Interstate 35 ‘megaproject’ will be a megamessConstruction this summer on Interstate 35 through Duluth will certainly disrupt traffic, but the DTA and MnDOT do have a plan.
Beware, Duluthians: This summer’s road-construction season is going to be a doozy.
Picture the morning rush hour from West Duluth and Proctor northbound into downtown Duluth on Interstate 35. Now picture that same rush hour, then cut the number of traffic lanes to one lane each way. Then picture Grandma’s Marathon weekend with that kind of disruption.
It will be the biggest project since that section of the interstate — from Boundary Avenue to Mesaba Avenue — was built in Duluth in the late 1960s and early ’70s, said MnDOT project manager Roberta Dwyer. And, while the interstate won’t look terribly different when construction is finished, it is work that needs to be done because the interstate is at the end of its life.
In a nutshell, the $81 million project will provide a long-term fix to bridges, pavement, lights, signs and traffic barriers. Unused rail bridges will be removed. And, while they’re at it, fiber optic lines will be installed to enhance emergency services and transportation systems. Although the project started last summer and won’t be finished until 2012, this summer’s planned work appears to affect more parts of Duluth than any other year.
The impacts to traffic are substantial.
Much of this summer’s work targets the I-35 northbound lanes from Boundary Avenue to Garfield Avenue. The northbound lanes will be closed completely, which means there will be one-lane traffic on I-35 from Boundary Avenue to Garfield Avenue from May 3 through Oct. 22 (tentative dates). On top of that, for a few weeks in July and August, there will be lane closures all the way to 26th Avenue East. However, from Garfield to London Road, northbound traffic will move back to the northbound side, but still with only one lane open. There will also be ramp closures from Boundary to Garfield Avenue.
(On the bright side for car commuters, trucks will be detoured from Thompson Hill on I-35 to Midway Road and Highway 53.)
“The freeway is backed up now at the peak hours between 7:30 and 8 a.m.,” said Tom Elwell, Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) spokesperson. “Can you imagine what it will be like with one lane? I don’t think people will realize [how much it will impact them] until it happens.”
Commuters might not be fully cognizant of this summer’s driving nightmare, but the folks at MnDOT and the DTA are completely aware — and they’ve been working together to mitigate the disruption as much as possible.
Starting April 26, the DTA will establish four temporary park-and-ride lots on Grand Avenue and provide West Express buses between those parking lots and downtown Duluth during weekday peak hours. At the same time, the DTA and the city will establish “bus only” lanes on Grand Avenue between Central Avenue and Carlton Street during those peak hours. Weekday commuters boarding West Express and regular-route buses west of 46th Avenue West during morning peak hours (buses arriving downtown between 7 and 9 a.m.) will be issued a transfer upon boarding the bus in the morning, which will be good for a free return trip any time that day.
Of course, not everyone can abandon their car for a day at work downtown. Some will take alternative routes, while others will resign themselves to a longer commute and simply leave earlier in the morning.
“Traffic is like water,” Dwyer said. “People find the path of least resistance. It might take awhile, but eventually they figure out the best way.”
(See “Park & Ride” at the end of this article for more.)
It must be done
While there are certainly more pothole-ridden roadways in the Duluth area, the I-35 “megaproject” is a project whose time has come.
Not only is the freeway nearing the end of its projected lifespan, but two bridges in that portion — one near the paper mill, the other by the ore docks — are what Dwyer calls “fracture critical.”
“That means they have an element that is not redundant,” the project manager explained. “So, if that element is damaged somehow, it could cause a bridge collapse, essentially.”
In fact, the Duluth megaproject gets part of its funding from Chapter 152 state funds that the legislature set aside for fracture-critical bridges after the Minneapolis I-35 bridge collapse.
Don’t look for any dramatic “before” and “after” photos, however. While two bridges will be entirely replaced and others repaired, the route isn’t changing in any other substantial ways.
“The biggest change will be adjustments in profile,” Dwyer said. “The long bridge on I-35 between the paper mill and Menard’s has a big hump, because it was originally built over an active rail line (which isn’t active anymore). We’re taking that hump out.”
Other changes include a new access road — across the street from Menard’s — for Recycle Way and Colalillo Drive. All of the pavement from 46th Avenue West to the “Can of Worms” at Garfield Avenue will be replaced — rather than simply repaired — as well. Also, unused rail bridges near 27th Avenue West and 37th Avenue West will be taken down.
Another change is that the current barriers will be replaced with concrete barriers, Dwyer said.
“It is a huge project,” he added. “We have a very aggressive time schedule to get it all done during construction season.”
MnDOT is opening bids on the project April 2.
In 2011, MnDOT will work on the I-35 southbound lanes between Garfield Street and Boundary Avenue, however, the pavement-repair work between London Road and Garfield Avenue should be completed this coming summer, so the disruption won't be quite as extensive the following summer.
Visit www.dot.state.mn.us/duluthmegaproject/ for more.
Park and ride, please
In an effort to ease traffic congestion during the reconstruction of I-35 between Proctor and downtown Duluth this up-coming construction season, the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA) and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) have teamed up to provide commuters with travel options beginning April 26.
The DTA will establish four free temporary Park & Ride lots on Grand Avenue and provide West Express buses between the Park & Rides and downtown Duluth during weekday peak hours at the following locations:
• Spirit Mountain lower parking lot, 8600 Grand Ave.
• Asbury Methodist Church parking lot, 6822 Grand Ave.
• Bethany Baptist Church parking lot, 6700 Grand Ave.
• Our Savior’s Lutheran Church parking lot, 4831 Grand Ave.
Commuters from south of Duluth are advised to exit I-35 at the Midway Road exit and drive south on Becks Road, then east on Grand Avenue to the Park & Ride lots.
The DTA will also establish “Buses Only” express lanes on Grand Avenue between Central Avenue and Carlton Street that will be utilized by West Express and West Mainline buses during morning and afternoon peak hours. On-street parking along Grand Avenue between Central Avenue and Carlton Street will be restricted during weekday morning and afternoon peak hours to provide a dedicated bus lane. South-side parking will be prohibited during morning peak hours and north-side parking will be prohibited during afternoon peak hours.
Peak-hour express lanes will be dedicated to DTA buses only — including West Express and non-express West Mainline buses.
West Express and West Mainline service will be provided between the Park & Ride lots on Grand Avenue, downtown Duluth, SMDC and St. Luke’s Hospital during morning and afternoon peak hours. West Express, New Duluth Express and Proctor Express buses will serve all bus stops west of 46th Avenue West, but will operate in a “non-stop express mode” between 46th Avenue West and downtown Duluth during morning and afternoon peak hours.
Weekday commuters boarding West Express and regular route buses west of 46th Avenue West during morning peak hours (buses arriving downtown between 7 and 9 a.m.) will be issued a transfer upon boarding the bus in the morning, which will be good for a free return trip any time that day — not just during peak hours.
~ Information from the Duluth Transit Authority