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Our View: Get involved to untangle can of worms

An aerial view of the can of worms interchange at 21st Avenue West and Interstate 35 in Duluth. (file / News Tribune)

MnDOT is pretty sure it knows exactly what you're going to do once the freeway ramps start closing, interstate lanes shut down, and four years and $342 million of work begin to completely rebuild what's now a confusing and dangerous tangle of overpasses and highway ramps: our infamous "can of worms" in Lincoln Park.

"People are going to deflect to different places. They're going to find other routes," Duane Hill, district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said in a meeting last week with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.

That's why, this summer, the big project will begin with improvements to alternate routes first, specifically Railroad Street, Garfield Avenue, 27th Avenue West, and 46th Avenue West. In addition, a bypass around the coming construction will be built along about six blocks of Lower Michigan Street — "under the interchange and ... back onto I-35," Hill said. "Southbound traffic will run on that bypass."

As we gear up and get ready this spring for all this work, MnDOT is also pretty sure you want to be involved and have influence over decisions. That's why numerous public meetings have been held, for four years already, and no fewer than three public planning groups have been created to focus on the Twin Ports Interchange, as the tangle is officially known.

The groups include one determining how all the land underneath the ramps and overpasses ends up being utilized. Some of that land now is used for parking and is home to a skatepark and basketball court. "Really active space" is the goal for the real estate, Hill said. "Sometimes it's problematic what happens down there now. We want to make it a brighter, more community-oriented space."

The commitment to public involvement and input on this project is actually something that is somewhat new for MnDOT. It can be welcomed and embraced by all Minnesotans.

"Early in my career we'd go out to our federally required public hearing and just tell the people what we were going to do," Hill said. "More and more, we're learning that it's easier to start by having the public help us identify the needs of a project and what the issues are that we want to resolve. What are the problems we want to work on? And then bring (the community) along as we work on alternatives and find solutions. You can never find the perfect answer for everyone, but at least everyone has the opportunity to help you along the way."

"It's not the MnDOT of old where we used to just come in and say, 'Here are the plans,'" MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher echoed. "We're working through the city, the county, and also the businesses and residents. It's really quite impressive. It's happening across the state, but it's really visible here right now with this project. ... We're taking feedback in every single way that we can get it."

"We're sort of doubling down on (public engagement) to make sure ... the projects MnDOT does are going to work for the people who live and work and play in those areas — that they make sense, that they accommodate," added Jake Loesch, a communications director in St. Paul for MnDOT.

The many welcome opportunities to get involved — or stay involved — will continue and will only become more frequent as the project continues, the MnDOT officials promised.

While no major highway reconstruction project is pain-free for motorists or for neighboring community members — and while this one certainly won't be — at least there are chances with this one for meaningful input and feedback. They're chances not to be squandered or missed.

And at least there's a shared goal: A freeway interchange that's no longer a confusing and dangerous tangle.