In Defense of the Elk Run Interchange

September 2, 2016 at 7:57 pm | Posted in Bridges, Streets, and Highways | Leave a comment

It’s easy to laugh at the Elk Run “Interchange to Nowhere” with it’s roundabouts to cornfields, traffic signals with no traffic, and pedestrian push-buttons that don’t work.  While acknowledging we’ve wasted some money on the extent that we’ve built it to accommodate  vaporware, I prefer to look at the big picture and think of it in terms of how much we’ve accomplished building a safer, more efficient roadway network. In defense of it, I make four points:

Elk Run 01

Traffic Circle to Nowhere

Elk Run 02

Traffic Signal With No Traffic

An interchange has been planned at this location for many years as part of the master goal of converting US 52 into a freeway facility.

Look at Option 3C from the 2001 Oronoco to Pine Island sub-area study. Look familiar?

Elk Run 03

Option 1 was relocating the entire US 52 mainline to the west of Oronoco. Option 2 was building four new interchanges instead of three- what became the Elk Run interchange would have been built a bit closer to the edge of town and an additional one near where the interim ending of County 12 was on the north side of Oronoco. Besides being the lowest cost, ironically another reason 3 was accepted was- don’t laugh-  it was thought building interchanges close to the towns would encourage unwanted highway oriented development, while one in the middle of nowhere would not.  (Options 3A and 3B would have built the south Pine Island interchange a bit closer but still away from the developed area.)

Any movement towards progressing US 52 towards a freeway facility is a worthwhile goal, even if the priority is wrong.

US 52 is one of the most dangerous expressways in the state due to the heavy volume of traffic. Drivers on crossroads get impatient waiting for a gap and take foolish chances with tragic results, and compounding the problems most intersections are skewed and some have site distance problems. This section was rated 19th in the priority list (so far we’ve gotten about a dozen done), but regardless it would have been done sometime.  If the political will was there to get this one done as opposed to getting nothing done, so be it. I’m ambivalent about “popup projects” in that they short circuit planning priorities, but sometimes they’re the only way stuff gets done given the current funding situation.

It removes regional traffic from residential neighborhoods. 

I’m aware of the sentiment of some here that small town business districts should be bypassed. From my “suburbanist” mindset I personally don’t agree with it. When I’m traveling I want to exit, go through the McDonald’s drive through, stop at the gasoline station, and get right back on the freeway, not drive through an entire town. And although some of the traffic will be removed from the Pine Island business district, it’s also about removing cars from residential neighborhoods. I’ve annotated the above map noting the residential areas in yellow and the business districts in red, noting how regional traffic attempting to reach US 52 needs to drive through residential areas.

Elk Run 04

As a side note, I should note what’s going on with the Pine Island south interchange. It was originally proposed for removal, but is obviously still around. The thinking was, besides removing regional traffic from the residential areas, was that it doesn’t meet modern standards for ramp length and intersection spacing and rebuilding it to meet standards and tie in new frontage roads would be impossible due to the proximity of the creek and a tightly packed residential area. Pine Island took a dim view of that because even under option 2 their business district would still wind up miles from either freeway exit. Also this was before the current roundabout mania started, providing a partial solution to the spacing issue. It’s obviously now going to stay awhile, and a new roundabout now provides acceptable connections to the new east frontage road. I’m fine with it staying indefinately, considering the number of crossroads still present, and that even a new interchange with substandard ramps (the reason why is a long story) is going up on the corridor.

The interchange didn’t cost much more than a conventional diamond interchange.

Mn/DOT lists the cost of the interchange and frontage roads at $34.2 million. A 2007 document, before Elk Run was talked about, estimated the cost at $30 million. This makes sense since the big cost in road construction is overpasses, not traffic signals, and not short concrete stubs that end in grass. One of the main selling points on diverging diamonds is you can dramatically increase traffic capacity in the same footprint of a regular interchange. Had it not been built as a diverging diamond, it would probably resemble the south Oronoco interchange, with 3 lanes and complete shoulders it isn’t that much narrower than the Elk Run interchange with four lanes, no shoulders, and a trail.

Elk Run 05

Oronoco south interchange bridge. Bridges for conventional diamond interchanges are pretty wide too nowadays. (This is much wider than it looks due to the weird lens the street-view cars use.

So whether you fault the planning process or not that selected this location over a decade ago, this wasn’t something that just materialized out of thin air for just the Elk Run project, and has no value to US 52 traffic. Back in 2001 the idea of a safe, modern US 52 freeway seemed like a fantasy, but is now closer to a reality. 9 of the top 11 priorities for US 52 have been either done properly of an interim fix implemented, and every traffic signal is gone.  Now it’s time to continue our investment and finish it systematically by extending the freeway sections north from Pine Island and South from Inver Grove Heights until they finally meet.

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