An unusual roundabout for the I-35W ramp project

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Planners say an elongated traffic circle could slow traffic, reduce accidents with no stopsigns or stoplights

The East 38th Street Bridge across I-35W would become a landmark with an unusual traffic roundabout and a landscaped central island, under plans to overhaul south Minneapolis freeway access.

Freeway planners recommend shifting the I-35W access ramps at 35th and 36th streets to 38th Street. That would more evenly space 35W’s ramps, at Lake Street/31st Street, 38th Street and 46th Street.

Tom Johnson, I-35W Access Project manager, said the dumbbell-shaped roundabout proposed for the 38th Street Bridge would calm traffic and reduce accidents. The landscaping and design could make it attractive, he said, "something the community would point to with pride."

The roundabout is one of several major recommendations for the $150 million ramp project. The I-35W Project Advisory Committee, which includes neighborhood, business and community leaders, will hear recommendations from technical experts on Tuesday, Sept. 24.

The Access Project also includes:


  • adding a ramp so southbound I-35W traffic could exit to Lake Street via Stevens Avenue;



  • adding a ramp so Lake Street traffic could enter northbound I-35W;



  • adding a flyover bridge for northbound I-35W traffic to get directly to 28th Street without adding to Lake Street congestion; and,



  • widening Lake Street to handle the increased traffic.


    The entire ramp-access plan would eliminate 16 housing units in the Phillips neighborhood and require relocation of several businesses.

    The Project Advisory Committee will make preliminary recommendations Oct. 29. It will host community meetings in November and re-vote on the plan Nov. 26, based on public comment.

    The I-35W Access Project does not include reopening Nicollet Avenue, a project proceeding on a separate track.

    Here are some of the more recent key issues with the I-35W project.

    38th Street Bridge

    A roundabout is a type of traffic circle. Cars entering the roundabout yield to cars already in the roundabout. Traffic moves counterclockwise, so whether entering or exiting the roundabout drivers make only right-hand turns.

    Jeanne Massey, a Kingfield resident on the I-35W Project Advisory Committee, said the roundabout had advantages over traditional intersections. It slows traffic and reduces the severity of accidents by eliminating head-on collisions.

    "It seems like a great design," said Massey, who also serves on the Mitigation and Enhancement Subcommittee, a group looking at ways to reduce the negative neighborhood effects of new freeway ramps. "The drawback is people aren’t used to roundabouts, and it will take time to learn."

    Craig Churchward, a traffic consultant on the I-35W project, said planners "stumbled" onto the roundabout concept based on the community’s stated goals.

    "They wanted to reduce stop-and-start traffic that increases pollution and noise," he said. "They wanted to improve the identity of the neighborhood. They wanted to improve vehicle and pedestrian safety."

    The proposed roundabout has no traffic lights or stop signs.

    "If you think of what happens at a light, it is true cars are stopped 30 percent of the time in one direction," Churchward said. "In the other direction — making right-hand turns, left-hand turns and racing to get through a yellow light — the cars are accelerating and often exceed the posted speed limit."

    Drivers entering a roundabout have to slow down and pay more attention, he said. Modern roundabouts also use "diverters," small medians to keep traffic to the right. They create pedestrian safe havens, so people only have to watch traffic coming from one direction at a time.

    "Studies ranging from Kansas to Colorado to Maryland to Wisconsin are showing this is a viable technical solution to a social problem of how you make (freeway) entrances work in communities," Churchward said.

    Planners still are studying the pedestrian crossings, Johnson said. One preliminary drawing had a pedestrian bridge over Stevens Avenue, but he said research suggests people prefer to cross at street level rather than climb up and down stairs. Another possible solution is to use pedestrian-activated crossing signals.

    Initial designs included water fountains on the bridge’s central island, representing the water at either end of 38th Street — the Mississippi River and Lake Calhoun. Designers have since dropped that idea because people had concerns the fountains would attract children to the bridge, Johnson said.

    "People want to see lush, green plantings," Johnson said.

    Lake Street access ramps

    A new ramp allowing I-35W southbound traffic to exit to Lake Street would require the Department of Transportation to take about a half-acre of land west of the freeway in the Whittier neighborhood, Johnson said.

    Under the current plan, the state would need to purchase Wold Weather Strip Co., 2835 Stevens Ave. S., and acquire 20 to 25 feet from the backyards of two homes on the 2800 block of Stevens, he said.

    The project would also eliminate a tot lot west of the freeway at East 28th Street, Johnson said. The state owns the land. It would pay to move the playground equipment to another neighborhood spot.

    The technical staff rejected an alternative I-35W ramp that would have sent freeway traffic to Nicollet Avenue via 29th Street. That plan would have severed Stevens Avenue, creating a dead end, a move opposed by the neighborhood, Johnson said. The alternative ramp also would have required the purchase and clean-up of contaminated land.

    The planned ramp allowing Lake Street traffic to enter northbound I-35W — and the proposed flyover bridge to 28th Street — would require purchase of the western half of the 2900 block on 2nd Avenue, Johnson said. It would eliminate 16 housing units: eight single-family homes and two four-plexes.

    Planners would use part of that land to create a green corridor to connect Lake Street to the bike and pedestrian trails on the Midtown Greenway at 29th Street, Johnson said.

    The new ramps would also require the purchase of a quarter-acre of Wells Fargo-owned land.

    Lake Street widening

    The I-35W Access Project proposal would add turn lanes and wide islands on Lake Street near the freeway to accommodate projected traffic growth. At one spot east of Nicollet Avenue, Lake Street would measure 103 feet curb-to-curb.

    West of I-35W, Lake Street expansion would require purchasing land now occupied by Edna Realty, 102 E. Lake St.; New Money Express, 108 E. Lake St.; Alternator Rebuild Company, 110 E. Lake; Sports Image, 112 E. Lake St.; and Carefree Rental, 122 E. Lake, Johnson said.

    Nico Plating, 2929 1st Ave. S., may acquire the land not needed for turn lanes and turn it into a park area in the summer with seating and benches, said Nico CEO Denny Donaldson. In the winter, the company would use the space for snow storage.

    Lake Street expansion would also take a chunk out of Kmart’s parking lot — land eyed by Sherman and Associates for a new housing and retail development.

    East of I-35W, new turn lanes for the northbound freeway entrance ramp would require moving the McDonald’s restaurant on the 200 block of East Lake Street, Johnson said.

    If all goes according to schedule, preliminary plans and layouts would go to the city, county, state and federal officials in January. Construction would begin in August 2004.

    The current state administration has committed $98 million, or two-thirds of the budget. The fate of the project depends on whether future governors and legislatures continue such support.