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Memories of the Interstate


My recollections of interstate work in District 9

Del Gerdes - MnDOT Retiree

 

I began my 35 year career at MnDOT as a student civil engineer trainee in 1968. MnDOT was hiring many young engineers to ramp up for the interstate program. I began in Metro’s District 9 about the same time as people including Ron Erickson, John Utz, Gary Erickson, Doug Grindall, Jerry Miller, Don Wisniewski, Gary Niemi, Gary Orlich and Dave Ekern. We played broomball together (with our young wives) and formed friendships that have lasted to this day despite careers sometimes going in different directions.

 

I worked on surveying and construction during some of the early years and learned from the experienced technicians and engineers including Mike Marttila. I recall doing some work on Interstate 35E near St. Clair Avenue in St. Paul and watching police on the large hill below Linwood Park. I asked what they were doing and was told they were pursuing some young people who were picking marijuana plants there. That segment of I-35E from the Mississippi River Bridge to St. Clair Avenue was the subject of long delays after right of way was cleared, bridges built and grading completed. More on that later!

 

Our crew was also asked to help for awhile on cross-sectioning on the segment of I-94 between White Bear Avenue and Ruth Street.  There I met Bob Cartford, the resident engineer, Paul Jenson and a young grad engineer, Dave Ekern. We had to wear hip boots to go out into the wetlands south of the freeway in what is now highly developed St. Paul commercial property.

 

I, like many young folks, were drafted for military service in Vietnam. I had my physical, my going-away party and was about to go to Fort Leonard Wood for basic training when a deferment came through. It was thanks to Bruce Graves, then construction ADE for District 9, who wrote to the Selective Service Board about the essential nature of our work on the Interstate and Defense Highway System.

 

Later I worked for Perry Plank in a new District 9 Transportation Planning Unit. Our main function was to analyze future projects, mostly interstate, for suitability of geometric design and level of service. Would they be safe and have proper geometrics and capacity?

 

I recall a lot of collaborative meetings with District 9 and Central Office geometric design folks to iron out design issues. Central Office people like Clem Kachelmeyer, Loren Heglund, Tom Campbell (Traffic), Mike Christensen and Leo Korth were key players. A lot of thought was given and many alternatives were drawn in making mostly consensus decisions that would shape the designs to come.

 

Some of the young engineers I mentioned earlier were asked to do interstate environmental reassessments on routes. The National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1969,  brought with it a growing concern for the primary, secondary and even tertiary impacts of interstate projects. Later, environmental impact statements were required on many of the started, but not completed, routes like I-94 in Washington County, I-35E in St. Paul and Dakota County and I-494 from the Minnesota River to South St. Paul. This slowed down the construction process and there was much to learn about how to meet these new requirements. Pressure built to get decisions made but in a much more complex setting.

 

I worked on what were called “transportation planning reports” (which I still have) for the above routes. The basic purpose of these was to explain the purpose and need for each of the routes from a safety, system and capacity perspective. That issue became one of importance because groups and individuals nationwide began to question the need for the urban interstate segments. After all, wasn’t the interstate just meant to interconnect states and major cities and provide through movement? Was traffic within the city to be served as well? Safety benefits of controlled access were not well understood either.

 

There was an Interstate Study Commission that included Metropolitan Council representatives (and others) to review each of the uncompleted segments of interstate and to make recommendations to the legislature. Merritt Linzie, ADE for District 9, was the key MnDOT representative to the Commission. Testimony was taken from a variety of interested parties and a lot of MnDOT project managers explained their projects during the process. My own role was to write papers on the history of the interstate system at the national level and then a metropolitan interstate history paper. What was the impetus at the national level and what planning had gone on at the metropolitan level to foresee the need for and consequences of the system? Some folks questioned the validity of the need, but the Interstate Study Commission endorsed completing the system with some design caveats as I recall.

Legislation was also passed about this time to put restrictions on how wide some of the facilities could be. Most of that legislation still exists and is occasionally revisited when a legislator wants to reopen the issue of whether I-35E is St. Paul south of I-94 should allow trucks, for example. I-394 in then District 5 was also restricted in width.

 

That brings me to some particular segments I became most familiar with where a lot of controversy was involved. I-35E in Dakota County was opposed by some folks who were living near the long-planned corridor in Burnsville and there was also the Blackhawk Lake alignment issue. Should I-35E go through the lake (as previously planned) or around the lake? Eventually, the alignment around the lake was chosen to lessen environmental impacts. A new group supporting completion of interstates in Dakota County (and later I-35E in St. Paul), was formed led by John Kline. It was called the Urban Council on Mobility and pointed out how cities and counties had planned for, and made, land-use decisions based on completion of the major interstate arteries. However, some said the system encouraged “urban sprawl” so it became a lively discussion. Merritt Linzie and John Sandahl brought MnDOT experts to committee meetings as the design progressed.

