New Crosstown Commons is the real deal — but probably the last of the big highway projects

It seems like only four years ago that MnDOT began work on the biggest highway project in state history. Actually, it was four years ago, or nearly four years ago — May 2007 — that the notorious Crosstown Commons surrendered itself for radical surgery. Tomorrow the once horrid bottleneck officially emerges all shiny and new, with free-flowing traffic and drivers less inclined to commit road rage.

Gone are the billowing clouds of construction dust and exhaust. Gone is the terrible pounding of pile drivers, the glaring lights of the nighttime crews, the relentless beep-beep-beeps of a dozen dump trucks backing up simultaneously. Now there’s just the reassuring hum of steady traffic, the convalescent roar of commerce regaining its tempo.

The road warriors at MnDOT aren’t accustomed to praise, but they deserve a standing ovation for artfully correcting one of the worst design mistakes of the Interstate era. It was a crackpot notion that two freeways (Hwys. 35W and 62) could peaceably join up for a mile or so in the heart of a busy city and then depart to run their separate ways. All of the bobbing and weaving required to get through the segment was risky even back in the light-traffic ’60s, but nowadays it’s flirting with eternity to cut across two lanes of traffic to get where you’re going.

Last of its kind?
Fixing this nightmare cost $288 million, the rough equivalent of a year’s worth of all road construction in the metro area. The project needed a $50 million loan from the Metropolitan Council to get started after MnDOT failed to persuade private contractors to make a down payment. It was a product, too, of tough negotiation between the city and its suburban neighbors. Minneapolis wanted a narrower design with space for transit. Suburbanites wanted more lanes for cars, especially cars headed east on 62, then north on 35W, toward downtown. The compromise pleased everyone. Drivers got extra lanes and Bus Rapid Transit has been promised.

It’s rare for Minnesota not to cut corners. So drivers should offer special thanks for the new Crosstown Commons. It’s a real deal that’s not likely to be repeated. Times have changed. Demand for new roads far exceeds the public’s willingness to pay for them. Just keeping up with repairs on the roads and bridges we already have takes all of our gasoline taxes and a good chunk of our property taxes, too. So, from here on out, MnDOT is reverting to its old habit of producing half-baked solutions.

Well, that’s a little harsh. Its new approach is called “low-cost/high-benefit.” What it means is that top priority will go to maintaining the infrastructure already in place. That makes sense in MnDOT’s post-bridge-collapse world. It also means that MnDOT will continue to squeeze the most capacity out of every inch of metro freeway space. That means more ramp meters, more toll lanes, more shoulder lanes for buses, more real-time “congestion ahead” signs, etc. It’s already a national leader on those strategies.

Crosstown reconstruction map
Minnesota Department of Transportation

How about the Lowry Tunnel?
It means also that most of the other glaring design flaws in the metro freeway system may be here to stay. The Lowry Tunnel is the prime example. It funnels six lanes of Interstate Hwy. 94 beneath and between the Sculpture Garden and the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis while also preparing drivers to enter or exit from Interstate Hwy. 394. Bottom line? The tunnel should be twice as wide to handle even today’s traffic. But the solution — if it could be built at all — would probably cost more than $2 billion, according to Khani Sahebjam, MnDOT’d deputy commissioner.

“It’s so obviously a problem, but we don’t think much about the solution because of the cost,” he said.

Khani Sahebjam
Khani Sahebjam

There are other major system flaws, too, that may not be fully fixed, including the “spaghetti bowl” interchange on the east end of downtown Minneapolis which, astonishingly, doesn’t allow drivers to head east to St. Paul. Or Interstate Hwy. 35E, which peters out in downtown St. Paul, or northbound Hwy. 280 in Roseville, which doesn’t allow a southbound turn onto 35W.

So, be thankful, at least for a new Crosstown Commons — all 14 lanes of it at its widest point. As I whizzed through at rush hour the other day I appreciated, really for the first time, how hard it must have been to keep traffic flowing throughout the construction, the crews have to push traffic to one side of the corridor while working on the other, and then reversing the process. Very impressive.

Cheer or boo?

