Angst grows over Highway 252 conversion project

Leif Garnass with SRF Consulting provides the Brooklyn Center City Council and a crowded gallery with a presentation on the Highway 252 freeway conversion project Feb. 3. (Photo by Kevin Miller)

A surprisingly mild February has brought with it heated debate related to the future of the Highway 252 freeway conversion project.

The Brooklyn Center City Council hosted a work session with some of the project’s partners Feb. 3. Ultimately, the council said it still has unanswered questions about the project and that it wants to have additional work sessions on the topic before deciding how to move forward.

The project, which is currently in its environmental review phase, has been operating as a collaborative effort between the cities of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Council, Metro Transit, Three Rivers Park District and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration.

Some form of the project has been in discussion since 2005 when MnDOT mentioned the project in its Transportation System Plan study.

Traffic projections for the corridor are predicting increases in traffic volume, and five of the six intersections on Highway 252 are among the state’s worst for crash costs. The intersection at 66th Avenue has the second-highest crash costs in the state, while the intersection at 85th is the ninth-worst. The intersection at 73rd ranks 12th-worst in the state.

Currently, there are $33.6 million in locally identified funds for the project, with $20 million of those funds committed in regional and freight solicitation federal dollars. The project was also identified for MnDOT’s Corridors of Commerce funding program in 2018. While MnDOT estimates the total project cost to be $163 million in the Corridors of Commerce approval document, more specific plans presented at the work session estimate costs to be between $118 and $138 million.

If the project moves forward, the conceptual work area includes Interstate 94 between downtown Minneapolis and Interstate 694, and Highway 252 between I-694 and Highway 610. The environmental study is considering Highway 252 for conversion to a freeway, and MnPass lanes are being considered for both Highway 252 and I-94. The stretch of highway – currently controlled by stoplights at 66th Avenue, 70th Avenue, 73rd Avenue, Brookdale Drive, 81st Avenue and 85th Avenue – would be converted into a freeway without controlled intersections.

The existing proposal is to convert Highway 252 into a six-lane freeway, with an additional lane on I-94 from Highway 252 through to Dowling Avenue. The project, as it is currently being proposed, would construct new interchanges at 85th Avenue, Brookdale Drive and 66th Avenue.

The proposal has recently come under scrutiny in Brooklyn Center’s City Council Chambers, where residents and some elected officials have questioned the plans.

Engineering justification/questions from council

The Brooklyn Center City Council decided to host a work session with project partners Feb. 3 after a group of residents brought concerns about several aspects of the project to the council. The group made its initial public presentation Nov. 25, 2019. During their presentation, they addressed concerns related to the spacing between the proposed interchange at 66th Avenue and I-94/694, environmental concerns related to the Mississippi River and pollution, as well as potential changes to public transit.

This group of concerned residents was recognized and given a council-sanctioned task force status when the council formed the Highway 252 Safety Task Force at its Jan. 13 meeting. The task force, which was proposed for creation by a mayoral proclamation, is free to set its agendas independently and is bound by the state’s open meeting laws.

At the work session, representatives from SRF Consulting, MnDOT and Metro Transit provided a high-level overview of the project and explained the decision-making process that has brought the proposal to its current state.

In summary, the group has been using the National Environmental Policy Act process to evaluate environmental, social and economic impacts of the proposal. This process began in September 2018.

As part of the process, the working group evaluated statistics ranging from crash data, right-of-way impacts, projected construction costs, impacts to local roadways and other statistics in justifying its overall proposal.

The working group has considered four potential road layout options, which are referred to as “alternatives.” Alternative 1 considered a full-access interchange at 85th Avenue, partial-access interchanges at Brookdale and 73rd Avenue and a full-access interchange at 66th Avenue. Alternative 2 is the preferred layout for the project partners, with full access interchanges at 85th Avenue, Brookdale Drive and 66th Avenue. Alternative 3 considered full-access interchanges at 85th, Brookdale and 70th Avenue. Alternative 4 was the only layout that considered two full-access interchanges, with interchanges at 85th and 73rd.

Alternative 2 offers fewer impacts to the local roadway system, fewer right-of-way impacts and limits potential traffic increases on 70th and 73rd Avenues when compared to Alternatives 3 and 4, the engineers said. While Alternative 1 offers comparable performance to Alternative 2, it also offers greater risk for right-of-way impacts and higher expected costs, they said.

It is not possible to design three interchanges on the highway and have them all spaced at least one mile from another interchange as is recommended by MnDOT, they said.

At 66th Avenue, the project is proposing a folded diamond interchange with Highway 252 traveling above the 66th Avenue, which would remain at-grade.

Council members asked approximately one hour’s worth of questions, touching on topics ranging from cost breakdowns to sound mitigation and impacts to public transit service. Occasionally, engineers said they would have to provide updated or more detailed information at a later date.  

When pressed with more specific questions from the council related to right-of-way acquisition and specific parcels of land that may be taken, MnDOT Engineer Jerome Adams and other project workers were reluctant to identify any specific property that may be taken as part of the project. The project is not yet far enough along to speak to specific properties, Adams said.

