Twin Cities Traffic Armageddon

A critical stretch of Highway 35W, the Twin Cities’ main North-South route, has been closed for the weekend. This closure caused howls of outrage from many Twin Cities residents, because four major events were scheduled in downtown Minneapolis on Saturday and Sunday–the Gophers football game beginning at 11 on Saturday morning, the final Twins games of the season at 6 p.m. on Saturday and 2:00 on Sunday, and a Vikings game at noon on Sunday. It would be hard to find a worse time to close down 35W.

Governor Mark Dayton expressed concern about the closure. This is typical of Dayton: he likes to express concern when his constituents are irate, without, however, doing anything about the problem they are angry about.

As it happened, two of the four weekend sports events were on my schedule: the Gophers game yesterday morning and the Twins game last night. I planned my odyssey to TCF Bank Stadium carefully. I would drive to St. Paul on Highway 35E, which normally is not as congested as 35W although there is always a slowdown approaching St. Paul, catch 94 West in St. Paul, and take 94 to the Huron Blvd. exit. Foreseeing that 35E traffic would be heavier than usual due to the 35W closure, I allowed a full hour and a half for the trip of 25 miles or so.

Things started well, as I zoomed up 35E at 70 or 75 mph. But then I hit a snag: traffic slowed to a crawl, and then to a stop. I eventually realized that 35E had been reduced to one lane in both directions. For miles, it was stop and go. Finally I neared the scene of the crime, and saw why the left lane had been closed on both sides of the highway: they were trimming the shrubs in the 35E median! That’s right: someone at DoT thought that this weekend, with 35W completely closed down, would be the ideal time to shrink 35E’s capacity by 50% in order to trim shrubs.

There is no highway interchange between 35E northbound and 94 West; you have to drive on St. Paul city streets to make the connection. So, having spent an hour on the 15-minute drive to St. Paul, I struck off cross-country to pick up 94W, conscientiously following the signs that told me where to go.

Only one problem: when I finally reached the street that would finish my journey to 94W, there were barricades across the street with a large “Road Closed” sign. No idea why. So I turned around to the East, crossed 94 by the Capitol, and finally was able to get onto 94W. Which took me pretty seamlessly to Huron Blvd. and the Oak Street parking ramp.

After allotting an extravagant hour and a half for the trip, I arrived at TCF Bank Stadium a little late, missing Maryland’s first drive. That was probably just as well, as Maryland went on to upset the Gophers 31-24. It was a beautiful afternoon, though:

To get home from the game, I decided to retrace my steps. With 35W shut down I couldn’t think of a better route, and hoped that the hedge trimming on 35E might be complete. So I made my way from the U of M campus to 94W and drove through St. Paul to the entrance ramp to 35E South. Where I encountered a woman in an SUV trying to back up the entrance ramp to avoid getting on to the highway. I honked at her, but she ignored me. I drove around her SUV and saw what she was escaping from: a sea of cars, all at a dead stop, as far as the eye could see. The shrub trimming, still in progress, combined with the overflow traffic from 35W to bring traffic to a standstill.

The better part of an hour later finally I arrived home, where I had an hour or two to kill before getting back into my car to drive to Target Field: down Cedar Avenue to 494W, West on 494 to Why 100, up 100N to 394, East on 394 to downtown Minneapolis. It took twice as long as usual–likewise with the trip home–but was otherwise free of incident. The Twins lost too, but with the second wild card spot clinched, no one in the crowd of 35,000 minded too much.

This week’s traffic armageddon has been made worse by whatever bureaucratic ineptitude lies behind DoT’s shrub-trimming schedule. But the underlying problem is more fundamental: the Twin Cities metro area has an inadequate road and highway system. Traffic is always bad here, compared with similar cities. When the stress of construction, road closures and so on is added, congestion boils over as it has this weekend. But the problem isn’t construction, it is the inadequacy of the underlying system. You can read all about it here.