While Minneapolis leaders are working to put East 38th Street on the map as a cultural corridor, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has subtly erased the street from the consciousness of those using Interstate 35W.
The 38th Street bridge purportedly has been completed since the summer of 2018 and has even hosted two sit-down community dinners since.
But something symbolic is missing. Drive I-35W and nearly every bridge carrying motorized traffic over the freeway has a small green sign in each direction identifying the crossing street. But come to 38th and those signs are missing.
The first time I inquired, one year after the supposed bridge completion, MnDOT’s 35W@94 project team told me that there was a design issue with bolts and that the agency was working up a new set of plans.
That struck me as odd, considering that bridge identification signs are small, a foot or so high and about a yard long, and MnDOT has installed them all over the state. Moreover, such signs went up on other bridges reconstructed by the massive project, such as those at Franklin and at 28th Street, as they were completed.
So I waited a bit to renew my inquiry and this time MnDOT’s response was that it needed a freeway closure to install the signs. As it happens, both directions of the freeway were closed for two nights in October to remove falsework from the 40th Street pedestrian bridge, just two blocks away. A week earlier, there was a short closure for just the southbound lanes. Then there was a weekend closure in both directions in early November. A northbound 35W closure occurred Feb. 21-22.
Then MnDOT’s argument shifted again. “It’s less about traffic and more about contractor convenience,” the agency’s Steve Barrett, MnDOT’s resident construction engineer for the project, told me. In other words, there’s no contractual requirement that the bridge sign be installed until the end of the project. That’s officially scheduled for the fall of 2021 but then there will be another year of intermittent closings for roadside stormwater work into the fall of 2022.
The signs may seem like small potatoes, but it comes atop what I’d label construction fatigue. The ramp closures, lines at remaining ramps, detours and construction noise take a toll on south Minneapolis. Maybe it would be easier to take if there were more a tangible payoff. But in the third year of two entrances and an exit for my neighborhood being blocked off, we’re still waiting for most of the concrete improvements the project promised.
So far the project has rebuilt a bevy of bridges — Franklin, 26th, 28th and 38th — but what’s been produced essentially duplicates what was there before. It’s good to renew infrastructure but what we’ve gotten to date hardly offsets the scale of disruption.
The big-ticket improvements mostly lie well off in the future, with the exception of the Lake Street transit station, scheduled to open in April.
The reconfigured connection of 35W with 94 westbound won’t happen until late next year, another 18 months off. The 31st Street ramps, and three-quarters of the 35th-36th Street ramps won’t be complete until the same time frame. Ditto for the opening of the two new exits in the Lake Street area, one southbound to Lake and one northbound to 28th Street.
Moreover, access in south Minneapolis will get even worse for a while. You won’t be able to enter 35W northbound starting this summer for 18 months at either 35th or 46th streets, meaning no access in that direction between Diamond Lake Road and downtown. That’s for lane construction, an example of the complex staging that affects project timing.
The one noticeable traffic improvement produced so far is the elimination of the merger across two southbound lanes of 35W to the 35th Street exit. That could be a white-knuckle experience, even for those of us who’ve done it a few thousand times. For the non-motorized public, the 40th Street foot and bike bridge is finally up to modern engineering standards for width and feels less like a cage.
But that’s not much gain to date for a whole lot of pain that affects travel habits across the west metro area. For perspective, contrast this project with the equally complex Crosstown Commons project finished in 2010. That $288 million project added 25 new bridges, 63 lane-miles of roadway and expanded the maximum width of the common segment of 35W and Crosstown Hwy. 62 from six to 12 lanes. But it finished in four construction seasons or 43 months.
By contrast, 33 months into the $239 million 35W constructaganza, we still have 33 more months before all the construction ends. In other words, we’re only halfway there. Let my people go.
Park Board superintendent’s house
This column advocated in January that the rent for the park superintendent house be raised to a market rate — and that the rent be devoted to renovating substandard areas of the house. I’m glad to report, after more than three years of harping on the issue, that the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board acted on both suggestions in March, raising the monthly rent in stages to $2,050 by the start of next year. The money will be devoted to repairs and improvements, such as the ratty third floor.