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Open house held for Highway 36 study in Oakdale
Residents offer frank feedback on preliminary designs
Representatives from several state and local government agencies gathered Wednesday, July 17, at an open house to answer questions about possible State Highway 36 construction project designs at two busy intersections.
And the questions flowed — more than 100 residents and business owners came to the event armed with their opinions about redesigning the intersections at Highway 120 and Hadley Avenue. They are the only remaining signalized intersections on Highway 36 west of Interstate 694.
People from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Department of Natural Resources, Metropolitan Council, Ramsey County, Washington County, Oakdale and North St. Paul were on hand to respond to the crowd’s questions and concerns.
The public open house was part of a $200,000 preliminary MnDOT study of the intersections as it updates its Highway 36 corridor plan. MnDOT has not updated the corridor plan since the 1990s, and much work has been done to improve the four-lane highway in the last 20-plus years.
At one table, MnDOT Engineer Ryan Coddington explained that the study is currently nothing more than just a study - any funding for redesigning the intersections will need to come from local entities like the cities of Oakdale and North St. Paul or Ramsey and Washington counties. The Highway 120 intersection is at the border between the two cities and counties, while the nearby Hadley Avenue intersection is exclusively in Oakdale.
“These projects are not in MnDOT’s 20-year plan,” Coddington said. “But a municipality or county could start a project after soliciting funding.
Since the concepts were only preliminary, precise cost estimates were not immediately available, but two current MnDOT construction projects along the thoroughfare may give an idea of how much a similar project could cost.
The $17.3 million English Street and $13.8 million Hilton Trail projects have slowed or detoured traffic on Highway 36 this summer as crews replace both at-grade signalized intersections with grade-separated diamond interchanges.
The traffic light at Hadley Avenue was installed in the early 1990s after numerous critical crashes occurred following the opening of Mills Fleet Farm. At the time, MnDOT did not want to signalize the intersection, but concerns from the city and county pushed it to install the signal.
Well-attended open house
MnDOT metro district planner Karen Scheffing says the open house was a “smashing success” in terms of number of participants.
“Our outreach coordinator says we had over 120 people at the event,” Scheffing said. “In all my years of public service, I have never been at such a well-attended event.”
As attendees walked around the conference room at the Oakdale Discovery Center, cookies and coffee in hand, they were able to take a look at nine different concept designs and offer feedback.
The preliminary concepts identified ideas for access control and opportunities for supporting road connections while also keeping in mind spacing guidelines, public and private utility issues, storm water management options, wetland impacts and identification of other critical issues, according to the project description. Each design map had a comparison chart to show how the projects measured up with each other.
Among the designs were maps showing several styles of diamond interchanges, “buttonhook’ interchanges and median U-turn setups. Luckily for project coordinators looking for honest feedback, participants were very upfront about their thoughts on each design.
“I don’t like this one at all,” one Oakdale resident commented, looking at a map featuring two roundabouts on Hadley Avenue. “It’s just stupid!”
Scheffing said that reactions to the concept designs were across the board, which is “pretty typical” for an event like this.
“Some people like all the options; some people hate all the options. Most people are generally happy (that) we’re looking at doing something to improve safety in the area,” she explained.
Some North St. Paul residents voiced concerns about the Gateway State Trail, safety issues and how local businesses might be affected by construction.
The Gateway State Trail pedestrian overpass spans Highway 120 on the south side of Highway 36. It was built in 2010, and many residents expressed worries that it would be demolished to make way for a new interchange.
“We just built that bridge a few years ago,” one man said. “It’ll be a waste of money if it’s torn down.”
Road safety was a primary concern for many residents. The Highway 120 intersection is fraught with frequent backups and drivers speeding through the intersection before the traffic lights turn red, often resulting in serious crashes. In July 2011, a young mother crossing the intersection on foot was killed after being hit by a car.
The businesses in the area would also be impacted by a construction project. The Mills Fleet Farm store and gas station and Marcus movie theater on Hadley Avenue in Oakdale, as well as the North St. Paul Dairy Queen and soon-arriving Caribou Coffee on Highway 120 could see a decline in customers as motorists take detours during the road construction.
Scheffing said that in addition to the verbal feedback received at the open house, MnDOT collected 29 written comment cards and was expecting more to come through the mail.
After collecting preliminary input from the interested parties, MnDOT will refine and evaluate the concepts and identify the top three choices.
In September, MnDOT will conduct an access study at Highway 120/Division Street/Geneva Avenue and create a management plan. Another public open house is planned for later in the study.
Scheffing said that even if a concept design were approved by one of the cities, construction would likely not begin for at least another three years.
“It will take at least a year or two to complete the design and municipal consent process, then another year to complete the environmental process that is required by federal highways,” she explained. “MnDOT would have to be a partner in these projects, as we are the owners of the roadway.”
For more information about the study, visit the project website at www.dot.state.mn.us/metro/projects/hwy36study.
Johanna Holub can be reached at email@example.com or 651-748-7814.