 

The issues on I-494 in Dakota County revolved around whether I-494 was necessary given the presence of Trunk Highway 110 just a mile or so north of and parallel to the planned I-494 routing. Mayor Huber from Mendota Heights pointed out the different purposes of the routes and their support helped clear the way. (Incidentally, his son is the current mayor of Inver Grove Heights). Another huge issue involved planning the design of the I-494/I-35E/TH55 interchange complex. There was a five-level interchange proposal as well as a “dual-dual” parallel roadway design and eventually a third cloverleaf design that was eventually built. During the planning stage, the development of the area changed from having a huge Dayton Hudson regional shopping center and large regional hospital plus an industrial park to having only the latter. That lessened the need for capacity in the area. I-494 controversy also arose further east in the Sunfish Lake community and at Schmidt Lake in Inver Grove Heights. Sunfish Lake was a small, but well-to-do, largely rural oriented suburb and it did not want I-494 to cross through its limited area. The Schmidt Lake controversy involved filling in part of the westerly portion of the lake. Both issues were finally resolved after much study, discussion and some design modifications.

 

I-94 in Washington County was another controversial route. An I-94 Management Committee was formed to advise the commissioner on I-94 routing, interchanges and other matters. Merritt Linzie, ADE for District 9 and Dave Ekern, Preliminary Design Engineer and Project Manager were the staff to that committee. They brought in many department experts. The EIS for I-94 analyzed two alternative alignments plus the required “no-build” alternative. After many regular meetings, the committee recommended a northern alignment where most of the right of way had already been purchased when the construction process was halted for the EIS. The commissioner chose a routing on existing TH12, however, which caused a lot of controversy internally and externally. What did extensive public involvement count for if the commissioner (department) then went against their advice? Public and agency involvement were becoming key components of the project development process.

 

I developed an interchange study report that analyzed and recommended interchange locations after looking at various land-use and transportation factors. The Metropolitan Council had (and has) a Metropolitan Urban Services Area designated where urban services like roads and sewers, etc. are to be provided efficiently but beyond which they are to be more limited. Limiting interstate access via interchanges and service roads was to reduce “urban sprawl” beyond the MUSA line. A group called Residents Against Pavement Pollution (i.e. RAPP 94) arose to push for an alignment on existing TH12. This alignment was chosen as noted earlier by Commissioner Marzitelli.

 

I-35E in St. Paul had perhaps the largest degree of controversy of all the interstates in District 9. A group called Residents in Protest (i.e. RIP 35E) was formed to oppose I-35E construction in the Pleasant Avenue corridor south of I-94 to the Mississippi River. The city council had provided and withdrawn its support at various times because of neighborhood opposition. Powerful people on the bluff as well as folks below the hill in the West 7th neighborhood opposed a freeway, particularly one connected to I-94 near downtown. The FHWA, MnDOT, the Metropolitan Council and the city of St. Paul eventually agreed a direct connection alternative was to be the preferred alternative, but with major design modifications. George Latimer was mayor at the time and he was able to sway the council to get the decision approved. A parkway design was chosen, but a parkway did not have well defined criteria, so we made up our own. An extensive landscape plan was developed, large trucks were prohibited, a 45-mph speed limit was imposed, and a bike trail and thinner pavement became part of the plan. Lower noise walls could be built (along with thinner pavement) because truck stack noise would not be a factor.

 

Extensive design detailing at the north end to save the J. J. Hill house retaining wall (cantilevered section above I-35E) and to avoid United Hospital, as well as realigning Kellogg Boulevard to avoid a national register building in the southwest quadrant, was necessary. Aesthetic design elements were incorporated under Bob Winter’s project management.

 

A Shepard Warner Arch Penn Connector Road (SWAP) was never fully completed to handle the prohibited truck traffic. The Short Line (i.e. Ayd Mill Road) connection was not made pending further EIS studies by the city. That issue still remains controversial although Mayor Kelly did make a temporary connection decision a few years ago. I-35E decisions were challenged in court but MnDOT’s Commissioner Braun, Kermit McRae, FHWA, the Metropolitan Council and the city were united in confronting the lawsuit and prevailed in Judge Paul Magnuson’s court. A stipulated settlement was agreed to.

 

I-35E was eventually opened in 1990 ending a long-protracted planning, design and construction process. Dave Ekern, Merritt Linzie, Kermit McRae, Bob Winter and a host of other MnDOT, Metropolitan Council, consultant and city professionals all contributed to the project completion. I believe it was to become one of only two interstate projects where large trucks were not allowed. Many in the department did not like this result, but the stalemate had ended.

 

Completion of the interstate system was a huge team effort in MnDOT and was something most employees believed in despite the now well-understood impacts to the environment and neighborhoods. It was a legacy many of us are still proud of. The mobility, safety and accessibility benefits were huge as the interstate system was becoming a moving warehouse for freight and a personalized rapid transit guideway for people in their autos. Traffic continued to grow, however, and the 20-year design life forecasted is past.

 

Many MnDOT folks thought our work would decline after the interstate system was completed. That was hardly the case since many segments were in need of rebuilding including widening, new interchanges, provisions for transit and many aesthetic improvements. This became doubly difficult given the need to serve traffic during construction…so the work goes on and the challenges change. Operational improvements to use technology to maximize throughput and safety were emphasized. Luckily, MnDOT has always had, and continues to have, a very talented and dedicated staff to face these new challenges of what has been called the “greatest public works project in America’s history.” I was proud to be a part of that history in District 9, which is now history as well.

 

 

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