Northern Ramsey County residents are demanding answers after a road construction project turned a stretch of bustling Lexington Avenue into what one suburban leader called "total chaos."
Frustrated drivers reported waiting in traffic for more than two hours Wednesday, with some panicked motorists calling law enforcement because they were unable to reach their children at a nearby youth program.
Ramsey County officials said incorrectly mapped utilities along the roadway were discovered after construction started this spring and have complicated the project. They say they are working as quickly as possible to complete the roadwork, but acknowledge it's an inconvenience.
Lexington Avenue, typically a busy four-lane business corridor just south of Interstate 694 that includes Target, Trader Joe's and the YMCA of the North, has been reduced to one southbound lane from 694 to County Road E. All northbound lanes have been closed.
Furious residents took to social media and to the phones this week, questioning how access to one of the area's busiest shopping districts could be so severely limited.
"It's a ridiculous situation and Ramsey County needs to deal with it," said Arden Hills City Council Member Brenda Holden.
The county's interim public works director, Brian Isaacson, apologized for the long delays Wednesday and said staff members were on scene making adjustments to get traffic flowing. The roadway typically sees 21,300 vehicles per day.
Isaacson said they're working to complete the desperately needed road reconstruction in one season, but have run into unforeseen challenges.
Ramsey County is rebuilding that stretch of Lexington, which borders Arden Hills and Shoreview, to replace deteriorating pavement and improve traffic flow. The project is expected to cost $12.5 million. The goal is to have it complete by November.
"The pavement was in very poor condition. It had pretty extreme rutting," said Luke Lortie, Ramsey County construction engineer.
Snowplows were unable to clear the street in the winter due to the rutting, and water in the ruts would refreeze, creating dangerous conditions. The road also had a shared left-turn lane, which posed risks to motorists.
The rebuilt roadway will have a center median and dedicated turn lanes . There will be an additional traffic signal, an 8-foot sidewalk on the southbound side and a wider 10-foot trail on the northbound side.
The county's goal was to keep one lane of traffic open in each direction throughout construction. But when crews started work this spring they quickly realized that ground utilities including natural gas, electric and a handful of fiber optic lines were incorrectly mapped.
County officials had a tough decision to make: extend the road project to two years or shut down all northbound traffic for a few months so they could quickly move utilities and complete the project this year. They decided to keep their one-season timeline. Motorists can still access Target, Trader Joe's and the other shops on the eastern side of Lexington via a detour on Grey Fox Road.
"We understand that this was a hard shift," said Ramsey County spokeswoman Allison Winters. "There is access to all businesses and they're open."
County leaders hope to have a southbound lane open by mid-July.
Traffic has been limping along since construction started, but the situation devolved into gridlock about 11 a.m. Wednesday when crews were installing a temporary traffic signal at Grey Fox Road while also replacing a storm sewer pipe.
A youth golf clinic with more than 200 kids was released early, bringing a surge of parents into the area. Some panicked parents who couldn't reach their children called their city halls. Others called the sheriff's department, which provides local police service.
"There was some confusion about who to call and who they should be messaging," Isaacson said. "We received a bunch of calls, too."
Lortie was on the scene Wednesday, working with the county's traffic division to adjust the timing on traffic signals and get vehicles moving. He said county officials are closely watching area traffic and will continue to adjust traffic signal timing to ease congestion.
There's more pain to come. The Lexington Avenue ramp leading to eastbound 694 is scheduled to close for several weeks, starting Monday.