Highway 8 to Hazelden among state's most dangerous

Getting to life-saving drug and alcohol rehab center could kill you

On a monday afternoon in the winter of 2005, Marc Brandriss was headed from his Manhattan office to the Newark Airport. He was planning to stop at his home for a quick change of clothes when he got a telephone call.

It was his wife, Nancy Eisenberg.

Nancy had taken a weekend trip to Center City, Minnesota. She directed fundraising and philanthropy for hospitals and health care organizations in the New York area, heading up numerous nonprofits that advocated for the uninsured. Minnesota's Hazelden Treatment Center was interested in the possibility of a New York City branch, and they wanted Eisenberg on board.

Highway 8 and Pleasant Valley Road meet on the corner of the Hazleden property, posing a transit terror for its 1,100 employees and patients
Nick Vlcek
Highway 8 and Pleasant Valley Road meet on the corner of the Hazleden property, posing a transit terror for its 1,100 employees and patients
Mark Mishek, Hazelden's CEO,  says Highway 8 is too dangerous  to be ignored
Nick Vlcek
Mark Mishek, Hazelden's CEO, says Highway 8 is too dangerous to be ignored

When she called her husband, she had just emerged from a series of meetings with Hazelden executives. Things had gone well, she said, and she seemed in high spirits.

She was just going to her hotel down Highway 8, she said, to pack up, shower, and change. She'd be on time to make her late-afternoon flight. If all went well, she'd touch down in the Newark airport at the dinner hour, and would eat with her husband and their three children.

Less than an hour later, Brandriss's phone rang again. It was a number he didn't recognize, with a strange area code. The phone call was brief and grave, and when he hung up, Brandriss immediately booked a panicked flight to the Twin Cities.

It was just before 4 p.m. when Eisenberg got off the phone with her husband. She got in her rented car, and went out onto Pleasant Valley Road to make a left turn. It was an overcast day, and the roads were frosted with the morning's light snowfall.

A white cargo van was doing 55, bearing eastbound around Highway 8's pitched, soft curve, camouflaged against the clouded sky and the snowy forest along the highway's bank. It struck Eisenberg's car full on, smashing her on the driver's side.

When medics arrived, Nancy was unconscious. She was bleeding internally and had lacerations on her face and hands. Her car was a mangled wreck, sprinkled with shattered glass and twisted metal.

A helicopter was summoned, and Eisenberg was flown to North Memorial Hospital's ICU. Eisenberg would remain there for three weeks. For the first two, she was entirely unconscious. She had a lacerated liver. She had a pressure monitor installed in her skull to keep track of the swelling in her brain. And even when she was discharged on January 4 and boarded a prop plane bound for New Jersey with her husband, she was clinically unresponsive—she couldn't speak and wasn't moving.

   

FOR TWO DECADES, HIGHWAY 8 HAS been a locus of fatal traffic accidents in Minnesota. It is the bane of Chisago County citizens' lives, and the terror of Hazelden's 900 employees. Although MnDOT has launched numerous initiatives to make the road safer and decrease fatalities, crash rates have remained high for a decade, with a spate of recent deaths in August and September.

Drive east on Highway 8 from Interstate 35, and you might not notice anything out of the ordinary. It's a serpentine two-lane that dodges Green Lake and its estuaries on its way to Taylors Falls, a road so pinched by the lakes that it can't accommodate a shoulder. Highway 8 has deep, grassy ditches, and carries commuters through townships like Lindstrom and Center City, and acres and acres of rolling farmland.

But a vigilant eye will notice the crosses that decorate the roadside ditches. Some are plush, modest monuments, inscribed with names, or simply reading "Dad." Some are adorned with tidy bouquets. All are telltale signs of the highway's treacherous track record.

Since 1989, the road has been the site of 61 fatalities. Two decades ago, it was so perilous that highway crews would clear out roadside memorials installed by mourning family members to avoid the bad PR.

While the fatalities racked up, community leaders wondered why nothing was being done.

"If you can imagine having people's driveways along Highway 100, and people backing up to get into the traffic, or stopping on Highway 100 to make turns with no turn lanes, you've got Highway 8," says Bill Schlumbohm of the Lakes Area Police Department.

In 1989, concerned citizens decided to organize the Highway 8 Task Force in order to muscle reluctant policy makers into action. Throughout Chisago County, communities and townships appointed representatives—engineers, commuters, city council members—to speak on behalf of the road and put it on MnDOT's map. They took classes from MnDOT about speed zones and causal factors in traffic accidents as well as access management.

Starting in April 1989, the task force met monthly. Open to the public, the meetings rarely drew more than a few dozen attendees. That is until October, when a young woman named Lisa Slama was struck head-on by a truck traveling at highway speed. The next meeting, at Chisago City Hall, overflowed with some 400 attendees. They won the ears of Gov. Rudy Perpich and Eighth District Congressman Jim Oberstar.

But the gears have always ground slowly for Highway 8 and its commuters. Chisago County is a remote place, one of the farthest-flung counties in the metro area. In terms of traffic numbers, Chisago County is badly dwarfed by Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, which boast many times more commuters. And despite a boom in commercial development in the last decade boosting traffic on the two-lane road, Chisago County is regarded by MnDOT as a rural backwater, low on the totem pole when it comes to giving out cash, a matter of bitter, resigned laughter for people like Deputy Chief Schlumbohm. "We're the ugly step-child of the metro area."

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