Drivers make their way through construction on Hwy. 169 near Hwy. 41 south of Shakopee where a new interchange is being built. Photo: MnDOT

With less traffic, why isn’t MnDOT accelerating road projects?

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Traffic volumes have dropped by 50 percent or more since the coronavirus shut down schools and many businesses, and that has many drivers wondering why the Minnesota Department of Transportation isn’t speeding up road construction.

“With people stuck at home due to COVID-19, why is road construction not going on 24/7?,” a reader asked Curious Minnesota, our community reporting project fueled by questions from readers. “People could be back to work and projects completed sooner.”

Oh, if it were only that simple, said MnDOT spokesman Mike Dougherty. There is a host of variables that dictate when a project can start or resume, everything from scheduling contractors to the scope of the work and, of course, Minnesota’s fickle spring weather.

MnDOT parlayed the traffic lull and reasonably good weather to get a jump on a major resurfacing of Hwy. 5 near Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In Richfield, ramp repairs on I-35W started a week early. In greater Minnesota, reconstruction on Hwy. 61 through downtown Lake City started two weeks early.

“We are always looking for opportunities to minimize disruptions construction causes,” he said. “We look to accelerate when it makes sense due to low traffic volumes.”

But other foes to construction still lurk, Dougherty said.

Contractors often carry out more than one project in a season. They have to balance different starting times to have enough crew members and equipment to staff them at the various stages of work. Construction has to be done in a particular sequence, Dougherty said. Lots of preparation work such as moving utilities and grading has to be done before concrete can be poured.

Like when building a house, “you don’t send the painters in until the walls are up,” he said.

With the state, counties and cities all needing projects, the starting times and demands of a project can be a challenge for contractors if a schedule changes, Dougherty said.

Ramsey County’s two big ticket items this year are building the Dale Street bridge over I-94 in St. Paul and completing the Rice Street overpass over I-694 in Little Canada. But Public Works is using the low traffic time to tackle street maintenance, necessary jobs that can bring lane closures or detours that can be irksome for motorists.

Crews recently cleaned out catch basins along a long stretch of University Avenue, a job normally done during off-peak hours and usually takes two months. Less traffic allowed the department to work during the day and knock it out in two weeks, said Ted Schoenecker, director of Ramsey County Public Works.

Street sweeping, which normally takes three to four weeks, was done in two weeks. The cleaning removed 800 tons of junk from the roads, including areas the County doesn’t always get to.

“We don’t have projects just sitting on the shelf,” Schoenecker said. “We are working hard these days,”

Hennepin County is finalizing bids with contractors to rehabilitate the Shadywood Road/County Road 19 bridge over the Narrows of Lake Minnetonka and to rebuild the Theodore Wirth Parkway bridges at West Broadway. Until the projects commence this summer, the transportation department is using its crews to complete crack sealing and fill potholes to preserve pavement to reduce the need for reconstruction later, said Hennepin County Transportation Project Delivery Manager Nariman Vanaki.

“With reduced traffic, we can speed up that process,” he said. Crews “don’t have a shortage of work.”

Weather is always a big wild card with construction, especially in April, Dougherty said. The state imposes weight restrictions on highways during the spring freeze-thaw cycle when roads are susceptible to damage from heavy loads. Contractors must wait until restrictions are lifted to transport machinery such as excavators, bulldozers and graders to work sites or they could damage the roads they travel on while going the one they are fixing. That can affect a project’s start, Dougherty said.

Weight restrictions were lifted for the metro and southern part of the state earlier this month, but remain in effect for central and northern Minnesota.

“Everybody would love to get going earlier,” Dougherty said. “We are itching to get out there.”

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