In Blaine, Highway 65 just south of 109th Avenue averages close to the same number of vehicles as Interstate 35W north of Radisson Road, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The key difference is Highway 65 has traffic signals.
“If you can imagine the interstates having signals every half-mile to a mile, you realize what a disaster it would be. That’s the type of traffic volumes we’re talking about on this section of Highway 65,” Anoka County Engineer Doug Fischer said as he testified before the Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee on March 9.
More disturbing for Fischer is that there were 18 fatalities and 68 crashes with incapacitating injuries in a 20-mile segment of Highway 65 between 85th Avenue and the north county line between the years 2006 and 2015.
Rep. Nolan West, R-Blaine, is chief author of a House bill that seeks $600,000 for studying Highway 65 between County Road 10 in Spring Lake Park and Bunker Lake Boulevard in Ham Lake. Since he met the deadline for getting a committee hearing, his bill can proceed for continued discussion on inclusion in the House’s transportation bill.
Sen. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, introduced the companion bill that has not had a committee hearing in the Senate as of March 10, but West said he would work with Newton on getting support in the Senate for this Highway 65 study.
An average of 53,000 vehicles travel on Highway 65, south of 109th Avenue, every day. Average daily traffic counts for I-35W north of Radisson Road are 58,000. Further east in Lino Lakes, Interstate 35E averages 45,000 vehicles per day.
“That blew my mind,” West said of when he first heard these counts.
It also gives the first-year state representative some statistics to make his point that funding is needed for this state corridor that sees people from all over the state and beyond.
Last year’s Schwan’s USA Cup at the National Sports Center drew 1,178 teams from 19 countries, 19 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces.
The Tournament Players Club golf course and the Anoka County-Blaine Airport are other large traffic generators, Fischer pointed out during his testimony.
Rep. Paul Rosenthal, DFL-Edina, said he is quite familiar with Highway 65 in Blaine.
“I go to the National Sports Center more times than I’d like to count,” he said.
Rosenthal wondered how an interchange at Highway 65 and 109th Avenue would impact businesses that, to him, seem close to this intersection.
Fischer said they had a similar experience further north when Highway 65 and 125th Avenue used to be one of the five worst signalized intersections in the state. He said they were able to improve this area by constructing an interchange at 125th Avenue and bridges at 121st Avenue/Paul Parkway and 129th Avenue. He would like to replicate the success of this project at 109th Avenue, he said.
But although these three bridges helped traffic flow on Highway 65 in northern Blaine, Newton said the traffic jam just moved further south. The most adversely impacted have been drivers trying to cross or get on Highway 65 on 109th Avenue. He heard from MnDOT that this is the second most congested intersection in the state.
“Everyone has priorities and roads they want to get done, but this is pretty important,” he said, adding that 109th Avenue is a major east-west throughway for Anoka County.
Fischer acknowledged businesses would be impacted whenever a project moves forward but said the county would go through a 12- to 18-month period of community engagement and engineering to refine a project.
“It won’t go without some impact. There will be some impact, but we have done it before,” he said.
Anoka County also has recent experience of working with MnDOT and city governments on studying how to turn a state highway into a freeway with less traditional and less expensive solutions. Fischer used the Highway 10 Access Planning Study as an example of a plan where the partnership of the state, county and cities expect to receive 90 percent of the benefits of a traditional freeway design at half the costs.
Fischer said the Highway 65 study would follow the same model as the Highway 10 Access Planning Study in trying to find less expensive solutions to improve traffic flow.
Highway 65 and 109th Avenue is a high priority for Anoka County, but he said a study is needed so there’s more information on costs, how the design would affect businesses at this intersection and whether the project area would need to be expanded beyond 109th Avenue.
“Other than knowing what we have there now doesn’t work, we haven’t taken it to the point of determining what type of interchange or grade-separated project would be feasible,” he said.
Newton introduced bills seeking $65 million for construction of an underpass at Highway 65 and 109th Avenue with funding coming from either the transportation bill or the bonding bill.
Newton and West said their priority Highway 65 project is 109th Avenue but said other legislators and the North Trunk Highway 65 Corridor Coalition, which includes members in Anoka, Isanti and Kanabec counties, asked that the Highway 65 study go from Highway 10 in Blaine to Bunker Lake Boulevard in Ham Lake. West said Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, asked that the study area extend a little further south to County Road 10 in Spring Lake Park.
“109th is the crux of the problem, but we wouldn’t get as much support if we just focused on one intersection,” West said.
Rep. Clark Johnson, DFL-North Mankato, asked West during the March 9 House Transportation Finance Committee hearing if he would support tax increases, whether it be a gas tax increase or tab fees, to infuse more dollars into transportation projects.
“I’m here to discuss my bill, not other bills,” West replied. “I’d like to keep the discussion primarily to the merits of this piece of legislation.”
West later said in an interview with ABC Newspapers that Democrats will push for tax increases while Republicans will push for using existing funding for transportation. West believes the state should be using its $1.6 billion surplus and other existing revenue to fund increases in transportation expenditures, but said he is open to exploring new revenue streams such as an electric vehicle surcharge tax.
“There’s a lot more desire for compromise,” West said.