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Studying a hazardous stretch: officials seek guidance as accidents increase near 94/494/694 interchange

A section of the interchange during rush hour where Interstates 94, 494 and 694 meet in Oakdale and Woodbury, Minn. Youssef Rddad / Forum News Service

State lawmakers are seeking a long-term vision for a heavily used freeway interchange in the east metro, amid safety concerns over the growing number of accidents.

Earlier this year, Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, introduced a bill directing the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to study the interchange where Interstates 94, 494 and 694 meet in Woodbury and Oakdale.

The study aims to be among the first steps to address congestion and safety for the state’s second most-traveled interchange.

State and local officials have cited concerns about congestion and a growing number of vehicles traveling through the intersection, as well as accidents.

In 2015, the most recent available data, the transportation department noted 130 crashes near the interchange, up from 96 in 2011.

The number of vehicles passing through the interchange has increased by 7.75 percent over that five-year span. Nearly 300,000 vehicles traveled through the interchange daily in 2015, according to MnDOT.

"I’ve talked to people that will actually drive a little bit further out of the way to avoid having to be on the interchange," Fenton said.

The day after a hearing on the bill, she recalls a multi-car crash shut down I-94 in one direction.

The department hasn’t observed any fatal car crashes between 2011 and 2015.

“I don't think we should wait until that happens before we act on this," Fenton said.

If all goes according to plan, the study could take about a year to complete at an estimated $250,000.

Future upgrades will likely need state bonding dollars and federal funding, Fenton said. Those upgrades could see the cloverleaf design scrapped for ramps similar to where I-694 and I-35E connect in Little Canada.

Officials also noted the I-94, I-694 and I-494 interchange serves as a primary gateway for commercial freight traveling to and from the Twin Cities.

To address some of these worries, MnDOT is planning to add and widen lanes to improve merging, among other fixes, in 2019.

But the $28.5 million project is more of a band-aid to larger concerns, said Woodbury City Engineer John Bradford, who also testified on the proposed study in February at the Capitol.

In an interview, he said traffic often backs up on entry ramps because main streets like Radio Drive and Tamarack Road are less than a mile from the cloverleaf.

Semi-tractor trailers have also tipped over because of ramp angles.

Local officials also speculate rapid development in the east metro has pushed the need to rethink the interchange faster than anticipated.

“There’s been so much growth out here in the last decade that traffic has become an issue,” Bradford said.

Washington County Commissioner Stan Karwoski, whose district covers Oakdale and part of Woodbury, recalled traffic being sparse when the interchange was built in the 1970s.

At that time, Washington County’s had about 10,000 people more people than Woodbury’s 2017 population.

While commuting from the East Side of St. Paul to where Century College is today, Karwoski said it wasn’t uncommon to encounter a cow around the freeway. Now, the interchange backs up at all hours of the day and on weekends.

The grinding halts have also proved challenging for emergency vehicles responding to other cities or on the freeway, Karwoski said.

Changes to the interchange, he said, are long overdue.

“It’s been getting worse and worse,” Karwoski said. “A lot of these significant changes have been done in the west metro. It’s time we get a project on the east metro side.”

He and other officials have expressed concern that added stress to the interstate could damper the area's commercial growth and ability to attract workers.

Fenton has introduced similar bills in 2015 and 2016. The proposed bill to study the interchange didn’t pass last year after Legislators missed approving a transportation funding and bonding bill.

Fenton said her bill, which was added to this year's transportation bill, may have a change this time around and has attracted bipartisan support.

Five other House Representatives — including JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury — signed onto the bill. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, also introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

The Legislative session ends May 22.

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