Drive reader Judy had the misfortune of totaling her car in a crash on the north end of the Lafayette Bridge in downtown St. Paul. Two other motorists involved in the Dec. 1 chain-reaction wreck did, too.
She was driving north on the oft-congested bridge when the crash happened on a clear Friday afternoon as she approached the interchange where the freeway ends and motorists are forced to take right turns onto one of the three ramps to access E. 7th Street, Interstate 94 or I-35E.
Crashes — mostly fender benders — are common on the half-mile stretch of Hwy. 52 between Plato Boulevard and the I-94/I-35E/7th Street interchange: about two a month, according to a MnDOT spokesman. Bottlenecks develop at almost all hours of the day as motorists speeding along at 55 miles per hour suddenly have to slam on the brakes and cross one or two lanes to make their exit.
“There is nothing to indicate that you have to make an immediate right turn or to slow down,” Judy lamented to the Drive. “Shouldn’t the state post a sign that says ‘Sharp Right Turn’ or a flashing light to provide warning? I have concerns about this interchange.”
So do countless other drivers. In fact, MnDOT says complaints have been rolling in since the bridge over the Mississippi River connecting downtown St. Paul with the city’s West Side and southeastern suburbs opened after it was rebuilt between 2011 and 2015.
The northbound lanes have been problematic ever since. With the rebuild, the traffic configuration was changed, and it’s definitely counterintuitive. Motorists heading to 7th Street used to proceed straight and simply cross over I-94. Now those drivers get in the far right lane and follow a ramp with tight twisting turns to get to 7th Street. Motorists accessing eastbound I-94 used to get in the far right lane. Now they use the far left lane. Motorists going to westbound I-94 and northbound I-35E end up making a right turn by getting in the center lane.
All that vehicular sashaying has resulted in perpetual backups and sometimes crashes.
“We recognize there are congestion issues,” said MnDOT spokesman Kent Barnard. “We fully understand the frustration drivers are feeling.”
MnDOT says the layout is safe, but drivers ignore two sets of signs that clearly steer motorists into the proper lanes well in advance. One set is marked as “30 M.P.H.” A lot of the issue, Barnard said, is that drivers hang in the far left lane too long and wait until the last second to cut in. “Drivers are not paying attention,” Barnard said.
Sorry, Judy, but MnDOT is not planning to install a flashing light or other warning device to grab drivers’ attention. It is, however, considering several other ideas.
One is to extend one northbound lane on the Lafayette Bridge over I-94 to split off traffic heading for westbound I-94 from that heading to northbound I-35E. MnDOT would build a loop on the north side of I-94 that would take drivers to northbound I-35E, giving those going to westbound I-94 their own exit. Nearly 7 in 10 drivers — about 26,000 a day — currently use the single-lane ramp leading from northbound Hwy. 52 to westbound I-94/northbound I-35E.
“We are going to address this this year,” said Barnard, noting MnDOT hopes to have firm plans by midsummer. Any improvements probably won’t be implemented until 2021 or 2022.
What other interchanges do you think need changes? The Drive would like to know.