Mayor Mike Elliott echoed some of the questions brought to the council by the Safety Task Force, questioning efforts to reduce the impact of pollution and the safety of the proposed interchange at 66th Avenue.

While the one-mile spacing between interchanges functions as a guideline, engineers can design roads to make shorter distances safe for drivers, said Leif Garnass, with SRF. Longer distances offer drivers more decision time prior to exiting freeways and can make it easier to provide signage for roads, he said.

There are existing, functionally safe interchanges in the Twin Cities with comparable distances between them than the .35 miles proposed between the 66th Avenue and I-94/694 interchanges, Garnass said.

It is difficult to talk about ideal road design in a vacuum in the context of Highway 252 because the community had developed around the road prior to its construction, Adams said.

Task Force and disagreements

Disagreements between several parties arose as the agenda moved into the 45-minute segment set aside for the Highway 252 Safety Task Force and general public comment.

Echoing an earlier sentiment when the council set the agenda for the meeting, Councilmember Dan Ryan said the general public should be allowed to speak rather than the task force, as the city has already heard from the task force in the past will have the opportunity to again come before the council.

Elliott and Councilmember Marquita Butler disagreed. The council had already exhausted discussion on the topic and, “What we’re not going to is continue to make the task force feel as if their comments aren’t valued,” Butler said.

 “When we heard the presentation, [our concerns] were completely ignored,” Task force member Stephen Cooper said. He reiterated concerns about the distance between the I-94 and 66th Avenue interchange and that the engineers were being unclear about potential land acquisition. Project partners are trying to force an interchange to fit there when an interchange could more easily be fit at 70th or 73rd, he said.

There were a few shouts from the crowded gallery during his remarks.

Task force member Tom Kouri said the task force supports the work to convert the highway but wants to see changes in the design.

Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde sent a letter to the Brooklyn Center council expressing his concern with the creation of the safety task force.

“The city of Brooklyn Park believes the Highway 252 Safety Task Force is driven solely by Brooklyn Center residents who are strongly opposed to the proposed 66th Avenue interchange,” his letter states. “This project has, and will continue, to provide significant opportunities for stakeholder input. Our observations … are that many of those appointed to serve on this task force are doing whatever they can to either relocate the 66th Avenue interchange to 70th or 73rd Avenue, or to stop the project and keep conditions as they are today. Moving the interchange from 66th to 73rd would result in additional costs to Brooklyn Park taxpayers and is not an acceptable option.

“Brooklyn Park feels the preliminary design of Highway 252 provides a safe, cost-effective solution to address the safety and congestion issues along Highway 252 through both of our communities,” the letter continues. “We do not feel that a group of local residents with limited technical experience in transportation engineering can provide impartial guidance regarding safety along the corridor.”

Lunde also sent Brooklyn Park City Engineer Jesse Struve to speak on his behalf at the meeting.

“Brooklyn Park has concerns regarding the timing of the creation of Brooklyn Center’s 252 Safety Task Force, and that a task force was quickly created without all Brooklyn Center residents having the opportunity to participate on the task force,” he said. He was then cut off by Elliott, who asked if he had plans to speak to the engineering aspects of the project rather than the task force.

Elliott questioned the steps that the Brooklyn Park City Council has taken to address resident concerns on the project. “We have taken the step of recognizing a citizen task force to look at 252 … I found it quite curious that the Brooklyn Park mayor thought less of [it] in the message that you just delivered to our city council,” he said. “Your concern is about how Brooklyn Center is operating in Brooklyn Center? At the point where you have some thoughts on the roadway and impact on Brooklyn Park, that is completely valid. But at the point where you feel privileged enough to come to Brooklyn Center and comment on how we’re operating our affairs internally, I take exception to.”

Butler said the task force should not slow the process. “It’s pretty concerning to me that people would get all up in arms about us empowering citizens to be engaged, to ask questions … it’s just really puzzling to me,” she said.

“You have a task force made up of individuals who already told you that they are opposed to this project,” former Mayor Tim Willson said. “How does that happen with no other citizens from Brooklyn Center on this task force? Is your intention to have a task force to rubber-stamp the council’s denying the 252 project?  … I don’t know what their credentials are.”

Conclusions

Elliott said that he had more questions than answers after the discussion.

“The question I think for us is how do we move forward at this point … Tonight has left me with more questions than answers. While I recognize the need for something to be done on 252 to address the safety concerns on 252 and the traffic concerns, tonight doesn’t leave me with clarity in terms of whether this current proposal is the right proposal. I think we’ve got lots of questions still.”

Elliot and Councilmember Kris Lawrence-Anderson said they would like to have another work session in a similar format. “I don’t think we’re prepared to make any decisions,”  Lawrence-Anderson said.

City Manager Curt Boganey said that the council should come to a consensus on the project considering the upcoming state legislative session, existing funding requests and costs estimates for the 66th Avenue interchange, and deadlines for spending federal project dollars.

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