Log Jam at Old Steepy

Christopher Henderson

It's rush hour on a misty spring morning, and the defrost fan is purring on the drive north on Lyndale Avenue through South Minneapolis's bottleneck. On the left, a shiny white Ford Explorer barrels in from the merging lane that brings in traffic from Hennepin Avenue. Off to the right is a No. 6 bus, laboring to pull across three lanes of traffic to deposit a rider at Groveland; a little further back, clouds of black smoke waft across the road as a semi fearlessly maneuvers its way into the stream of cars from Interstate 94.

The jerky stop-and-go is a familiar sight to John Sherrell, secretary of the Lyndale Business Association and owner of Coffee Gallery, whose big windows overlook the corner of Lyndale and Franklin. Sherrell says he isn't quite sure what to expect this summer, when road construction is scheduled to tear up much of his asphalt vista: "We know it's going to tax business," he says. "Especially if it's just log-jammed bumper-to-bumper, which it may be."

Sherrell doesn't worry much about the people who live right around his shop: "The people in our neighborhood are smarter about it; they're going to find creative ways to get downtown. It's the people that go through the neighborhood on the way to somewhere else that are going to be stymied."

Unlike Sherrell, most of those people haven't yet heard of the Hennepin-Lyndale Realignment Project, an effort to smooth out the tangle of roadways between Franklin and Groveland Avenues. The project, expected to begin in May and continue through September, is expected to constrict traffic flow by 50 percent in what is already one of the most congested areas in the city. "It's not going to be a good summer to head into South Minneapolis," says Dan Sabin, an engineer within the Planning and Programming unit of the city's Department of Public Works.

To understand why, Sabin says, you have to go back to the city's beginnings: "This intersection was somebody's idea back in the 1800s, and it's haunted the street planners ever since." The hills surrounding Loring Park were once steeper than they are now; at one, dubbed Old Steepy, horse-drawn wagons routinely needed a push to make it all the way up. As Minneapolis expanded, the intersection became the San Andreas Fault of cross-city traffic: It's where the downtown street grid--platted parallel to the Mississippi--rubs against the strict north-south pattern of South Minneapolis, with Hennepin Avenue's oddball trajectory thrown in for good measure.

Asked why Hennepin runs diagonally, city traffic engineers were stumped. But according to the maps drawn by early missionaries, the road's path parallels an old Dakota trail that led from Lake Calhoun to the Mississippi. In the early 1900s, Hennepin was maintained by the Park Board as a residential boulevard; as a result, turn-of-the-century businesses were built a few blocks over on Lyndale Avenue, according to Larry Millett's Twin Cities Then and Now.

When the Park Board abandoned its no-commerce policy, Hennepin quickly made up for lost time, and by the 1920s it was a bustling commercial strip, adding to the traffic along the three-legged intersection connecting it to downtown. Finally, in the 1960s, I-94 and its entrance and exit ramps were carved through the area; today nearly 10,000 cars, buses, and trucks pass down Hennepin every day, and almost twice as many travel on Lyndale.

With the intersection bracketed by immovable objects--churches to the east, the Walker Art Center and the Allianz building to the west--traffic planners have limited options to "straighten things out," Sabin says. "Sometimes I envy those designers and engineers in developing suburbs; they have a little bit easier time of it. They can just reroute traffic through a corn field." A core-city project like this, by contrast, amounts to making the proverbial silk purse out of a sow's ear. "It won't quite make it to silk," he laughs. "Maybe it could be velvet." After the construction is done, Sabin says, the intersection will have separate lanes and traffic lights for vehicles traveling in each of its three directions.

Meanwhile, though, there's likely to be gridlock. By May 25 the entrance and exit ramps between I-94 and Lyndale are slated to be closed (the Hennepin Avenue ramps will remain open), funneling traffic through the corner of Franklin and Hennepin. City and neighborhood officials say they haven't heard much public comment about the project so far, but that's likely to change as word trickles out to an estimated 17,000 affected residents in the Whittier, Loring, and Wedge neighborhoods. As City Pages went to press Tuesday, planners were preparing for a public meeting at Jefferson School on 26th and Hennepin.Officials predicted a respectable turnout.

Road construction, Tenth Ward City Council member Lisa McDonald notes, is the arena where residents are most likely to encounter their government: "When I door-knocked for my last election, if I was anywhere near Lyndale, people complained about the state of that street. The majority of our comments are about parking, traffic, garbage--not sexy things." In Minneapolis, as in other cities across the U.S., the Public Works department is one of the top three items in the city budget; in 1999 it is slated to spend $35 million, or 16 percent of the city's general fund.

Minneapolis taxpayers are not paying for the Hennepin/Lyndale project alone. Just under $320,000 of the effort's two-million-dollar price tag will be paid out of city coffers, while the rest is to come from state gas-tax funds earmarked for local road upkeep. But the state's involvement in the project has not been altogether good news: Had it not been for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, explains Sabin, the construction could have been completed in two to three months. But MNDoT worried that standard road-construction equipment might damage the Lowry tunnel's waterproof membrane and shake ceramic tiles right off the tunnel's walls.

As a result, the city agreed to gentler digging and demolition techniques. "We have to saw-cut 50,000 square feet of road into four-foot squares and lift the pieces into a truck and cart them away--a giant concrete wedding cake," Sabin explains. "We've never done anything like this before." Tiptoeing around the tunnel, Sabin says, will add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost and a healthy month to the projected construction time.

Despite the headaches, says McDonald, the project is unavoidable. "This is not a negotiable item. We have to do it, and it will be better." She notes that the new alignment will allow for a bike lane and bridge connecting the Wedge neighborhood to Loring Park--something cycling advocates have requested for a long time.

Actually, says city project engineer Kristine Vieth, South Minneapolitans may want to start oiling up their two-wheelers even sooner. She says the city's bicycle coordinator has suggested a few bypass routes, including the Cedar Lake Trail and Pleasant Avenue. "Lane closings begin on May 10," notes Vieth, "and we're anticipating that, after the first few days, people are going to think this is ridiculous."

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