. (Image by VDOT)

MnDOT has been enthusiastic about this design, since they increase safety at the fraction of a cost of an interchange at locations where traffic volumes don’t justify (or there’s not money for) an interchange. The new US 212 expressway between Chaska and Norwood Young-America will have a number of them.

Reaction from the public in Greater Minnesota has been less than enthusiastic. Facing local opposition, MnDOT dropped plans to build an RCUT with a new section of the US 14 expressway near Owatonna, building a conventional intersection instead. MnDOT also paused a project on the MN 23 expressway at MN 9. There were even bills introduced in the last legislative session (HF4505 and SF4136) that directed pork barrel money to study and construct an overpass or interchange here, with a specific ban against studying or building an RCUT. Like most of several dozen of these bills each session that try to micromanage MnDOT project selection, it never made it out of committee. But its existence is evidence of local sentiment.

RCUTs also tend to not work well with heavy traffic volumes because there’s simply not enough gaps in mainline traffic. An RCUT built a few years ago on US 52 is between Hampton and Coates is already being looked at for replacement with an interchange (the last identified interchange location in the c2000 freeway conversion study that hasn’t been built yet). Alternatively, signals can be added to give cross traffic a chance to enter the highway. This results in delays similar to a normal signalized intersection except for peak hour volumes on the through street, which are less. The first in the state was built in 2019 at MN 65 and Viking Drive.

MN 65 and Viking Drive
MN 65 and Viking Drive. (Image by Google)

Results with non-signalized RCUTs overall has been favorable, but the result of this one with signals was a disaster from a safety standpoint, and 6000 people have signed a petition demanding an interchange here. From 2016 to 2019 the intersection had 29 crashes and no deaths. In the year after it opened there were 17 crashes and two deaths. MnDOT is studying the problem, in the short term they added a “no turn on red” for the double right turns from Viking Blvd onto the highway. Left turns on flashing yellow arrows are still allowed for the single lane U-turn movement.

The Brooklyn Park Taco Bell “Defy” Prototype Opens

Normally the opening of a new fast-food restaurant is not notable to Minnesota transportation or land use issues. However this one is the first in the nation of this design, and it graphically illustrates the COVID-accelerated changes to the industry – the disappearance of dining rooms and the vast expansion of drive-through lanes and technology. It’s attracted attention from both local and national news; Here are some examples of recent articles in the Star Tribune, MPR, CNN, Today, and Mashed. Here’s the Taco Bell press release.

Brooklyn Park Taco Bell
Brooklyn Park Taco Bell. (Photo by author)
Brooklyn Park Taco Bell
Taco Bell quadruple drive-through. (Photo by author)

A second story kitchen is elevated over quadruple drive-thru lanes, with food lowered to motorists through contactless dumbwaiters, a technology provided by a Minnesota company. Although a small lobby for indoor ordering and pickup is provided, there is no indoor dining room. Taco Bell found that now 90% of its customers now use the drive-through as opposed to 65% before the pandemic.

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.

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