One year after wrapping up the reconstruction of Main Street in Blaine and Coon Rapids, Anoka County is shifting its focus north to another major east-west corridor.
The Anoka County Highway Department is proposing to continue widening Bunker Lake Boulevard where it last stopped at Crane Street in Andover, just east of Hanson Boulevard, and continue east to Jefferson Street in Ham Lake.
“In general, the project is good,” said Steve Winter, who has lived in Andover’s Shadowbrook neighborhood since 2004. “It will get traffic through safely.”
A Nov. 12 open house at the county highway department’s main office right next to this project area gave residents the chance to ask questions or voice concerns that could help shape the design of the project, which is mostly being funded by a federal grant and could start in 2015.
The most up-to-date statistics show that almost 15,000 vehicles travel back and forth on this stretch each day. It is projected to carry 27,000 vehicles per day by 2030.
No bridge over tracks
The county does not plan to build a bridge over the railroad tracks because it could cost $9 million to $10 million and the federal grant will not help pay for it, according to Anoka County Engineer Doug Fischer.
It was possible to get a bridge over the railroad tracks on Main Street because the Minnesota Department of Transportation paid for it when the county took ownership of the road, Fischer said.
An average of over 21,000 vehicles traveled on Main Street east of Hanson Boulevard each day this year, according to county traffic counts. Bunker Lake Boulevard east of Hanson Boulevard had almost 14,300 vehicles per day.
The elevation would have to be similar to Main Street to give trains ample room to go under the bridge, which would have to either rise gradually over a long distance or rise sharply with retaining walls needed. Retaining walls are what makes a bridge like this expensive, Fischer said, and a lot of homeowners would have been impacted by such a large bridge.
“It’s cost prohibitive,” he said.
According to Andover City Councilmember Julie Trude, the county could have modified the road design to accommodate a less expensive bridge.
Some of Trude’s suggestions included reducing the bridge to one lane in each direction without the concrete median or closing the access at Sycamore Street east of the railroad tracks to eliminate a turn lane. Those residents could then use Prairie Road, she said.
“If we don’t get an overpass figured out now, we’ll never get one,” Trude told Fischer during the Nov. 12 open house.
Kathy Ness can personally attest to how trains can impact response time for first responders.
“A number of years ago before the fire station (no. 3) was built, I thought my husband was having a heart attack. I called 911 and it took 20 minutes for them to get here because they were waiting on a train,” she said.
Luckily for Ness’ husband, it was not a heart attack, but she said it would be much safer to have a railroad overpass for public safety purposes.
While there will be no overpass, Fischer said there will be areas for buses that must stop at tracks to pull aside to not block traffic, which is what the Main Street railroad crossing had before the bridge was constructed more recently.
“It’s dangerous right now,” Ness said with regards to walking or biking across the tracks because there is no trail or even a wide shoulder.
But Fischer said this will be corrected with trails on both sides of the road throughout the project area.
Median to limit access, reduce crashes
The Andover Fire Department now does has fire stations on both sides of the railroad tracks, but Fire Chief Dan Winkel has expressed concern about Butternut and Wintergreen streets becoming right-in, right-out accesses only.
Losing access due to concrete medians is a common concern the county has heard when it widens a road from two lanes to four lanes and adds a concrete median with a limited number of openings, but Fischer has said this is the safest way to move traffic through a corridor.
According to the county highway department, over half of crashes from 2010 to 2012 were rear end collisions which are common on congested roads with multiple accesses and limited dedicated turn lanes.
Ness is always nervous every time she is heading east on Bunker Lake Boulevard and turning left on Goldenrod Street to go home.
“They now have a bypass lane, but every time I turn left I have my eyes in my rearview mirror and hope I don’t get rear-ended,” she said.
Corene and Merle Wacker of Ham Lake are just as worried about this and wish the project was extending farther east in order to improve safety at the different accesses for the Majestic Oaks Golf Course and Able Street where they turn to get into their neighborhood.
Kathy Learned’s home is close to the Wintergreen Street access and was one of the first built in this neighborhood when she moved into it in 1988.
As Learned pointed out the route, she said, “People on Crane Street and back here would get additional traffic.”
Ham Lake City Engineer Tom Collins said 66 homes in the Majestic Oaks development would be affected if Terrace Road becomes a cul-de-sac at Bunker Lake Boulevard. The only access to the county road would be at Jefferson Street, which does have a traffic signal.
Collins said the city is pushing for a right-in, right-out access because Terrace Road would be a 4,400-foot long cul-de-sac and the city’s code currently wants these dead-end streets to be no longer than 1,300 feet.
Scott Bromley, 45, has been in the area all his life and has operated the Anoka County Farms business in Ham Lake for approximately 20 years. He typically sees 20,000 visitors each year pick up pumpkins, stop by his farmers market and he gets a lot of school field trips.
According to Bromley, he would have to drive over the median to get his equipment to his farm on the other side of the road.
Parks, trails and trees impact
Steve Winter is concerned about the impacts a road widening could have on Shadowbrook East Park and a nearby wooded trail on the north side of Bunker Lake Boulevard.
“It’s a beautiful trail. It’s like a walk in the woods,” said Trude, who lives in the area and said her neighbors are concerned about tree loss.
Ham Lake Councilmember Gary Kirkeide remembers drag racing down Bunker Lake Boulevard when he was a teenager and it was a dirt road. The sharp curve where some people went off the road was aligned to avoid Bunker Lake in Bunker Hills Regional Park.
The lake does not exist anymore except for on maps, but the curve cannot completely be straightened out because it would impact wetlands and floodplains, according to Fischer.
Curt Kobilarcsik, an engineer program manager in the county highway department, said they have just started the design on this project so full impacts are yet to be determined. But adding two lanes of traffic, a concrete median, trails on both sides of the road and a right-turn lane for westbound traffic turning on Butternut Street will have an impact, he said.
“So far, we have balanced the impacts between (Bunker Hills Regional Park) and the residents as best we can,” Kobilarcsik said.
Go east, or go north?
Fischer said increased traffic would not just be due to Andover and Ham Lake getting more homes. People from northern suburbs such as East Bethel and Ham Lake could use this road to get to Bunker Hills Regional Park or Andover’s commercial hub along Bunker Lake Boulevard and west of Hanson Boulevard, which now includes Walmart.
The county tried to get Bunker Lake Boulevard expanded all the way to Highway 65, but the cost-benefit ratio did not score well enough on the federal grant, so Fischer said the county reduced the scope of the project.
Explaining how road projects are scored by the federal government is complicated because there are various types of grants that have a different focus. The traffic reliever grant the county received evaluates congestion, traffic counts and projections, and crashes, for example.
The Andover City Council has frequently discussed the congestion on Hanson Boulevard and how a road widening possibly up to 161st Avenue would help during the morning and afternoon rush hours.
Besides Hanson Boulevard in Andover, Fischer said Main Street in Blaine east of Radisson Road and a short segment of Round Lake Boulevard south of County Road 20 are just a couple of other projects the county evaluates each year to determine the best chance of receiving federal funding.
“They’re all on our radar,” he said.
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org