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.
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."
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."
As of September 2009, highway renovation projects have been eclipsed by more pressing political concerns, and the health care debate has forced Highway 8 off the docket and into an uncertain future. Meanwhile, as development in Chisago County increases, so does the traffic burden on Highway 8, one of the only east/west roads to carry travelers through the county.
Crash rates have remained steady, but after a 60 percent decline in fatalities since 1996 and a fatality-free start to the millennium, Highway 8 has already seen four deaths in 2009, the most since MnDOT renovated sections of the road in the mid-'90s, bloody proof that the problem is far from solved.
Meanwhile, Nancy Eisenberg's recovery from brain injury has been remarkable, but slow, and has diminished her life forever. Due to lingering nerve damage, she can't drive. She suffers from a deficiency in what neurologists call "executive-level thinking." And after almost five years confined to a wheelchair, she and her husband were only recently able to remove the chair lift from their home.
"It's not just unfathomable, it's criminal neglect," Brandriss says of the government's slow action on Highway 8. "This is about saving people's lives."