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On the east side of Hwy. 77 in Richfield near the Mall of America, there's a concrete stub of a road that literally goes nowhere.

But Richfield thinks it could lead to something big.

Twenty years ago, the plan was to extend 77th Street under Hwy. 77, giving the city a quick and easy link to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the mall. It never happened.

Now Richfield is trying to revive that plan. The city will seek state bonding money to build an underpass that would slip beneath the highway. Officials say the project, estimated to cost $25 million, has regional impact and could help relieve persistent traffic jams on I-494. It also could jump-start redevelopment in an area of Richfield that needs a face-lift.

"It's important to Richfield because access is huge to development, and there is a lack of access there," said Mayor Debbie Goettel. "All you have to do is stand there and look at all the hotels and restaurants on the [Bloomington] side of the strip."

On Richfield's side of the highway, 77th Street curves to meet a frontage road in an area of old apartment buildings, businesses and parking lots. Heavily used Washington Park is nearby, shielded from the road by noise barriers.

If the underpass were built, proponents envision hotels, restaurants and possibly an event center in the area. Goettel believes now is the time for the project, saying it should be done before any work occurs on the planned redesign of the I-35W and I-494 interchange to the west.

"The only place to divert traffic [during construction] would be on American Boulevard or 77th, so I think this should be done first," Goettel said.

Richfield city officials say that as it was planned, 77th Street and its underpass just north of I-494 were to be a mirror image of American Boulevard, which passes under Hwy. 77 south of the freeway. When federal and state transportation funds faded away, so did the 77th Street underpass.

One of those pushing for the project is Tim Carter, general manager of Richfield Bloomington Honda and co-chair of the Richfield Chamber of Commerce's economic development committee.

"That southeast corner is a dead zone," Carter said. "If you can get to it, it has absolutely the best location for commercial real estate. It has highway access, airport access. Location, location location … it could explode, and make us a regional powerhouse."

Carter said development would increase Richfield's tax base and perhaps strengthen the region's ties to international business, with product showrooms that could take advantage of proximity to the airport. With the economy on the rebound and improvements in the area — Menards recently replaced its dated store with a new and bigger building, and Carter's auto business is expanding — now is the time to pursue the underpass project, he said.

"I am super excited about it, and trying to get everyone else excited about it," he said.

Interested parties

Richfield officials said they have begun talking with other institutions that might be involved in or affected by the project, including the state Department of Transportation, the airport, city of Bloomington and Metro Transit, which has a large bus garage across from the 77th Street stub on the east side of Hwy. 77.

City officials say a 77th Street underpass could speed operations for Metro Transit by making it easier to get back and forth to the bus barn. At Richfield's request, Three Rivers Park District has included 77th Street and the proposed underpass as an alternate route for the still-developing Intercity Regional Trail, which would run from Minneapolis through Richfield to Bloomington and the Minnesota River.

"From a regional perspective, it's really important, and I think our partners understand that," said John Stark, Richfield's community development director. "This is the last piece of regional commercial development in Richfield."

Goettel said she hoped institutions that would benefit from the underpass would help pay for it. She would like to limit the city's contribution to the project to $4 million to $5 million.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380