Archived Story

Experts: more I-94 lanes not best congestion fix [UPDATED]

Published 11:12am Monday, October 14, 2013 Updated 11:25am Monday, October 14, 2013

Associated Press

ST. CLOUD — Solving chronic traffic congestion on Interstate 94 between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud is not likely to be as simple as adding additional lanes.

Some political leaders have supported that approach as a solution to chronic backups, particularly in stretches closer to the Twin Cities. But the St. Cloud Times reported Sunday that engineers and traffic experts say it’s not that simple, and could even end up making bottlenecks worse.

Minnesota Department of Transportation engineer Terry Humbert said a third lane in each direction would simply send more vehicles more quickly toward choke points. “If we just add a lane out here, we’re going to be dumping traffic into a freeway system that’s stopped,” he said.

Experts said it’s more practical to consider multiple fixes. Possibilities include improvements to access ramps, more transit options and a managed lane that shifts costs to motorists.

“I think it is important to consider that this whole area is a puzzle, and that more lanes is a possible solution. It’s not the only solution,” MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle said.

Traffic varies widely in the roughly 70 miles from Minneapolis to St. Cloud. The worst congestion builds closest to the Twin Cities, often backing up as far northwest as Rogers and Albertville, particularly during weekday rush hours and summer weekends. Traffic counts range from about 40,000 vehicles from Clearwater to St. Cloud, to almost double that — 75,000 vehicles a day — close to Rogers.

Expanding the freeway southeast of Rogers would require the approval of the Metropolitan Council, which has jurisdiction over transportation projects in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said the agency’s priority is lower-cost projects rather than major expansions; ramp meters and toll lanes could be among those fixes, she suggested.

A lane expansion for I-94 has not made its way onto MnDOT’s list of top priorities for new transportation funding. John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory and a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, said adding new highway lines is out of vogue with transportation planners since it rarely proves to reduce congestion.

More effective, he and other officials said, could be the addition of a high-occupancy lane restricted to vehicles with at least two passengers; or a toll lane like the MnPASS system, which drivers pay a fee to use during peak hours. MnDOT’s Zelle said expansion of the Northstar rail line to St. Cloud could also help reduce vehicle congestion on the freeway.

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