Tag Archives: I-94

U of M provides freeway ‘lid’ expertise for Rethinking I-94 project

MnDOT is exploring the development of freeway “lids” at key locations on I-94 in the Twin Cities. To analyze the potential for private-sector investment and determine what steps might be needed to make lid projects a reality, MnDOT invited the Urban Land Institute (ULI) MN to conduct a Technical Assistance Panel with real estate experts and other specialists. The U’s Metropolitan Design Center (MDC) provided background and research for the panel.

A lid, also known as a cap or land bridge, is a structure built over a freeway trench to connect areas on either side. Lids may also support green space and development above the roadway and along adjacent embankments. Although lidding is not a new concept, it is gaining national attention as a way to restore communities damaged when freeways were first built in the 1960s.

According to MnDOT, roughly half of the 145 bridges on I-94 between the east side of Saint Paul and the north side of Minneapolis need work within the next 15 years. A shorter window applies in the area around the capitol to as far west as MN-280. In anticipation of the effort to rebuild so much infrastructure, the department wanted a deeper understanding of how attractive freeway lids and their surrounding areas would be to private developers and whether the investment they would attract would generate sufficient revenue to pay for them.

The three-day panel session was designed to consider the I-94 corridor and study three specific areas: the I-35W/Minneapolis Central Business District, historic Rondo Avenue in Saint Paul, and Fairview Park in North Minneapolis. It also included a “lightning round” for high-level observations of five other sites.

Mic Johnson, senior fellow with MDC, provided background about lidding and shared successful examples from around the country at the panel kick-off dinner. MDC has analyzed a wide range of freeway lid structures and identified seven basic lid typologies. “These typologies provide broad thematic guidance for thinking about what features best serve a location,” Johnson says.

The briefing book provided to panelists included detailed research by MDC about the economic opportunities of the area’s freeway lids. MDC also created four appendices (projects, case studies, prototypical lid diagrams, and health and economic value) for the panel final report.

MDC has been involved in lid-related activities for several years. Students participating in an Urban Design Studio course in fall 2013 taught by Johnson conducted an extensive analysis of the I-35W/Minneapolis area and created an architectural model of a lid connecting the U of M’s West Bank to Downtown East. Their model was displayed at the IDS Center.

MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle requested that ULI MN convene the panel as part of the larger “Rethinking I-94” project, which is developing a vision for the corridor through a comprehensive public involvement process. “Lid projects are one way being considered that could reconnect neighborhoods such as Rondo that were divided by freeways in the 1960s,” Zelle says. The Rondo neighborhood was also featured in the USDOT’s Every Place Counts Design Challenge in July.

As part of its report to MnDOT, the panel concluded that private-sector development would not pay for the lids directly, but lids would create development interest that could generate significant long-term revenue to pay for lid maintenance, programming, and other amenities.

To build momentum and create an identity for lid projects, the panel also recommended that the area’s lids be considered as a whole under a single banner, not as separate projects, as part of a rebranded vision called the Healthy Communities Initiative. The final report is available on the ULI MN website.

(Adapted from the ULI MN report: Healthy Communities Initiative, Nov. 2016.)

What those signs over the freeway are actually telling you

Two years ago, MnDOT installed a series of electronic speed limit advisory signs over Interstate 94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Variable Speed Limit (VSL) system is designed to reduce congestion and help prevent crashes by recommending lower speed limits to motorists during periods of high traffic.

The new technology has worked in other places, including China and Germany. In Minnesota, a similar VSL system on I-35W reportedly had moderate benefits in reducing the total amount of congestion during the morning commute south of Minneapolis.

Although the verdict on I-94 congestion is still pending,  a newly released study has found that the new system has not made a measurable impact so far on crashes in an accident-prone stretch of freeway in downtown Minneapolis. Why not?

University of Minnesota researcher John Hourdos has a few theories.

One is a simple time  lag in the congestion reporting system. Another is a requirement that all lanes display the same speed limit, which he said causes confusion when only one lane is actually congested. The complexity of the I-94 commons also appears to be beyond what the VSL system was designed to do. And according to Hourdos, one of the most significant problems is the driving public simply doesn’t understand what the signs are telling them.

“People do not know what the system really does,” Hourdos said. “There hasn’t been much education on it other than a couple of news articles over the years. And when they try to decipher it on their own they get even more confused.”

The I-94 Commons area has a major bottleneck where the I-35W northbound ramp merges with I-94 westbound (between Cedar Avenue and 11th Avenue). Vertical red lines indicate locations of gantries that display variable speed limit advisories.
The I-94 Commons area has a major bottleneck where the I-35W northbound ramp merges with I-94 westbound (between Cedar Avenue and 11th Avenue). Vertical red lines indicate locations of gantries that display variable speed limit advisories.

The advisory speed limits are posted in response to varying traffic conditions. As vehicles approach the commons area, the system measures speeds at the bottlenecks. If the traffic slows, the system transmits a reduced advisory speed to drivers approximately 1.5 miles upstream from the location of the slow-down.

Hourdos said many motorists mistakenly believe the speed displayed on the signs is either a reflection of the speed on the current stretch of highway or an indication of the speeds on the highway ahead, rather than a suggested speed for them to follow.

The requirement to display the same speed limit on all signs also compounds the problem, Hourdos said, because when drivers see that the slowdown is only occurring in certain lanes they tend to ignore the signs altogether.

“In the lane that is congested, the real speeds drop much faster than what the VSL system can respond to, reducing the functionality of the system to the eyes of the drivers,” Hourdos said, “while on the fast-moving lanes, it seems the system has no purpose at all.”

From downtown Minneapolis rooftops, traffic monitoring cameras detect shockwaves on Interstate 94.
Data was primarily collected via cameras at the I-94 Commons’ Third Avenue Field station, overlooking an area with a particularly high crash rate.

So is the I-94 VSL system useless? Not necessarily. For one, the new study didn’t measure the system’s impact on congestion — only its ability to reduce crashes on a small portion of I-94. Moreover, the area in question, the I-94 Commons, is fairly unique, having two major bottlenecks, the highest crash rate in the state (nearly one every other day), and five hours of congestion during the afternoon rush hour alone.

“The VSL system was designed for implementation on any freeway and may not have been well-suited for the I-94 Commons area, which is a very complex corridor with high volume weaves and significant shockwave activity,” said MnDOT Freeway Operations Engineer Brian Kary.

Generally speaking, the VSL system was designed to identify slow traffic ahead of where free-flowing traffic is approaching slow or stopped traffic.

“The crash problems within the commons are caused by speed differentials between lanes and shockwave activity within the congestion,” Hourdos said. “The current VSL system was not developed to handle these types of conditions.”

MnDOT and the researchers aren’t giving up, either. A new project is starting later this year to develop and deploy a queue warning system specifically for this high-crash rate location.

Further resources

Investigation of the Impact of the I-94 ATM System on the Safety of the I-94 Commons High Crash Area (PDF), May 2014

Improving Traffic Management on Minnesota Freeways (PDF), May 2012