Green light turns yellow on I-494’s dynamic third lane project

MnDOT hits the brakes, looks at a permanent lane instead 

An unexpected announcement came at a Feb. 11 Plymouth City Council meeting – Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has halted progress on the controversial dynamic shoulder project on I-494 through Plymouth in favor of reexamining the possibility of a highly sought-after general purpose third lane.

Scott McBride, MnDOT’s Metro District Engineer, was greeted with broad smiles and relief when he approached the microphone at the meeting.

“Have you heard any good rumors about I-494 lately?” he asked councilmembers. “The reason I’m here is because today I sent a letter to Met Council requesting some action from them.”


The ‘dynamic’ controversy 

McBride explained that, through the Met Council’s Corridors of Commerce program, three capacity projects were set in the area. Two of the projects were very similar – the construction of dynamic shoulder lanes on both I-694 in the Arden Hills area and I-494 through Plymouth.

Here is a map of the proposed project.
Here is a map of the proposed project.

Plymouth has long supported the construction of a permanent third lane from Highway 55 to the Fish Lake Road interchange. The stretch of highway remains the only two-lane portion on the interstate. Peak hour traffic is severely congested as vehicles clog bumper-to-bumper for miles – some area businesses go as far as to schedule employee shifts around the patterns of I-494.

In early 2013, Plymouth City Council met with the MnDOT to hear plans to fix the increasingly worrisome capacity issue. However, when MnDOT revealed its proposal, not all were pleased.

Instead of constructing a permanent third lane on I-494, MnDOT came forth with a plan widen the shoulders to 14 feet in both directions and utilize the space as a controlled lane during peak traffic times.

It was suggested that the lane would be dynamically opened and shut down according to traffic information collected in real time by MnDOT’s sensors.

Many viewed the solution as little more than a “Band-Aid,” and continued strong advocacy for an alternate project. Plymouth carried the topic on its 2014 legislative priorities and the area’s legislators vowed to keep the pressure on.

Sen. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka recalled a January meeting at Minnetonka City Hall where a number of legislators from Minnetonka, Plymouth, Bloomington and Eden Prairie advocated for MnDOT to reconsider the project.

“We thought, let’s hammer it home that this is unacceptable,” Bonoff said. “We all strongly agreed and everyone stood up and said, ‘we need a permanent solution.’”


Changing lanes 

The decision to reexamine the I-494 project stemmed from planning stages for the similar I-694 project.

McBride said MnDOT discovered that, on I-694, every time the roadway goes under a bridge for overlay, crews would need to dig down and add 7-9 inches of concrete.

At the end of the project, MnDOT would have removed 60 percent of the pavement. It didn’t make sense, in their opinion, to simply overlay the remaining 40 percent when so much was being reconstructed.

When MnDOT made the decision to reconstruct I-694, McBride said they entered a conversation with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, which recommended addressing the capacity need with a general purpose – not dynamic – third lane.

“That caused us to do a number of things at MnDOT,” McBride said. “The first was to compare I-694 and I-494; they’re very similar. While there still may be reasons a dynamic shoulder would work on I-494, we decided to step back.”

It will be reevaluated, but should I-694 receive a general purpose third lane, and I-494 remain “dynamic,” a caustic question of fairness would be inevitable.

The decision to halt progress on both dynamic lane projects came early February, and MnDOT has requested that the Met Council amend its transportation policy plan.


Remaining roadblocks

The decision to reevaluate the need for a general purpose third lane on I-494 does not guarantee that a dynamic lane won’t be MnDOT’s final decision. And a major hurdle must be overcome before a permanent third lane becomes reality – namely, $25 million in added project costs.

“The biggest issue we had with doing a third lane on 494 was that we didn’t have the money to do so,” McBride said. “We still don’t have the money to do that.”

A large portion of the up-sale cost would be dedicated to completely reconstructing I-494 bridges passing over local roadways such as Schmidt Lake Road, County Road 47 and the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which were originally set for redecking only.

McBride speculated that no additional right of way would be acquired for the project – there should be enough room to fit the third lane as well as space for a fourth lane in the future, which would most likely be MnPass or another form of managed lane.

He continued to say that there are a number of potential sources available to come up with the $25 million. The upcoming legislature could be swayed to fund a portion through transportation bills and there may be money remaining from other MnDOT projects statewide.

“It’s kind of like turning over the couch cushions at MnDOT and trying to find any money we can,” McBride said.

Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik offered full city support in working toward funding options.

“This is something that the community has continued to ask for,” Slavik said at the Feb. 11 meeting. “There’s a lot more work to be done, I certainly understand that. But we’ll continue with anything we can offer, we’ll support this. We’ll be there hand in hand with you.”


Moving forward 

The dynamic shoulder project is halted, but work remains set to occur on I-494 this summer. In June, crews will begin temporarily widening bridges and working on crossovers. MnDOT has a goal of retaining the same project timeline – construction ending in 2016.

Met Council must approve the policy plan amendment and Plymouth’s representative, Katie Rodriguez, attended the Feb. 11 meeting to offer some level of support.

“We don’t have the $25 million,” Rodriguez said. “But I spoke with Met Council staff and they are welcoming of the study. As a Maple Grove resident, I get caught in this traffic too, so I’m pretty darn excited.”

Though it’s not set in stone, Plymouth city councilmembers made it clear that they will keep forward with strong advocacy, and won’t likely take “no” for an answer again.

“It’s been almost 16 years for many of us that we’ve had this conversation,” Councilmember Tim Bildsoe said. “To have [MnDOT] standing here today, it’s great to hear the news. We were happy with what you presented, and now we’re more optimistic.”

“I always figured there was a way we could do this right,” Councilmember Judy Johnson added. “We want the third lane, and I think we’re going to get the third lane. What I’m hearing here tonight is fabulous.”

“We’re excited about the progress and we’ll keep on top of it,” Mayor Slavik said. “We’ll do our best to make sure this happens.”