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Anoka County looks for relief from longest metro commute

October 6, 2018

The same sorry sight awaits Chad Howard each morning after work on his drive home to East Bethel along Hwy. 65: “Nothing but cars, creeping.”

But as the long line of drivers grinds south, Howard cruises north. His overnight shift as a 911 dispatcher spares him the misery of the morning rush — and largely keeps him from moving to a day shift.

Few in Anoka County seem surprised to learn their average commute is the most time-consuming among the metro area’s seven counties, clocking in at just over 28 minutes, according to recent American Community Survey data. The common complaint among north metro officials is that they’ve been repeatedly shortchanged when highway dollars are doled out.

But as the area continues to grow, county and city leaders say their commuting woes are at long last being taken seriously.

Work is humming on a $93 million project tackling crashes and gridlock along Anoka’s chunk of Hwy. 10, an effort led by the city with state and county help. Buoyed recently by $15 million in state bonding, officials are closing in on the final funding pieces to remove traffic signals, replace the Main Street bridge, improve frontage roads and build an interchange at Thurston Avenue and an underpass at Fairoak Avenue.

Anoka County is also buzzing with news that the Minnesota Department of Transportation is embarking on an $800,000 study digging into the headaches along Hwy. 65. For nearby Interstate 35W, a new MnPass lane is being planned from Roseville to Blaine as part of a $200 million project.

“Finally, legislators and others are paying attention to the north metro,” said Anoka County Board Chairwoman Rhonda Sivarajah.

But all this sounds too familiar to longtime residents like Howard, who say that ad nauseam traffic studies have made them wonder if anything will be different this time around.

“It’s like they just throw money at studies and then nothing ever comes of it,” said Howard, 35. “It’s like the beautiful people of the south and west metro get their roads fixed constantly. And then up here, here’s some more money for another study.”

New momentum

Many identify the biggest trouble spots in Anoka County as Hwy. 65 — the north-south thoroughfare that cuts through booming Blaine near the National Sports Center — and Hwy. 10, which links Ramsey, Anoka and Coon Rapids along the county’s southwestern edge.

About 80,000 vehicles rumble daily along Hwy. 10 just west of Hanson Boulevard in Coon Rapids. But as the busy corridor winds west through Anoka and Ramsey, traffic lights halt drivers. Making the whole stretch a freeway, most officials agree, would be best. It’s less clear where you’d get the necessary $300 million.

Traffic woes have spurred study after study. But one from 2014 marked a turning point. “The landmark revelation,” Anoka County Engineer Doug Fischer said, “was that we could do a hybrid freeway.”

The new approach, he said, offers nearly all the crash and congestion benefits at half the cost of a conventional freeway. It involves breaking the work into “manageable pieces” and cobbling together smaller pools of money from more sources.

“After decades of studying, we’re actually doing stuff,” Fischer said. “We’ve got momentum.” That includes the $42 million interchange completed at Armstrong Boulevard in Ramsey, as well as the planned fixes between Thurston and W. Main in Anoka.

‘A disaster zone’

Progress on Hwy. 10 also is helping officials develop a plan for tackling Hwy. 65, County Commissioner Scott Schulte said. The new Hwy. 65 study will focus on troubles between Bunker Lake Boulevard in Ham Lake and Mounds View Boulevard in Spring Lake Park.

Not just any fixes will do, as Blaine officials made clear at a recent City Council meeting. They were skeptical about adding J-turns, which aim to cut crashes at intersections by forcing drivers on side streets to make a right turn and then a U-turn onto divided roads, rather than taking a left turn across traffic. “Quite frankly, putting J-turns on Hwy. 65 up in Ham Lake isn’t going to do a fart’s worth of good in a wind storm,” Blaine Council Member Dave Clark said at an Aug. 16 meeting. “We need structural changes to get this road fixed.”

County and state officials said they’re looking at “cost-effective solutions,” including different interchange types and frontage roads. Melissa Barnes, MnDOT North Area engineer, said the latest study is a crucial first step. “You’re much more likely to get funding with these studies,” she said.

Local leaders are quick to point out that as Hwy. 65 slices through Blaine, one of the fastest-growing cities in the metro area, it carries as many vehicles as nearby 35W — but with frequent stoplights.

If Howard leaves his home in East Bethel by 7:40 p.m. for work, he can make it to downtown Minneapolis for his overnight shift in 35 or 40 minutes. Hit a string of red lights, he said, and it’s 10 minutes longer.

Commuters say that perhaps no Hwy. 65 intersection is more reviled than 109th Avenue. It’s one of 13 Anoka County intersections flagged as high priority for possible interchanges in a recent study by the state and Metropolitan Council.

“It’s a disaster,” said Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, who helped push for the latest study.

Carrie Wolf, manager of the Ole Piper Inn Bar Grill off Hwy. 65, agrees. Wolf said her food delivery drivers avoid the road. “It’s a hot mess,” she said. “What should be a five-minute drive is sometimes a half-hour just trying to cross 65.”

Hannah Covington • 612-673-4751

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