The I-35W bridge in Minneapolis used to carry a heavy volume of traffic, about 100,000 vehicles a day.
MnDOT has rerouted that traffic to Highway 280, a 4- to 5-mile stretch of north-south roadway that connects to I-94 and I-35W in Roseville. MnDOT's Kevin Walker says before the reroute, 280 had an average traffic count of 57,000 vehicles a day.
"But with this added traffic, I'm sure those traffic volumes will go up," he said.
If you do the math, rerouted traffic could nearly triple on 280. MnDOT has removed all stoplights on 280 to ease the traffic flow and make the old highway a freeway with limited access. Still, it's a four-lane highway that will try to accommodate eight lanes of Interstate traffic.
Walker says commuter habits will change during this reroute in ways that could mitigate the impact on 280. He says commuters tend to break down in thirds. He says a third of people follow the detour route that MnDot suggests.
"And a third of the people usually find their own way around, they usually travel through city streets, and we never recommend that, in that we always keep them on the highway system," Walker said. "And then one-third of the people usually go away. But I don't know about this instance, I don't know whether that third of people are going to go away. So I have a feeling it will be a bit more congested, and I'm sure people are going to have to have a little more patience."
Walker says morning and evening rush hours on Thursday were relatively smooth. Highway 280 was remarkably wide open making the thoroughfare easily passable.
“We're going to be asking citizens to very aggressively look at the transportation options into the city.”Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak
But commuters like this woman who called Minnesota Public Radio, but didn't leave her name, say traffic is not so great in other areas especially near the collapse site on Washington Avenue.
"It's bumper to bumper, and traffic is not a-OK," she said.
The federal government offered to help with the city's new traffic problems. U.S Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters was in Minneapolis yesterday to make a pledge of financial assistance.
"I am making an initial distribution of $5 million from the department," she said. "This money will be available to help restore the traffic flow, to clear the debris, to set up detours and to begin the repair work."
Officials with various agencies are urging drivers to be smart about commuting, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak says he may ask some of the largest employers downtown to minimize trucks driving through the corridor.
"So we're going to be asking citizens to very aggressively look at the transportation options into the city. We are going to be calling on the employers to help us aggressively move people to alternate transportation modes. We greatly appreciate people's creative thinking and different ways to move in and out of the city," Rybak said.
Metro Transit has taken 25 buses out of retirement to anticipate higher demand. But spokesman Bob Gibbons says they only needed about half the extra buses Thursday because traffic was light. Traffic experts say that's largely because of a shock effect from the disaster that kept commuters at home.
Gibbons says he believes more people will start taking public transportation to handle the work-arounds until the bridge is rebuilt. He says the long-term Metro Transit plan includes a commitment to added capacity in the fleet, while they also build bus lanes on the shoulders of the 280 re-route.
"Can we sustain that? Not for 30, 60 or 90 days, but can we sustain it for however long it takes to reconstruct the bridge? And that's the planning effort that's underway now. What resources do we need and how can we communicate that need to the state and to the federal level to see what levels of assistance we might derive from that?" Gibbons said.
The 280 reroute may face a couple of challenges in coming weeks. Next Monday may be the first, when workers who took the end of this week off, or were told to work from home, return to the office.
Then, after Labor Day may come a second test. That's when summer vacations will be over, and traffic is sure to increase, as it does every year.
Add 50,000 University of Minnesota students beginning the fall semester, and early September may tell whether the 280 reroute can handle the load.