Crosstown project: Finally, relief

After three tumultuous years, the largest highway project in Minnesota history is nearing completion

As heavy equipment screeched and rumbled in the mud outside Bernice Lindberg’s home, the cheery 89-year-old flipped open a small photo album and started narrating.

“That’s when they first started back in ’66,” she said, pointing to a grainy old snapshot of the original Highway 62 construction. She flipped to a more recent photo. “Then they started tearing the houses down.”

Lindberg, whose home is on 1st Avenue South just below the massive new Crosstown Commons bridges, has lived in the area for all but four years of her life. She’s grown fairly accustomed to traffic and construction disruptions over the years, but she can’t wait for the latest project to join its predecessor as a memory in her book.

“Everybody says, when you talk to the guys out here, that it’s going to be beautiful,” Lindberg said. “Let’s hope.”

After more than three years of road closures, traffic delays and construction disturbances, the Crosstown project is nearing its much-anticipated end. The $288 million project, the largest in state history, involved a complete overhaul of Interstate 35W from 42nd Street to 66th Street and Highway 62 from Penn Avenue to Portland Avenue. The effort to reduce the area’s notorious congestion and crashes resulted in an epic untangling of roadways. Left-lane exits are gone. Transitions between 35W and 62 are smoother. The project boosted capacity in the commons area and on 35W with additional general-purpose lanes and High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes for buses and carpoolers. It added a first-of-its-kind on-line transit station at 46th Street, produced 27 new bridges and sound walls as far as the eye can see.

The freeway is in its final configuration as of this month and no further road closures are expected. Only a couple things need to happen before Crosstown is fully functional.

The new HOV lane is expected to open Nov. 19 and solo drivers who open a MnPASS account will be able to use the lane shortly afterward, said Kevin Walker, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

After that, all that remains is local roadwork and landscaping. The latter will be done over the next couple years with input from area residents and businesses, Walker said.

A Crosstown ribbon-cutting ceremony was scheduled for Nov. 13 to mark the on-time and under-budget completion of the project and thank area businesses and residents for their patience. Many businesses struggled to survive when access points were cutoff during the project and residents put up with years of noise and, in some cases, damage to their homes.  

“It was an invasive project,” Walker said. “We were in their backyards, but long-term we did set up a means to go through so we could try to rectify some of their concerns.”

MnDOT has tried to work with businesses and residents to mitigate disruptions and investigate damage, Walker said. He is still delivering damage-claim forms, which residents can file through June. The Crosstown information hotline will shut down in December, at which time all calls will be routed to Walker.

“We have really made an effort to get out there and work with people,” Walker said.

Still, it’s hard to put a smile on the faces of some Crosstown neighbors, such as Carlyle Christianson, 85, whose home is almost directly under one of the towering freeway expanses. He claimed vibrations from construction cracked the foundation of his house. He said he’s met with MnDOT about it, but he’s concerned it won’t be fixed.

“It really does shake the house, it moves the house,” Christianson said while watching a construction crew just beyond his backyard. “It will never be back the way it was.”

But after 25 years in his home, Christianson has no intention of moving. He’s just hoping for a little less noise and a finished product that looks better than the nearby muddy pond he’s grown used to.

“I hope they complete it where there’s a finish to it,” he said.

About eight blocks away from Christianson’s home, Peter’s Billiards owner Greg Peterson is elated with the efficiency of the new freeway.

“I come in from the west, and in the morning it used to be backed up to France [Avenue],” he said. “Now I zip right in and there’s no issue. It’s pretty sweet.”

Peterson has endured several difficult years to get to this point. His family business’ previous building was torn down to make way for the new freeway. His new facility, about 30 feet away from the old spot, struggled a bit after that.

“For the last three years it’s really been tough because really, the freeway is kind of our lifeline. It’s how our customers get here,” Peterson said. “Customers either avoid the area because they don’t even want to try or they come in a little frustrated. You know, it doesn’t put anyone in a buying mood if they come in frustrated.”  

Some area business owners, Such as Rick Regenold and his wife, Joanne, used the construction period to find affordable property. They purchased a building just south of Peter’s Billiards in July 2008 for their barbershop and salon, Hair World. It’s been challenging for customers to find the shop at times, Regenold said, but with the project done, he’s anticipating growth.

“Naturally, people are going to be looking around now,” he said. “We can get some more signs up and get things rolling. With the off-ramps done now I think it’s even better.”

Some businesses might have actually benefited from construction delays and road closures. Scott Endres, co-owner of Tangletown Gardens near Nicollet Avenue and 54th Street, said freeway congestion funneled many drivers to neighborhood roads.

“Once the project started, we were a little scared like a lot of businesses were, but we had more street exposure on Nicollet,” Endres said.

But like his neighbors, he’s glad to see the project come to a close.

“It will mean a lot to our community,” Endres said. “I think it’s a relief for people in the neighborhood.”

That pretty much sums it up for Lindberg, whose childhood house at the end of her block is among the final buildings slated for demolition.

“It’ll be good when it’s done,” she said.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]