Minnesota Cities Magazine

The Freedom of Responsibility

When Maplewood officials took the lead on a major transportation project, they realized multiple benefits.

By Michael Thompson and Bret Johnson

For Minnesota cities, leading a large-scale interchange reconstruction project can be a complex undertaking.

But what many cities may not know is that there can be measurable benefits to taking the lead on your transportation project.

That’s what the City of Maplewood found out while leading a $17 million interchange project last year. The increased responsibility afforded them the freedom to shape the project in ways that served the best interests of their community.

Red light, green light
The signalized intersection at Trunk Highway (TH) 36 at English Street in Maplewood was causing major traffic delays and safety concerns, with rear-end crashes a common occurrence during morning and evening rush hours. In addition, the intersection was an access barrier in all directions for pedestrians, area businesses, and emergency vehicles.Maplewood highway

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), a state-led reconstruction project at this intersection was years away because its schedule was filled with higher-priority projects.

Rather than wait more than five years, Maplewood officials approached MnDOT about assuming the leadership role on the project. By taking the lead, the city was able to relieve traffic congestion, increase safety for those traveling through the busy intersection, incorporate ideas and feedback from area businesses and residents, and accelerate the construction schedule.

A safer city, ready for business
To help alleviate congestion and improve safety, the city removed the signals at the intersection and constructed a tight diamond interchange that includes a new bridge over TH 36 at English Street (see photo). This allows vehicle and pedestrian traffic to move freely in all directions, and creates an important safety connection, one that significantly improves response time for emergency vehicles.

“For more than two decades we’ve struggled with reaching homes and businesses due to limited access points across Highway 36,” says Maplewood Fire Chief Steve Lukin. “The new bridge and access points will now allow us to better serve our citizens when they need us most, and when minutes and seconds matter.” The improvement will not only increase safety for drivers and pedestrians, but will make a better impression on the thousands of people who use the interchange—which the city hopes will help bolster Maplewood’s economy.

“TH 36 represents a major corridor connecting the central metropolitan area to the east metropolitan area, and tens of thousands of commuters make their way through this area daily,” says Assistant City Manager and Community Development Director Melinda Coleman. “So, now people will travel with less congestion and frustration, and have more time to patronize our area businesses.”

Amplifying the voice of the Community
As project lead, the city was in complete control of the public involvement process, which helped to amplify the voices in their community. This led to greater community engagement and higher quality input.

We wanted to make sure we understood the community’s key concerns such as safety, noise, access to businesses, and the aesthetics, and that we put their ideas into action and addressed their concerns,” says Maplewood City Manager Chuck Ahl. “Our residents and businesses came forward with some great ideas to help improve this important thoroughfare.”

In one case, the city and stakeholders worked together to mitigate vehicle noise generated from the highway. Residents on the south side of the highway believed that a noise wall was the best solution to reduce noise. In contrast, residents from the north side preferred a landscaped berm. As project lead, the city was free to implement both approaches—a noise wall on the south side and a landscaped berm on the north.

A bold move
As the time to begin construction neared, city leaders were able to make key project decisions that might not have otherwise been possible. For example, the city opted for faster completion by closing down the highway completely, rather than leaving single lanes open and doing the project in phases.

This approach meant the city was able to reduce the overall length of construction time—completing the project in September 2013—and thereby minimize the traffic headaches and long-term impacts to local businesses.

“With the standard approach, construction would have been phased and spanned two or more years,” says Ahl.

“Being in the lead provided the opportunity to make a bold move to fast-track construction and close the highway for only 75 days.”

Michael Thompson, PE, is public works director and city engineer with the City of Maplewood. Bret Johnson, PE, is project manager with Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. (www.sehinc.com). Short Elliott Hendrickson is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

Read the March-April 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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