The orange cones are gone. The scarily narrow weaving lanes have vanished. The concrete barriers have moved elsewhere. And commuters are freely traveling at speeds along I-694 they haven’t been able to for years.
Last Friday, I-694 was re-opened and pronounced complete. At a cost of $80 million, the project includes seven new bridges, a reconfigured road design and a new third lane in both directions. As north metro commuters, we feel relief at this sign of progress and the completion of an expansion project that was a longtime coming.
But the progress on I-694 shouldn’t mask reality. Congestion on metro highways and interstates is worsening. The latest Metropolitan Freeway System Congestion Report by MnDOT reports an increase in the percentage of congested miles of the freeway system to 23.7 percent. MnDOT defines congestion as traffic flowing at or below 45 miles per hour.
Efforts to reduce congestion are falling seriously short. For example, I-694 was the only lane expansion project built in the metro district during the 2017 construction season. Dozens of other projects were “preservation” projects on existing highways. But with anticipated increases in commercial and passenger travel, our metro roadways desperately need expansion.
The I-694/I-494 beltway still has the untenable situation of three-lane segments being reduced to two-lane segments on many stretches. Traffic comes to a standstill at a significant cost, and capacity improvements are critically needed.
Part of the issue is that MnDOT is still working off a backlog of costly “mega” projects across the Twin Cities. The I-694 project, according to MnDOT District Engineer Scott McBride, was originally a $350 million project and because of cost was shelved for years.
But to their credit, MnDOT’s district engineers went back to the drawing board and developed a low-cost, high-benefit approach to major road projects. For one-third the cost they delivered 90 percent of the benefit that road users wanted. This low-cost, high-benefit approach required fewer right-of-way land purchases, narrower shoulders and fewer extras.
Also holding up freeway expansion are imbalanced budgets. The annual metro highway budget for 2017 was $310 million. By contrast, annual spending on metro transit in the Twin Cities is just over $1 billion for just six percent of daily commutes.
Finally, we see the third issue. Our transportation system is being planned by urban planners, not road planners. The Met Council, by federal regulation, is the agency designated to develop a long-range transportation plan for the entire seven-county metro area. Their current Transportation Policy Plan allows virtually no new roadways in our region, even in growing suburbs.
The Met Council’s plan takes a social engineering approach which is driving greater housing density, scaled back construction of single-family homes, and billions in taxpayer dollars for obsolete light rail transit that collects only enough fares to cover 10 to 30 percent of its operating costs.
That has more and more Twin Cities residents concerned, not to mention many legislators, county board members and mayors.
But there is an effort to refocus our efforts on roadway improvements, and I-694 is a shining example. MnDOT engineers found a more affordable and efficient way to build a major road project. Civic leaders, legislators and chambers of commerce overcame opposition from urban planners and got done what was needed. And now, thanks to Republican-led efforts this session, an additional $480 million in new money from the general fund was committed for roads and bridges, allowing more investment for key infrastructure projects to ease congestion in the metro.
The story of I-694 story is a good one that demonstrates why it is essential our state continue to prioritize roads and bridges.
Rep. Linda Runbeck represents District 38A in the Minnesota House of Representatives.