Cheers for Growth & Justice’s new report on ways for Minnesotans to reduce their carbon footprint by driving less. The policy paper by Matt Kane and Nick Flanders shows that Minnesotans drive more than most Americans but that a new emphasis on road pricing and transit oriented development can show favorable results in the coming decades.

Cheers for the Met Council’s passage on Wednesday of a new Transportation Policy Plan. The plan’s focus is to preserve current roadways while downsizing future expansion at the metro edge. The official reason? Lack of money. Another reason? Slower anticipated growth in the outer suburbs.

Cheers (with reservations) for the Twins’ decision to spend another $4 million to $6 million on Target Field. The new right-field videoboard will “enhance the fan experience.” But the club must be careful not to add too many doodads. It’s the ballpark’s clean, uncluttered lines that make it such an acclaimed piece of architecture and sets it apart from other new yards.

Cheers (provisional) for Minneapolis’ switch to a parking meter system that takes credit and debit cards. Not having to carry around all those quarters makes me feel lighter already. Worry? That the lighting system is good enough to let you actually see the LED screen and keyboard.

Three top urban design stories this week:

Peter Calthorpe
Calthorpe Associates
Peter Calthorpe

Tall trees or tall buildings?
The New York Times notes a split in the environmental movement; some favoring taller buildings around transit hubs as a way to protect open space in other locations; others seeing urban density, or “smart growth,” as collusion with developers. The issue came to a head in Berkeley, Calif., on Election Day when environmentalist voters disagreed over approving five new buildings that would exceed normal height limits. The buildings won approval. Noted urban planner and environmentalist Peter Calthorpe was on the winning side. “The thing that’s most maddening is that their position is the antitheses of what they supposedly stand for,” he said.

A similar split may be afoot in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where some environmentalists loathe the idea of tall buildings peeking over the tops of trees along the Mississippi River while others see them as ways to maximize green space and minimize runoff.

MSP voted most mellow rated Minneapolis-St. Paul the nation’s most relaxed city. Examining six key stress factors in the 50 largest metro areas (unemployment, traffic, work habits, exercise, medical coverage and health), Forbes put the the Twin Cities ahead of Milwaukee, Boston, Portland, Columbus, Denver and Seattle. Another recent study rated Minneapolis as the best U.S. city for a good night’s sleep. New York likes to say it’s the city that never sleeps. We’re not sure what local boosters can do with Minneapolis’ reputation for drowsiness.

High tech moves downtown
Famous for their office park preferences, many Silicon Valley start-ups are switching to downtowns, according to the Wall Street Journal. Company officials say employees thrive on the restaurants and bars available in core areas and increasingly dislike the isolation of suburban settings. Maybe Richard Florida was right when he said that the creative class flourishes and innovation is more likely when workers have face-to-face experiences outside of the office.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 11/12/2010 - 11:42 am.

    The construction may have been a boon for the Commons area, but it has been a bust for those of us who daily travel Hwy 62 from one end to the other

    I carpool with 2 other women who don’t drive. They used to take the bus, but with all the bus schedule changes over the last 2 years, they ended up with 13 + hour days. (They need to get on by 6:00 am and don’t get home until 7:30 pm, or later. Part of that time is a 1 hour layover at the Southdale station because SW Transit and MTC can’t seem to coordinate their schedules for the actual convenience of its customers.)

    In the morning two of us get on the Crosstown near the Vet’s Hospital at about 6:55 am. We get off at Portland to pickup the second rider and then back on at Lynndale by 7:10 am. In the morning we get to where we work at the intersection of Pioneer Trail and Anderson Lakes Pkway about 7:30. So not too bad.

    We leave at 4:00 pm and have not been able to make it past Tracy without some sort of backup since late in September. Tuesday night the backup started where 169 takes off from where 212 starts. It took us 25 minutes just to get to Tracy.

    Somehow I don’t think MN DOT’s vision for this project was the idea that commuters would get off and take neighborhood streets everyday to get home. And I’m sure the people in the neighborhoods never thought that their local streets would become commuter thoroughfares.

