Crashes on the northbound side of the Lafayette Bridge have increased fourfold since the span on the east side of downtown St. Paul opened six years ago after it was rebuilt.
In the coming months, the Minnesota Department of Transportation will install an overhead electronic message board that will display information to help motorists choose the correct lane as they approach the confusing interchange where Hwy. 52 ends and drivers must turn right onto E. 7th Street or take ramps leading to Interstates 94 and 35E.
"We are seeing crash problems as the center lane backs up pretty far," said MnDOT metro engineer Melissa Barnes. "The center lane is not functioning as it should be."
MnDOT rebuilt the bridge over the Mississippi River connecting St. Paul with the city's West Side and the southeastern suburbs between 2012 and 2015 to replace a deteriorating structure. Before the new bridge, MnDOT records showed 73 crashes on the segment between Plato Boulevard and the I-94/7th Street interchange. That compares with 290 in 2017-2018, two years after the new bridge opened.
"That is a big increase," Barnes said. "The design out there needs some tweaking."
In the old configuration, 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 also 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.
Bottlenecks develop at almost all hours of the day as motorists zooming along at 55 miles per hour suddenly have to slam on the brakes and cross one or two lanes to make their exit. The result has been a big jump in wrecks. Most of the crashes are fender-benders, but some result in more serious damage, Barnes said.
Barnes said MnDOT has heard from motorists and recognizes the problem. It has already taken a few steps to mitigate it.
Last summer the agency installed additional signage to get drivers into the proper lane sooner. The agency also extended double white lines on the north end of the bridge 650 feet so they appear sooner than in the past. By law, drivers are not allowed to cross double white lines. In another step, MnDOT painted lane assignment markings on the pavement to guide drivers into the correct lane and prevent last-second merging, Barnes said.
The electronic message board is the next step. The sign will show lane designations well before drivers need to make a decision. MnDOT also plans to use the sign to warn drivers of crashes and when there is slow traffic. It could be operational as early as this winter. In the long term, MnDOT is eyeing bigger fixes, but it needs funding before anything could happen, Barnes said.
Bike and Ride downtown
Downtown commuters who bike to work now have a free secure place to park. Move Minneapolis held a ribbon-cutting on Wednesday to celebrate the new Bike & Ride in Ramp B at 516 2nd Avenue N.
Move Minneapolis, an organization that promotes transit, carpooling, car-sharing, biking, walking and telecommuting, gave tours of the facility that can be entered only by registered bikers with an access card.
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