St. Croix Crossing in fog-8-7-17.JPG

Fog covers the new St. Croix Crossing bridge, seen from the Wisconsin side, the morning of Aug. 7, 2017. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Whether driving on Highway 36 to commute or go to the grocery store, many locals have witnessed or experienced a crash or a near miss on the state highway east of St. Paul.

Some accidents were so bad, they got statewide coverage.

Last February, Robert J. Bursik, age 54 of Amery, Wis., died after a semi-truck traveling 63 mph rear-ended his vehicle, which was stopped at a red light at the Highway 36, Lake Elmo Avenue intersection.The truck driver later admitted he was on his phone.

In June, a semi-truck rolled over and the cab of the truck caught on fire, blocking the westbound lane of Highway 36 at the Manning Avenue intersection. Thankfully, the driver was uninjured.

While some Highway 36 intersections in Stillwater and Lake Elmo have been ranked among Minnesota’s most dangerous for years, traffic on the state highway has increased since the St. Croix Crossing opened in August 2017.

Two years later, how has safety on Highway 36 changed?

The data

Local officials and residents say accidents on Highway 36 have increased in recent years but the data is mixed.

The Gazette analyzed state patrol incident reports for crashes that took place on Highway 36 between Interstate 694 and Highway 95 from January 2017 to May 2019.

According to the data, there were 170 crashes in 2017, 173 crashes in 2018 and 58 crashes for the first five months of 2019.

Notably, the number of incidents spiked in the six months after the St. Croix Crossing opened.

There were 63 accidents in the six months prior to the new bridge’s opening, whereas the following six months saw 98 accidents. Interestingly, accidents after the bridge opened included less injuries, with 48 injuries six months prior and 31 injuries in the six months following.

Adam Josephson, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) Metro District East Area Manager, said traffic volumes on Highway 36 have increased 15-20% since the new bridge opened. The increased traffic also brought an increase in the number of crashes, he said.

Although, the number of crashes hasen’t increase at every intersection, he said.

Crashes at the Lake Elmo Avenue intersection on Highway 36 were increasing before the bridge opened, he said, but they decreased in 2018.

“It has not been long enough to determine new trends,” he said. “We will continue to monitor the corridor.”

When a crash does occur, the Lake Elmo Fire Department is often called on to respond. With the completion of the new bridge, Lake Elmo Fire Chief Greg Malmquist said the department has seen an increase in the number of calls with or without injuries on both Highway 36 and 60th Street North. In a span including two years before St. Croix Crossing opened – starting in 2015 to August 2017 – the department responded to 48 incidents. In the two years since the bridge has opened, Malmquist said they have responded to 60 incidents — a 20% increase. Although the fire department does not track traffic data, Malmquist said he has observed an increase in vehicles using Highway 36.

“Just from experience, over the last five to 10 years there has been a significant increase in the amount of traffic on Highway 36,” Malmquist said in an email. “It used to be ‘rush hour,’ and now there is heavy traffic throughout the day. When there is an incident during rush hour, the backups can go for miles.”

As major commuting traffic has shifted from the historic Lift Bridge to St. Croix Crossing, the number of crashes in Downtown Stillwater has decreased.

“Moving traffic off the Stillwater Lift Bridge has lowered the number of crashes on [Highway 95], which is real positive for a bustling downtown area with heavy pedestrian and bike traffic,” Josephson said.

Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski agreed.

“It feels like, to me, we’re getting more tourist traffic and less of the commuter traffic,” Kozlowski said. “It’s as busy as I’d hoped it would be.”

Biggest concerns: speeds and at-grade intersections

Several local officials said the highway’s at-grade intersections, where two or more roads intersect and cross, are the biggest safety concern.

Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel said at-grade intersections have significant safety issues when coupled with high speeds and traffic volumes.

“Highway 36 currently is operating like an interstate freeway,” Kriesel said. “Freeways do not have signalized intersections.”

They are taking a step in the right direction, he said, with the construction of the $22 million interchange at Hadley Avenue next to Fleet Farm in Oakdale.

Nathan Arnold, the Washington County manager of the Manning Avenue interchange project, said there were 56 crashes at Manning Avenue alone, including one fatality, from 2011-2015. The intersection was rated 75th most costly intersection in damages and crash injuries out of 8,000 state intersections, he said.

Arnold said many of the safety issues stem from increased congestion, capacity issues and intersection spacing.

“These at-grade intersections along 36 are becoming more of a problem,” he said. “A lot of those crashes would go away or wouldn’t occur [with an interchange].”

The Manning Avenue interchange project is in the preliminary design phase, Arnold said, with construction planned for 2021.

“We can’t wait until 2021,” Kriesel said. “It’s Washington County’s number one priority.”

