Highway 8 to Hazelden among state's most dangerous

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

After years of campaigning through the Highway 8 Task Force, Nora Holt is discouraged by sluggish responses from MnDOT. While it's true that Highway 8 doesn't bear the same traffic as urban highways like Hennepin County's Highway 100, its prominence in Chisago County isn't being taken into account.

"We just don't compete well with the other counties," says Holt. "There were meetings where we were basically told to just go away. They had bigger problems. There were counties with bigger traffic numbers. They didn't want to share their money with little Highway 8."

   

THE HAZELDEN CAMPUS SITS ON A pastured lakefront, a quaint, modern villa of dormitories and faculty buildings riddled with snaking hiking paths. At any given time, its pastoral acreage is the temporary home of almost 300 patients, who flock there from all over the world to get treated for addictions. Globally, Hazelden is a powerhouse of recovery, an avatar of wellness nestled in a hilled, idyllic Eden.

But drive up Pleasant Valley, the small, two-lane road that leads to Hazelden, and look down Highway 8. The road curves into a forested bend headed east, and the traffic there, at full speed, is hard to anticipate. At dusk, the sun sets at the road's vanishing point, rendering parts of the road blinded with sunlight. A lack of turn lanes mean that motorists are often stopped in traffic lanes, vulnerable to commuters who pass on the narrow right side.

In the first week of September, a four-car pileup just a couple of miles down the road killed a motorist and left others injured. On August 14 of this year, a Dodge Caravan struck a motorcycle, resulting in two fatalities. The roadside memorial is visible from the intersection, a small splash of color in the otherwise drab underbrush.

"Hazelden went out to a very bucolic setting for peace and serenity," says Mark Mishek, Hazelden's CEO. "People who come and go from there care about that. To have them leave and have this intersection that has killed and injured so many people jars with everything we're trying to do there. We have employees that come and go from there 250 times a year. They shouldn't fear for their lives."

Testimonials to the dangerous commute are numerous. Barbara Weiner, who manages the campus library, narrowly avoided broadside collisions with two trucks that breezed through the intersection in a right-hand passing lane. Then there was the Hazelden board member who cruised through the intersection and ended up in the ditch because she couldn't see the stop sign.

Sally Brandenberg, Hazelden's director of standards and compliance, has noted an increase of traffic and speeding. "It's scary," she says. "I hope to retire before getting killed at that intersection."

Since 2004, Hazelden has been lobbying MnDOT to address the issue. They were looking for small fixes: installing "Stop Ahead" signs before the intersection, affixing the signage with blinking lights, trimming the tree growth along the road to increase visibility. But no action was taken.

"It's puzzling," says Helen Taws, Hazelden's director of advocacy. "When does it get bad enough? When does something become important enough to reprioritize?"

For MnDOT, it's a matter of cold numbers. Todd Clarkowski, a MnDOT employee for more than a decade, is quick to point to improvements that have been made to the road. Since 1996, frontage roads were built to reduce driveway access. Turn lanes were added. Stoplights guard the bigger intersections all the way to the Wisconsin border.

"There's driveways emptying right out onto Highway 8," Clarkowski says. "And we still have crashes occurring. But design can't address every crash type. Passing in a no-passing zone, speeding...no design element can eliminate that fatality. People make bad decisions. With our limited budgets, we have to prioritize. These projects are in the queue, but they're a ways down the list."

Mishek says that the problem can't wait. "We're waiting for federal funds. In the meantime, this intersection is killing people."

   

THE EIGHTH CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT sprawls across 27,000 square miles of northeastern Minnesota, a wide expanse of rural meadow peppered with mining cities and dozens of townships. It contains the enormous iron ranges of Hibbing and Mesaba, and the North Shore port city of Duluth. Since 1975, Jim Oberstar has been its representative to Washington, and he has made transit safety a personal crusade.

In the 1990s, when Highway 8 was at its most lethal, Oberstar was one of just a handful of Minnesota policy makers paying attention to the plight of Chisago County. He advocated for increased MnDOT funding to make driving safer. And in 1996, Oberstar earmarked $22 million in federal funds to reduce the risks to Highway 8's drivers by installing numerous frontage-road systems and increasing signage along the corridor.

His generosity to Highway 8 has been something of an albatross for Congressman Oberstar's national reputation. For devoting federal funds to the road, Oberstar was mocked with "Porker of the Month" awards from conservative groups. But as spokesman John Schadl points out, the political capital is worth it.

"Highway 8 is a textbook example for why members of Congress need to dedicate funds," Schadl says. "If a member of Congress can't direct money to his district, you're allowing bureaucracies to dictate funds. You end up with a road like Highway 8—a real crisis that goes unaddressed. It's literally a matter of life and death. This is the exact thing you're elected to office to do. Some people call it pork. We call it saving lives."

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