    With little thought apparently given to those who actually transverse the CROSStown and not just those who intersect with it, it looks like neighborhood streets will just become busier and busier as traffic increases on the CROSStown.

  2. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 11/12/2010 - 01:17 pm.

    “Demand for new roads far exceeds the public’s willingness to pay for them.”

    This is the key. I’ve heard talk (and even proposed it myself in a fantasy transit setup) that we need a second, outer interstate beltway surrounding the modern map of the Twin Cities. I imagine this would cost upwards of $100b — or, you know, a couple years’ spent in Iraq.

    It will never happen. Not just because we probably shouldn’t (for the sake of preventing further sprawl) but because no one will pay for it. Oh, they want it. But they won’t pay for it.

    The money’s there. It’s just not being allocated properly. We could have 21st century transit in this country, but we’d have to give up on our exceedingly wasteful military conquests. And that would just be unpatriotic.

  3. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 11/12/2010 - 01:58 pm.

    Right on, Steve! But although the 35W/62 mess was mercifully (and quite nicely) untangled, the rest of the road-widening project shows an enormous lack of foresight and common sense.

    Adding yet another lane or two of concrete down 35W is just a temporary solution, even if metro-area growth slows. The longer-term answer is a limited-stop rail line to Lakeville/Farmington or even New Prague to take south-metro commuters to and from downtown. I cannot believe that most daytime downtown workers would not prefer riding a train — perhaps reading, e-mailing or sending text messages — to sitting in long lines of slow-moving, gasoline-drinking, sometimes-colliding automobiles. The benefit would double or triple during Minnesota’s winter driving misery. The line could connect with the terminal for the Mpls-St. Paul light rail.

    I do not believe that buses ever will attract anywhere near as many riders as would rail. They’re noisy, bumpy, drafty, less fuel-efficient and, to tell the truth, considered declasse. Having been a bus rider, I am convinced that many, many people who would flock to rail (with its allure of big-city, East Coast sophistication) never would consider voluntarily commuting on buses.

    With thousands of people riding rail every weekday, the highway would be less congested, we’d burn less petroleum (which would help keep down the price and preserve availability for a finite resource), save money on auto insurance, conserve adrenalin, lower blood pressures, expose our vechiles to less rust-promoting salt and spew less carbon dioxide and pollution ino the air. I don’t see why that’s not preferable to another lane of highway.

  4. Submitted by John DeWitt on 11/12/2010 - 11:08 pm.

    Let’s revisit the Crosstown Commons in a couple of years.

    The Hillside Strangler was a notorious bottleneck on the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago. In the early 2000s, the Illinois Department of Transportation spent $140 million fixing it only to find two years later that travel times were unchanged. Safer perhaps but no faster.

  5. Submitted by William Pappas on 11/13/2010 - 05:47 am.

    Shiela, your comments should be required reading for every traffic engineer. What is now an old addage, you can’t build your way out of congestion, is more true now than ever. Freeway bottlenecks are improved, attracting more drivers, and presto, another bottleneck appears and frequently neighborhoods suffer. The Twin Cities brought this problem on themselves by promoting sprawl and rejecting transit. Too late they have learned that transit projects are the greatest tool for growth, private business investment and transportation efficiency that the region has in its available tool bag of solutions.

    I hope now, with the debacle of the Molnau Crosstown bidding process, the Molnau work stoppage of the Wakota Bridge and the Pawlenty/Molnau catastrophic decision to starve maintenance and upkeep of the entire transportation system that the public will always demand a civil engineering professional to be in charge of running MNDOT. Perhaps that should be enshrined in law to prevent the politicizing of that department and transportation funding again.

    Finally, in the light of MNDOT’s new emphasis on high cost/benefit projects and the maintenance of the system we have, is it time for Minnesota to abandon the nearly one billion dollar ST. Croix River Crossing and rediculous freeway expansion into the Stillwater HW 36 business district? Can that really be seen as a huge benefit to the drivers of Minnesota? Obviously that’s a Wisconsin and local Stillwater priority and one that has many other available, less costly and environmentally damaging solutions, especially downsizing the mega bridge to match the magnitude of the problem.

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