Over the years, US-8 has been tagged with some less than flattering nicknames: The Highway of Death and Bloody 8 are two examples.
Safety has long been a concern for Chisago County officials for this federal highway that extends from Forest Lake to the Wisconsin border in Taylors Falls. Changes are coming to a section of the highway as a major reconstruction effort is being planned for eight miles of the heavily traveled road from Forest Lake to Chisago City
And a major project it is. Chisago County Engineer Joe Triplett says planning and design for what will be a four-lane highway will move forward throughout 2023 before bid letting can be completed in 2024. Work could begin in late 2024 and continue through 2025 and 2026 under the preliminary timelines for the state project, Triplett said.
The project’s preliminary cost estimate is $70-$80 million, the engineer said. As the planning and design steps proceed, the county will continue to gather state and federal funds to complete the project, he added.
“Highway 8 is a very vital link for the county,” said Fourth District Commissioner Ben Montzka who represents the section of US-8 that is in the city of Wyoming. “We are trying to take the lead and advocate for needed safety improvements.”
“This is a project that should have been done years ago,” Triplett said. In a county-state crash study, Triplett said that between 2011 and 2020, the eight-mile section recorded 1,100 crashes with nine fatalities “This road doesn’t meet the [safety] needs of our community,” Montzka added.
The highway is carrying as many as 23,000 vehicles daily. And with numerous access points from private property and local and county roads, accidents result, Triplett says. “That’s why we need more [lane] capacity,” Triplett said.
What is planned
Major changes are coming for this section of US-8, starting with four lanes of roadway from I-35 in Forest Lake to Karmel Ave. in Chisago City where a roundabout will be constructed.
To create a safer highway, Triplett says one of the necessary steps will be reducing the number of access points along the eight-mile stretch. At one point there were 60 such access points in the target area, he said. That number will be reduced to around eight when design is completed, Triplett said.
Area residents who are not familiar with reduced conflict intersections (RCI) will be when the road is finished. Under the RCI design plan required by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, four RCIs are proposed for Hazel Ave., Heath Ave., Juno Court and 276th Street. With RCIs, motorists must turn right to enter US-8 and travel a safe distance to the RCI lane where they can reverse course of travel. Median barriers preventing left turn movements to US-8 are part of the preliminary design plan, Triplett said.
A series of frontage roads along both sides of US-8 will be built for additional safety measures for traffic turning on and leaving the highway. The frontage roads will consolidate driveway access points where practical.
Triplett says every effort will be made to minimize the project impact on private property. Some permanent and temporary easements may be needed, he said.
The signalized US-8 intersections with CR-23 and CR-36 will remain.
Detours will be needed during construction. In regard to project staging, Triplett says there has been “very early” discussion on potentially doing half the highway at a time or splitting the project in two over two full construction seasons. For detours, the county engineer said preliminary options include routing traffic over TH-95 in Chisago County and over TH-97 in Forest Lake and Scandia. Triplett said local residents will quickly figure out how to drive city and county roads to avoid the construction zones.
How it started
Triplett said MnDOT’s 2018 plan to resurface this section of US-8 spurred Chisago County into action.
Under the state plan, some $12 million would budgeted to resurface the eight-mile section in 2025. With safety considerations in mind, Triplett said the county went to MnDOT requesting a more comprehensive long-range plan to address safety. MnDOT agreed.
“That’s how we got the ball rolling,” Triplett said.
As design work progresses, efforts to secure full project funding will continue, he said. Some $38.12 million of the project’s estimated cost has been secured, leaving up to $42 million to be obtained. Funds in hand include the $12 million originally planned for the state resurfacing project, $11 million in general obligation bonds from the Legislature, $8 million in general funds from the state, $4.12 million in trunk highway funding, and $3 million in federal funds.
Had it not been for the 2022 Legislature’s inability to pass a bonding bill, the fundraising would be in better shape today, Triplett said. The project is facing a delay of one year by the lack of state action. That delay is expected to inflate the project cost, but at an amount that can’t be determined today, Triplett said.
Triplett said Chisago County was optimistic that state funding for the US-8 project would have been secured in 2022 through the $250 million Corridors of Commerce bill that stalled in the latter hours of the legislative session in May. Rep. Bob Dettmer, Forest Lake, who is leaving the Legislature, was a strong proponent of the Chisago County effort to secure funds.
When the Legislature reconvenes in 2023, Triplett said the county will pursue funding from state and federal sources.
Of big help could be the federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity act. The Biden Administration program includes $4.8 billion over five fiscal years to support federal highway and bridge projects. Triplett is optimistic the US-8 project will win funding requests through the Corridors of Commerce avenue and state general obligation bonds.
No county property tax levies are expected for the project, Montzka and Triplett said.
Montzka said a top priority of the county board has to make sure the public is aware of what is being planned. Informational meetings have taken place and more are planned.
On Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, the county will host an informational meeting from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Lord of the Lakes Lutheran Church, 25402 Itasca Ave., Forest Lake.
County officials are also keeping other impacted governmental agencies in the loop. Triplett said lines of communication are open with officials in Forest Lake, Wyoming and Chisago City, plus the Comfort/Forest Lake Watershed District.
While most of the focus is on the highway, Montzka says area residents will also welcome a special addition of the project: the completion of the Swedish Immigrant Trail from Chisago City to Forest Lake where it will link with the Hardwood Creek/Sunrise Prairie Trail that runs parallel to US-61. The trail will be constructed on the north side of US-8.
When two small breaks in the bicycle and walking trail east of Chisago City are completed in the next few years, a fully paved trail covering 22 miles will connect Taylors Falls to Forest Lake. “This will greatly improve the quality of life for our residents and those who visit the area,” Montzka said.
An online link for people to sign-up for updates on the project can be found at www.chisagocountymn.gov/1115/Trunk-Highway-8.