Everyone who regularly drives US 52 north into St. Paul over the Lafayette Bridge knows, it’s a mess. and sometimes dangerous.
After years of complaints from drivers and some local officials, which began shortly after the current bridge opened in 2015, the Minnesota Department of Transportation agrees that this is a problem that needs to be fixed and the problems first to be addressed. A three-stage plan has been in place since and eventually, maybe fix it for good.
Last year, the agency put up additional signs and markings along the road.
This fall, work will begin adding a large, over-the-roadway digital sign before the bridge to help drivers understand which lane they should be in and whether there are backups ahead. Officials said the system could be completed later this winter and later in spring. The sign will likely be located around or south of Plato Avenue.
But they are just signals and sensors. Engineers have recently begun studying how to fix the problems more permanently through construction and potentially reconnecting the north end of the bridge. The sooner something like this could be accomplished would be five years, but it would probably be longer.
The Lafayette Bridge is the terminus of a full-speed highway where thousands of vehicles drive daily at St. Paul’s Downtown Airport, 362 feet across the Mississippi River and rail yards with skyline views of the capital city, drops at 30 mph. , and climb onto St. Paul’s Bluff to connect to Interstate 94 or 35E or local city streets.
But the distinctive experience of the drive is anything but scenic. Instead, it’s often a white-grapes, head-over-the-shoulder, gas-and-brake, lane-jockeying affair that’s more difficult and stressful than typical St.
The problem is the center lane. It appears to always be backed up. and dangerous.
MnDOT isn’t using the term “design flaw,” but engineers analyzing recent traffic and crash data acknowledge the current configuration, which may confuse some drivers, is a culprit. Those who worked on that original configuration say they were beset by cost and political and geographic constraints – and that they and their computer models were caught unawares when the problems began.
Crash Spike, Center Lane Guilty
When MnDOT compared the crash data of the old bridge to that of the current bridge, it was eye-catching.
There were around 70 accidents in 2009 and 2010 (old bridge).
In 2017 and 2018 (current bridge), there were 290.
“This is a huge increase, and we are concerned about safety,” said Melissa Barnes, manager of MnDOT, a foreign metro roadways.
Unlike many highway backups, which disrupt traffic flow as those exiting or entering the right lane, the birthplace of most Lafayette Bridge problems is the center lane. He’s worse.
“The central lane backs up quite severely and for most of the day,” Barnes said. “People trying to get into their lane are going in and out of that slow, or stalled, middle lane. It causes accidents. “
Backing up the middle lane appears to be in high demand for two reasons: where it goes is in high demand, and many drivers are confused, so they cross it to get to the lane they should be in.
Which street leads where??
The highway over the bridge is of three lanes.
Here are your lane choices – and some confusion:
- Left: I-94 East. This is counterproductive for some, because if you’re heading east—towards Woodbury and Wisconsin—your usual destination is on your right as you travel north.
- Middle: I-94 West and I-35E. This is often the most demanding lane—and often laden with trucks—since 94 takes you between St. Paul and toward Minneapolis, while 35E is your route if you’re heading north.
- Correct: Seventh Street (both West Seventh and East Seventh – an option you’ll choose later). This is your local access. West Seventh will take you to St. Paul’s Lowertown and Downtown, while East Seventh will lead from Dayton Bluff to Metropolitan State University and the city’s East Side.
Perhaps adding to the confusion – although MnDOT doesn’t know if this is true – is the content of the signals themselves. There is no geographic reference to any of the signs, such as “Minneapolis” or “Wisconsin” or “Downtown St. Paul.” So if you’re not someone with an intuitive sense of compass, or if your navigational app is messy, you might be fooled. Signs also include, as do many highway signs, road designations not typically used by locals, such as US 10 (I-94) and Minnesota Highway 5 (West and East Seventh Street).
Barnes said MnDOT officials would look into whether changing the information on the signs would help.
“These signals are dynamic, so we can change what they say,” she said. “The thing we’re working on will warn people long ago that 94 East is on your left.”
history of headache
Another potential source of confusion: The current lane configuration isn’t what it used to be, and old driving habits can be hard to die for, especially for those who rarely drive across the bridge.
But when was Lafayette not a headache?
The bridge’s modern condition was opened to traffic in 1968, and by the 1970s, the structure had developed cracks, and generations of patches held it together. The fatal 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis served as a wake-up call for bridges across the country, as well as Minnesota, and lawmakers and the then-Govt. Tim Pavlenti approves ambitious plans to fix the most sketchy across the state. Lafayette Bridge was actually considered to be in worse condition than the I-35W Bridge.
“The project was really a bridge replacement project,” Chris Roy recalled. He is currently an assistant division director at MnDOT, but from 2006 to 2010, he was a project manager and north zone manager – the same position that Barnes currently holds – and oversaw parts of the $130 million project that is there now. “There really wasn’t a lot of money to spread around that project because we had a lot of bridges to replace.”
But even though the old bridge was in danger of collapsing, that was not the only problem. At the time, US 52 originally ended with a traffic light on Seventh Street, and it was dangerous. Over the years, increasingly strong concrete barriers were erected in front of Red’s Savoy Pizza, often hit by motorists who didn’t slow down in time.
As MNDOT engineers began to throw out ways to reconfigure the north end of the bridge, they quickly ran into the complications that plagued any urban highway project: There wasn’t a ton of real estate—and it didn’t have a ton of real estate. Some of it was claimed and well defended. The owners of the Reds Savoy, as well as the downtown car wash business (now taken over by Mr. Car Wash), were important constituents in St. Paul’s political circles, and it soon became clear that MNDOT wanted to put whatever sidewalk they wanted. Will have to avoid business and many others.
Justification for the current lanes
Even though aspects of the current configuration, such as exiting left to go east, may seem counterintuitive, there was a logic behind it, Roy said.
Generally on a highway, local roads turn on the right whenever possible. Thus Seventh Street became the right-lane candidate. It also seemed prudent to keep the highest volume of traffic in the middle lane. It left the left alley for 94 East, which they knew was awkward.
But when they punched out the layout in a computer model, the model showed there would be backup around rush hours and high-volume times, but nothing terrible.
“Keep in mind, these were computers from around 2008 or something, but they were what we had,” Roy said. “The model never indicated that the center lane would back up more than you’d expect from rush hour.”
Barnes said it was too early to predict what a long-term recovery could be. Engineering, design and environmental studies are in their infancy. No projects yet, and no funds. Barnes said the state isn’t looking to completely eliminate and restart everything that’s out there, but will consider adding lanes and potentially restarting existing ones.
“In a cramped city, with many freeways and a river and an airport and businesses, we are putting the needle in there,” Barnes said. “In general, we’re trying to do the best we can with the options we have.”