Cars and buses roared past her on either side, slamming into potholes and filling the air with exhaust on their way across the city.
“This area is kind of dangerous,” she said, gesturing to the bus stop and the 11-lane spaghetti bowl surrounding it. As the connection between downtown and Uptown, the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck is a mashup of cars, buses, pedestrians and cyclists that make it tough to get around.
Cars, concrete and the controversial construction of Interstate 94 aside, the area around the bottleneck is one of the most popular and prized in the city. It’s surrounded by the Walker Art Center, the Sculpture Garden, Loring Park and two soaring churches.
With that in mind, the city will be giving the intersection a major overhaul starting next year, spending $9.1 million and paying special attention to intersections and crossways for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Ole Mersinger, a city project engineer who’s working on the reconstruction, said it’s a big project to tackle — and one that will affect commuters.
“It’s going to be a disruption, there’s no way about it,” he said. “It’s a congested roadway right now.”
Tens of thousands of vehicles navigate through the bottleneck daily, and that load has had an impact: The pavement is littered with deep cracks and treacherous potholes. Though some of the intersection was rebuilt in the late 1990s, Mersinger said, some pavement is about 40 years old.
For those not in cars, the area is even more difficult to navigate. Three corridors in the area had more than 50 bicyclist-motorist crashes between 2000 and 2010. The Hennepin Avenue corridor from Dunwoody Boulevard and I-94 to Central Avenue was the fourth-most dangerous in the city during that time, with 126 crashes.
It’s also a challenging spot for pedestrians. Some crossings have walk buttons with countdown timers, but others have much older buttons, including some that have rusted over.
Christi Fields, who relies on the bus for transportation during the colder months, said she has to be “hypervigilant” when crossing the bottleneck. Drivers often pull into crosswalks or make prohibited turns at red lights, she said, and the walk signals usually don’t give enough time.
“It’s pretty much impossible to cross the entire street in one cycle,” she said.
David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, said the problem with the intersection comes down to one thing: “The problem is too many cars, and there’s too much traffic for the capacity there.”
And it’s not a new problem.
In early city designs, Hennepin and Lyndale were intended to be parkways. But because Hennepin provides a clear diagonal route across the city, it soon got too crowded for that plan to be viable.
“From the advent of the automobile, that was a major route,” said Dave Smith, a Minneapolis park historian.
‘A huge gash in the city’
The construction of I-94, whose tunnel runs beneath the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck, disrupted the area even more. “It’s a huge gash in the city right there,” Smith said.
There are two ways to remedy the deluge of traffic, Levinson said: Increase capacity or reduce the number of cars.
He is one of a group of local transit enthusiasts who’ve come up with a variety of ideas for improving the bottleneck, from removing some freeway access to transforming the intersection into a roundabout.
Levinson has suggested eliminating through traffic on Hennepin and transforming the space into a transit mall with space for pedestrians, bicyclists and a fixed mass-transit route.
Even if those ideas were implemented someday — they’re not part of the project that will begin next year — it’s unlikely that Hennepin’s importance as a transit corridor would change.
“It’s always going to be a bottleneck of some kind because it’s a critical intersection, and there’s a lot of people who want to get from downtown to Uptown,” Levinson said.
Project funding for rebuilding the bottleneck’s roads will come from a $7.3 million federal grant and local funds, including assessments. Planning for the project is still in its early stages, with construction set to begin in 2015-16. The planned updates include reconstruction of pavement, curbs, gutters, pedestrian ramps, striping, lighting, and storm sewers; updated pedestrian and bicycle crossways, and rebuilt traffic signals.
Mersinger said that beyond the size of the project itself, the biggest challenge will be balancing what all those people want and need from the transitway.
“You’ve got the 60,000 vehicles a day through there, you’ve got pedestrians, bicyclists, transit bus users, and each has their own priorities and needs in the area,” he said.
What stakeholders can agree on is the need for some improvement, whether it’s as small as more time to cross the street or as big as diverting traffic elsewhere.
“It’d really be wonderful if you could get to the Walker at that intersection without darting in front of cars,” Smith said.
Emma Nelson is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.