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MnDOT hosts ‘happy’ hour to answer I-35W complaints. What could go wrong?

Happy hours, dinners on bridges—MnDOT really wants to make you less mad with food and drinks.

Happy hours, dinners on bridges—MnDOT really wants to make you less mad with food and drinks. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

The inaugural snowfall of the season ought to be a beautiful thing: to walk around in the fresh winter air catching snowflakes on your tongue, or watch them flutter dreamily down from the comfort of a fireplace. Each flake brand new, a drifting, silent reminder of how beautiful life can be…

HOLY #^&*!$#@*, WHERE DID YOU LEARN HOW TO ZIPPER MERGE, @#$(*&^@**!?!?

The first snow while stuck in rush hour traffic merging onto the interstate is an entirely different story. There is no daydreaming about snowflake kisses.

I was on my way from Minneapolis to St. Paul, a commute I perform just about every day of the week, when Minnesota’s first real snow decided to dump all over the Twin Cities. As I inched onto U.S. Interstate 94, which was more congested than the common cold, I looked around at the endless hellscape of now-snowy mountains of dirt, blinking orange barrels, towering cranes, and every type of Tonka truck my mom used to stub her toe on.

There are no roads. There is only anger.
There is no Will, only Zuul.
Road rage cometh.

It made me think of an old joke that at least 20-odd local snowflakes have told me at bars—there’s only two seasons here in Minnesota: winter… and road construction.

At a standstill, I started remembering all those times being inconveniently redirected off highway 94, only to end up approximately ten miles away from my destination. I thought about all those bridges being out, and the countless ways I’ve discovered to be late for work. I remembered being stuck on 35W so long over the summer that, for the first time since I was last in Milwaukee, I peed my pants.

Barrels and cranes and dirt as far as the eye can see. It’s barely December, and I’m hardly on the highway.

Breathe deep. It’s fine. Everything’s fine.
It snows, I get it. But THIS? WHAT EVEN IS THIS? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CONES? WHERE DOES IT STOP? WHY DOES EVERYONE DRIVE TRUCKS?!
...I need a truck.

As I totally cracked and began to explain the finer intricacies of the zipper merge, aloud, alone, in my car, I searched for blame. What is actually happening with all this construction? Who is responsible for my daily dose of misery? When will it end? What year is it? WHO AM I?!?!?

I blacked out the rest of the way to St. Paul. When I finally came to, I went looking for answers.

Apparently, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is ready and willing to supply them. They frequently host open houses, along with maintaining a presence at larger events like Open Streets. Over the past year, for this project alone, they’ve had over 20 meetings with the public. Last week, MnDOT hosted a happy hour "comedy night" at Finnegans' new taproom to explain the entirety of the biggest shitshow in town: 35W @ 94, the “Downtown to Crosstown” construction destroying much of our collective sanity.

I arrived at the downtown brewery early in order to take stock of my opponent. Sitting at the bar, brushing up on my blistering questions (and extensive notes for zipper reform), I was informed by the elderly folks sitting next to me that the last one of these events had to be canceled halfway through due to heckling.

Perfect, I was born to heckle.
Let’s party.

Will B.G. Dhonau

Will B.G. Dhonau

They’d provided snacks, balloons, and ample literature for the public to consume. The first sentence of the pamphlet I picked up echoed my sentiments precisely: “A LOT IS HAPPENING.”

A large screen deploying drone footage of the construction sat among scattered laptops and iPads displaying an online survey about the project. Suffice it to say I “strongly disagreed” with a majority of their statements. About 100 people milled about in the emulated Irish pub, gathering around a small stage with a quaint table that was about to seat my newfound arch nemeses.

Our evening’s host, Tane Danger of the oft-hilarious improv show Theater of Public Policy, was joined by Charlie Zelle, the commissioner of MnDOT, and Scott McBride, MnDOT’s metro district engineer. So these are the people responsible for my thickening madness. I began to salivate just thinking about jumping down their throats and really letting them have it.

Throughout the evening, I’d learn that this massive project has been in the works for eight years, an effort stitched together from state, city, and county funding. Conceptually, 35W @ 94 goes back decades, when city and county officials first wanted access to the highway system from Lake Street. All the infuriating projects since—the work on Interstate 494, and Highway 100 and 169 for example—were in preparation for this, “The Big One.”

Oh, please! Like they actually had a “plan!” Why is this happening NOW?

Well, because ultimately, infrastructure gets old. The work done during the interstate boom of the 1960s (the same one that bulldozed low-income and minority neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul) is now decrepit and needs an upgrade. We’re talking major improvements to bridges, bus stops, ramps, and road surfaces. (Did you know that concrete has gotten quieter since the ’60s? It has!)

But… uh… remember Rondo! NEVER FORGET! WHERE’S THE TAR AND FEATHERS!? LET’S GIT ‘EM!!!

Turns out, MnDOT has learned its lesson. They committed, years ago, time and resources to start actually talking with people. MnDOT regularly performs outreach, an attempt to make amends for disrupting people’s lives. Again, with this project specifically, following the completion of the 38th Street pedestrian bridge, the department had a catered, sit-down dinner for the four neighborhoods that had historically been divided by concrete.

Hmph, dinner on a bridge. Classy move. We’ll save the tar for the roads this time…

Comforting to know that a governmental body has such romantic taste, but they’ve also been ahead of the curve in asking the right questions for a rapidly growing city: How do we actually get around? What do we need to do to maximize mobility? The old adage of moving cars “come hell or high water” simply doesn’t fit the mold anymore, so how to we do it effectively while looking out for people on two wheels or on foot?

New and improved bridges over highways are a good place to start: wider, safer lanes for those of us not riding in steel boxes. They won’t even be an eyesore! Minnesota is one of the only states with an art policy for public projects, and the 40th Street pedestrian bridge is being designed by local artist Seitu Jones. MnPass express lanes will be extended dramatically, continuing to make it easier to reach the center city from the outer rim via Metro Transit. There’ll also be new Greenway access for walkers and bikers directly to Lake Street from both sides.

Lake Street has been, and will remain, a crossroads of our fair Cities, but for many reasons has very limited access at the moment. MnDOT is essentially constructing an airport terminal smack dab in the middle of the Cities to accommodate for that fact. We’re talking about a state-of-the-art facility that will act as a hub for the newly federally funded Orange Line and the upcoming B-Line (a rapid bus line for Lake Street itself).

You might just win this round, MnDOT.

By the time the Q&A portion of the evening finally began, my rage had all but evaporated. In fact, the only question remaining on my notepad was about the models used for driving simulations. As I found out shortly thereafter, those models are a computer program and not the sexy, safe drivers I was hoping to meet.

Questions were curt, respectful, and not nearly as aggressive as I once hoped. R.T. Rybak (who’s still dashingly handsome and good for a solid fist bump) proffered questions about an interconnected city, which is ultimately the focal point when thinking about transportation.

MnDOT’s leadership has emphasized diversity and equity, looking at cultural competency as the way to connect neighborhoods rather than traditional city planning. The Commish, fittingly due to retire at the end of the year, called the entire project a “daunting and wonderful opportunity” to rethink and rebuild.

We’re echoing dynamic infrastructure repair of the past, but as we replace our baby boomer bridges and look forward with a more artful approach, maybe we can ditch the road rage for a little optimism. We’re not just rebuilding what was there, we’re constructing a brand new system, shiny and bright.

Like a snowflake.