Sue Sanger has been on the St. Louis Park City Council for 15 years. In that decade and a half, many policy issues have come and gone, budgets have fluctuated, and important votes have been made.
But one issue has lingered, and it has frustrated Sanger and other council members — discussion over , between Cedar Lake Road and West 36th Street. Currently, the stretch is among the most congested in the state, and bridges at Minnetonka Boulevard and Highway 7 have been deemed structurally deficient.
“I would like to think it’ll be resolved in 2011,” Sanger said. “But I don’t have a lot of trust in MnDOT right now to believe that will happen.”
MnDOT, or the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is the agency ultimately responsible for construction plans, though any finalized plan will need the city’s approval, per the state’s municipal consent provision. Right now, the two sides are a bit at odds, as council voiced a number of concerns over two rough proposals presented to them two weeks ago.
MnDOT engineer April Crockett, who is overseeing the Highway 100 project, said she is confident her department can take some of the criticism and use it to draft an acceptable plan, one that will likely take pieces from several previous proposals. She said the goal is to have such a plan ready for the council within a month.
“We’re working through the process,” Crockett said. “We’re trying to understand what’s important to them.”
But for the city, this is something it has heard before. After preliminary talks over the project began to pick up in the early 1990s, it was cemented as a top construction priority for the state in MnDOT’s 1996 highway plan. City manager Tom Harmening said at this time, the city was told a project would start in 2005.
However, that was put on hold in 2003, and as MnDOT focused on cross-town construction to Interstate Highway 35, the city worked with the department on an interim improvement project slated for 2006. That interim project was completed, but the full project remained, and in 2005 the city received a letter from then-Commissioner of Transportation Carol Molnau that said the project would be delayed until 2014 because MnDOT simply had insufficient funds to complete the work, which at the time was estimated in the ballpark of $140 million.
So, MnDOT worked to re-scope the project, cutting back on its size and cost. The new proposals are down to between $40 million to $55 million, but whether they would meet the needs of the city — namely, reducing congestion on the side streets near the highway — is up for debate.
“It’s hard to tell for sure,” Sanger said. “It looks like they might solve some congestion problems, but it might cause other congestion problems elsewhere. I don’t think that’s the answer.”
Crockett said more technical traffic studies will be performed on any plan that is selected, adding that the proposals are simply rough ideas at this point.
The engineer said she thinks the current plans offer many of the same benefits of previously discussed plans. The main difference, Crockett said, is that older designs used “collector-distributor” roads, or passageways that align with a highway but are separated by a median, allowing motorists to enter, exit and merge away from the main piece of pavement. The new proposals go away from collector-distributor roads and instead focus on frontage roads, or residential streets that run parallel to a highway and allow access, and auxiliary lanes, which are simply added onto a highway and give motorists an additional space to enter, exit and merge. Crockett said frontage roads and auxiliary lanes both consolidate access and eliminate weaving on the main part of the highway, which she said improves safety.
Additionally, to create collector-distributor roads, older concepts called for the acquisition of roughly 20 homes on Toledo Avenue between West 26th Street and 29th Street. Now, MnDOT’s plan is to not acquire any homes, Crockett said.
Sanger said this is something she wants finalized soon one way or the other, as she said the people living in the homes in question have been “held hostage” by MnDOT because they don’t know the fate of their properties — and whether they should try to sell them or do any needed repairs.
“We need a clear and final answer,” said Sanger, who represents the people living in that area.
Crockett said MnDOT can’t determine its final intention for these homes until a preferred plan is selected and then analyzed more closely. She hopes this all happens soon, but that will only be the case if the city is on board. And that right now is the million-dollar question. Without St. Louis Park’s approval, a project could still move forward, but due to the municipal consent provision, it would have to go through a messy appeals process.
The engineer said she doesn’t think that will be necessary, as she is confident that the two sides can work together. As it stands, the construction target date is now formally 2016, though Crockett said her department is hopeful that it will be able to move that up to 2015 if everyone cooperates.
Certainly, the city has heard similar statements before, but Crockett — herself new to the project, having gotten involved about a year ago — said the past is the past and that it’s time to get the work done.
“This is where we’re at,” she said. “We’re ready to go with the project.”