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.
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.
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:
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
Forbes.com 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.