38th Street highway ramps could be delayed until 2015

A key consultant has suggested splitting the $153-million overhaul of I-35W through south Minneapolis into two phases -- delaying the construction of new ramps at 38th Street for up to eight years.

Tom Johnson, I-35W Access Project manager, said Phase I would include building the new ramps and Metro Transit station at Lake Street and the new northbound exit to 28th Street. Phase II would include moving ramps now at 35th and 36th streets to 38th Street and reworking the 5th Avenue freeway entrance.

No decision had been made, Johnson said. Project staff will meet with state leaders after the special session. Johnson suggested the plan after Lt. Gov. and Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Carol Molnau raised questions about the project's cost and scope in mid-February.

The state will currently pay $98 million, or 64 percent of the Access Project's cost, Johnson said. A phased plan would cost the state $58 million for Phase I and $40 million (plus inflation), when Phase II gets underway.

The original timeline had roadwork beginning in 2004 and lasting four construction seasons, said Scott McBride, a consulting engineer. The new plan would start Phase I in 2004 and last three years. Phase II would start around 2013 or 2014 and last two years.

To avoid congestion, work on Phase II must be completed by 2015, when MnDOT plans to open the High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes from downtown to approximately 46th Street. Traffic models predict "unacceptable congestion" if Phase II is not completed by 2015, McBride said.

The ramp move from 35th/36th to 38th was originally proposed for safety reasons. The current ramps between 31st street and 35th/36th are closer than engineers recommend. McBride said design changes in Phase I could make the weave less dangerous. Drivers entering I-35W northbound from the 35th Street ramp, for instance, can merge into the 28th Street off-ramp lane before merging into through traffic.

The I-35W Project Advisory Committee (PAC) discussed the possible project phasing at its May 27 meeting.

Some members asked if the state might drop Phase II if money wasn't available. McBride said he believed federal government would not approve the project unless it had assurances both phases would get done.

The next PAC meeting is Tuesday, June 24, 10 a.m.-noon, at the American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Ave.

The project still needs Minneapolis City Council and Hennepin County Board approval. They are expected to vote in October.