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I-494 project catches heat; safety concerns raised

If you have grumbled this summer about road construction along I-494 in Woodbury, just wait.

State transportation officials say traffic will be worse next spring and summer as crews try to complete a roughly $35 million lane-expanding project along the highway in time to coincide with the scheduled July 2010 opening of the eastbound span of the Wakota Bridge.

"There's going to be some severe traffic impacts," said Adam Josephson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Metro District.

This summer MnDOT is in the first of a two-year project to expand I-494 from two continuous lanes in each direction to three, from I-94 to south of Lake Road.

The project is getting some extra attention. Woodbury City Council members, who discussed the construction last week, urged city officials to press MnDOT for its construction detour plans that will affect Lake, Valley Creek and Tamarack roads next summer.

Ramps a concern

But a more immediate concern, they said, are no-merge entrances to I-494 from the three roads. They said there is poor warning of the traffic change and drivers have little room to accelerate before squeezing into flowing traffic.

"I don't think that it's that well marked," said Woodbury City Council member Mary Giuliani Stephens.

MnDOT crews this summer are working on the median area of I-494, which will become a third lane in each direction. That forced project designers to temporarily eliminate traditional entrance ramps. Creating temporary merging lanes would have been too costly, Josephson said.

"We're trying to do as much as we can within the space we have, but there's tradeoffs that need to be made," he said.

When the traffic pattern was changed earlier this summer to include the no-merge entrance ramps, an increase in vehicle crashes was reported, Josephson said, although he did not have crash statistics.

After the bump in crash reports, signage was improved, he said.

"We've seen a drop-off (in crashes) since then," Josephson said.

'Much worse'

When crews pour new pavement next spring and summer, traffic in the southbound I-494 lanes will be shifted to lanes on the northbound side, Josephson said. That will cause entrance and exit ramps from each of the three cross roads to be closed for some time. Then, those will reopen when pavement work begins on the lanes in the other direction, affecting access ramps on that side of the highway.

MnDOT should have detour plans available within a couple of months, Josephson said. Public meetings for area residents and business owners who will be affected by the detours will be scheduled in late winter.

"At some point they'll all be affected," Woodbury Public Works director David Jessup said of Valley Creek, Lake and Tamarack roads. "It's going to be much worse."

Council members asked Jessup to push MnDOT to release the detour plans sooner.