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Center for Transportation Studies

Drawing a new line against I-94 crashes

Armed with University of Minnesota data, MnDOT puts down paint on westbound lanes to help drivers navigate a nasty crunch zone.

For 15 years, westbound Interstate Hwy. 94 near downtown Minneapolis has ranked as the most crash-prone stretch of highway in Minnesota.

That made it the perfect research challenge for the traffic engineers at the University of Minnesota. After studying video of traffic jams and fender benders on I-94, university researchers found it may be possible to reduce driver conflicts and prevent accidents simply by painting new markings on the pavement.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation applied the paint Sunday. The double white lines are meant to reshape the flow of connecting traffic as it merges onto west I-94. By directing drivers to stay in single file, MnDOT hopes to keep them out of harm’s way.

“It’s an educated engineering guess,” said John Hourdos, a university researcher. “Let’s wait … to see what’s going to happen.”

What makes the spot so treacherous, especially in the evening, is that two streams of commuters — one from Interstate Hwy. 35W and one from downtown Minneapolis — must join an already full river of cars on westbound I-94 to make the trip to the west and northwest suburbs. The two-lane merge is a chaotic jam that is the scene of more than 140 accidents a year.

“It’s painful every day,” said one commuter, Heidi Sporre of Fridley. “People don’t like to let you in. You have to be very aggressive.”

The new double white lines will guide the two flows of traffic into one lane as they approach and merge onto I-94. The merge point will be moved 700 feet west, where the freeway straightens from a curve. Signs will remind drivers that double white lines are not to be crossed.

“This should result in smoother traffic flow and hopefully less crashes,” said Brian Kary, MnDOT freeway operations engineer. “If we can reduce crashes by even 10 percent, we believe this will be a success.”

Leisha Klecker, a commuter from Oak Grove, suspects it would take a physical barrier to really change the traffic patterns. But she hopes for improvement.

“From that spot until the other side of the [Lowry] tunnel, it’s like taking your life in your own hands,” Klecker said. “I don’t think anybody uses their blinker anymore. It’s just a free-for-all.”

The notoriety of this highway made it a logical target for study by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies, said Hourdos, who assisted in the project as a research fellow and then made it the topic of his doctoral thesis.

The three-year study found that backed-up traffic in the right lane behind the merge point next to fast-moving cars in the middle and left lanes frequently led to collisions.

To find a gap in the faster-moving traffic, “you look in your left mirror, which means you don’t look ahead,” Hourdos said.

Moving the merge point and making it single file should reduce crashes, he said.

The change won’t cure congestion and won’t eliminate crashes, said MnDOT freeway operations engineer Jim Aswegan. The goal is to improve safety enough to topple the spot from its top rank.

Video surveillance of the area will continue through the winter to see whether the restriping reduces accidents, Hourdos said.

MnDOT is studying larger and more expensive options for improving this stretch of I-94 and the entire I-94-I-35W common section. Recommendations are expected early next year.

In the meantime, Jeff Engle of Champlin will take any help he can get. The connection he has to make to I-94 from I-35W is “by far the high stress point of my commute. It has to help, because you can’t hurt what’s going on there right now. It’s ugly.”

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711 • lblake@startribune.com

Copyright 2006 Star Tribune. Republished here with the permission of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis-St. Paul. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written consent of the Star Tribune.