Is there $85 million for a new freeway interchange?

35w 494 interchange
The ongoing quest to redesign the interchange at interstates 35W and 494 is under consideration again this year at the state capitol. A bill seeking $85 million for the first phase of the interchange plan is under consideration. The total project is estimated at $255 million. (Sun Current staff photo by Mike Hanks)

 

It’s a story that is becoming well known, yet nobody knows the ending.

The interchange of interstates 35W and 494 is old and outdated. It’s arguably famous for its congestion. The need for a major overhaul of the intersection has long been discussed and unlikely to be disputed. But when and how improvements to the intersection happen remain a source of debate.

Is the end in sight? That’s an $85 million question.

It is estimated that $85 million could fund the first phase of an interchange redesign, adding a ramp for northbound I-35W traffic looking to travel west on I-494. It’s the movement that probably causes the most congestion under the current configuration, according to Karl Keel, Bloomington’s public works director.

State representatives Paul Rosenthal (House District 49B) and Linda Slocum (House District 50A) are among the authors of a bill that would appropriate $85 million in fiscal year 2018 for that first phase of an interchange redesign. The bill was referred to the House Transportation Finance Committee last week.

“It’s important for us as a Legislature to work together on a balanced, bipartisan bill that includes long-term sustainability and compromise to fund improvement projects statewide, including the 494 and 35W interchange,” Rosenthal said last week in announcing the bill.

Support from Bloomington’s House and Senate representatives may be strong, but the interchange is one of many projects that state leaders need to address, and finance, in the years to come. That complicated puzzle was laid out recently as area business and community leaders gathered during a Bloomington Chamber of Commerce public affairs forum to review the state’s transportation challenges and how the interchange fits in.

Time for change

The interchange was built in 1959, according to Keel. It was projected to carry 200,000 vehicles per day. The configuration is almost exactly the same today, and it now carries about 500,000 vehicles per day. There are approximately six hours of congestion at the interchange on a typical day, and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute has deemed it the 17th worst in the nation, Keel said.

And, the interchange won’t win awards for safety. Despite the congestion slowing traffic through the interchange, it is the seventh worst of 26 interchanges in the metro area, he noted.

The I-494 corridor accounts for approximately 21 percent of the jobs in the metro area, and many of those employees are dependent upon the interchange for access to those jobs, he explained.

An environmental impact statement for a redesign of the interchange was completed in 2001. The project was envisioned as a three-level solution for funneling traffic through the interchange. In today’s dollars, it would cost an estimated $400 million, according to Keel.

The cost isn’t the only thing that made the solution prohibitive. A new plan allows for the project to be implemented in phases, something that couldn’t have been done using the $400 million solution.

“That project had to be constructed all as one large project,” Keel noted. And, it would have had a large right-of-way impact, he added.

A vision for the intersection in 2014 provided a multi-phase solution, at an estimated cost of $255 million. And, it would minimize the footprint of the interchange, according to Keel. The solution is not without its disadvantages, as some of the turns on the off ramps would be sharp, warranting speed reductions to 35 mph for some of the ramps and bridges, he said.

Big picture

It’s easy to make a case for updating an interchange that remains the same after nearly six decades. But the interchange is one of many needs throughout the state. Upkeep of the state’s transportation system will result in greater financial demands, according to Scott McBride, the metro district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The statewide system is under a lot of stress. Freight traffic, by both rail and roadway, is projected to increase during the next several years. By 2025, it is estimated 850 bridges will need significant work.

“We have made a significant investment in bridges in the last 10 years, and yet we still see a huge bridge bubble coming on the system,” McBride said.

More than 50 percent of the state highway pavement is more than 50 years old, and 20 percent has less than three years of useful life left, he noted, adding that 40 percent of MnDOT’s bridges are more than 40 years old.

“Our assets are aging,” he said.

With more than 600 state road and bridge projects that are unfunded, the Bloomington interchange is on a lengthy MnDOT to-do list, he explained.

The complexities of financing and maintaining the state’s assets is further complicated by their funding. In the metro area, the average spending prior to 2008 was about $250 million per year. Additional funding starting in 2008 has increased metro spending, allowing for major projects during the past decade, such as bridge replacements.

But that funding is going to decrease starting next year, barring changes at the Legislature. There’s $400 million available for 2017 projects, but that figure could be reduced to $300 million next year. And by 2020, the funding could be back to pre-2008 levels, McBride explained.

McBride noted how a perfect storm of need is driving the funding gap. As the assets age and funding is set to decrease, revenue generation is flat. Gas taxes collected at the pump are flat as a result of an increase in the fuel efficiency of vehicles, he said. And despite talk of new federal funding for transportation, McBride is not optimistic, and noted that the last federal gas tax increase was in the early 1990s.

With no new revenue, Minnesota will have a significant increase in state highway miles that end up in poor condition during the next 10 years, according to McBride.

“It’s cheaper to maintain assets in good condition than it is to maintain assets in poor condition. That’s what we’re doing today,” he said.

“It is costing us more today than it should to maintain the assets that we have.”

Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed an increase in transportation spending through increases in the gas tax, license tab fees and bonding, McBride noted. Increased funding would help provide funding for many of the state’s transportation needs, including the Bloomington interchange, he said.

Not only would increased funding provide more long-term investment, it would provide more jobs for the construction industry and economic development, McBride added.

Regardless of the funding, residents and business leaders who care about the interchange need to express it to their state senator and representative, according to Melissa Halvorson Wiklund (Senate District 50), who addressed the status of transportation issues in the Minnesota Senate during the chamber’s forum.

Chamber Pres. Maureen Scallen Failor echoed the sentiment. “It’s going to take a lot of us and a lot of voices to carry this message over to St. Paul,” she said.

Video of the chamber’s public affairs forum is available online at tr.im/ccforum.