While the safety of Manning Avenue has been on the county’s radar for years, Arnold said the interchange has become more urgent with increased traffic after the St. Croix Crossing opened.

The county also expects traffic to increase another 20-30% by 2040, Arnold said.

Nearly 42,000 cars travel through the Manning Avenue and Highway 36 intersection daily alone, with another 17,000 cars traveling north or south on Manning Avenue, Arnold said. With local development, population growth and increased traffic traveling across the St. Croix Crossing, Arnold said he expects 60,000 cars to travel daily through Manning Avenue by 2040.

Funding, however, is the biggest hurdle to complete the $30 million project.

Cities improve what they can while waiting for state funding

The county is about halfway to fully funding the Manning Avenue interchange. Local officials hope to acquire the other half — $15 million — from state bond proceeds.

Legislators and local officials are on a time crunch — $7 million in federal funding expires in 2021.

The county also designated $5 million in its capital improvement plan in addition to $3 million in grants.

Last legislative session, Sen. Karin Housley (GOP) and District 39B Rep. Shelly Christensen (DFL) each authored a bill asking the state for $15 million in bond proceeds to fund the Manning Avenue interchange.

“That’s usually a good sign if you have a bipartisan ask,” Christensen said.

Last session, Christensen said party leaders did not want to consider bonding issues; she’s hopeful the legislature will vote on the bills in 2020.

However, procuring state funds for such projects is a very competitive process, Christensen said.

Christensen said she believes the Manning Avenue interchange will be one of the projects considered. Party leaders have it on their radar, in part because of the media coverage of accidents at the interchange, she said.

“I think they just really recognize the need — the changes that have taken place because of the bridge,” Christensen said. “Something needs to be done.”

In the meantime, local officials work to improve safety at Highway 36 intersections.

Oak Park Heights Mayor Mary McComber said in addition to working with MNDOT on timing of stoplights, city staffers worked to improve North Oakgreen and North Osgood Avenues. Staff is also working with Washington County to explore a double left turn lane on North Osgood Avenue, she said.

“I think that would probably help move some of that traffic through,” McComber said. “We’re doing the best that we can.”

The city also committed nearly $800,000, as well as a $644,000 grant, to improve the Norell Avenue intersection near Walmart. Oak Park Heights needs state funding though, she said. Sen. Housley and Rep. Christensen also authored bills last session asking for $794,000 in bond proceeds to support the 60th street realignment near that intersection.

“That will make a big impact,” McComber said.

Kozlowski said the city of Stillwater continues to work with Oak Park Heights, Bayport and Washington County to acquire funding for the Manning Avenue interchange.

He also hopes the local government can work together to encourage drivers to put their phones down, he added.

“At the end of the day, a lot of this has to do with distracted driving,” Kozlowski said.

Samuel Wayne Hicks, the 29-year-old semi driver who rear-ended Bursik, later admitted he was texting his girlfriend and searching for houses on his phone prior to the crash that killed Bursik. Hicks, of Independence, Wis., plead guilty to criminal vehicular homicide in April. On July 19, Washington County District Court sentenced Hicks to four years in jail, which will be stayed, as well as 10 years probation. As a condition of the stayed sentence, Hicks is serving 365 days in the Washington County Jail.

Although Minnesota’s new hands-free driving law went into effect Aug. 1, there are still distracted drivers. Add that on top of an unsafe highway, and that’s a recipe for accidents, Kozlowski said.

“Ultimately, it’s MNDOT that has the authority and the traffic engineers that can help us remedy the issues,” Kozlowski said. “Unfortunately, I think the long-term solution is one that’s going to be very expensive.”

The future of the corridor

In the next decade, the Highway 36 corridor could look very different.

In addition to the Manning Avenue interchange, MNDOT is studying the Lake Elmo Avenue intersection for a possible interchange and south frontage road. The Hadley Avenue interchange is due for completion this fall.

Kriesel said the highway may also have less drivers on it.

Washington County is partnering with Ramsey County to find ways to offer more public transit options, such as enhanced all-day bus services and a better park and ride system, he said.

Assuming the county acquires funds for the Manning Avenue interchange, Kriesel and Christensen said the project could have a big economic impact on the area.

Lakeview Hospital, for example, owns land and plans to construct a health campus on the northern side of Highway 36 and Manning Avenue. Hyvee also expressed interest in property south of Highway 36, Kriesel said.

An interchange would improve safety and could ultimately encourage growth that adds to the tax base, Christensen said.

“If there’s good access and safety...the community growth that it could provide is tremendous,” Christensen said. “That whole corridor is going to grow tremendously, I think, in the next 10 years.”

Contact Kim Schneider at kim.schneider@ecm-inc.com

Alicia Lebens Also contributed to this article. Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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