I-35W bridge collapse could produce U of M traffic headaches

Washington and Harvard
The intersection at Washington Avenue and Harvard Street is one of the places where cars get hung up.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

The four lanes of Washington Avenue are a traffic obstacle course through the heart of the University of Minnesota campus. After breezing over the Mississippi River, drivers--even on the best days--get bogged down on Washington Avenue. as the right lane is occupied by stopping buses and parked cars and the other lane is hobbled by cars waiting to turn left.

Dozens of pedestrians fill the crosswalks. The 35W bridge collapse is putting added pressure on Washington Avenue. as drivers downtown seek alternate routes over the river. The road will be tested further on Tuesday when more than 50,000 students and a full faculty contingent turn out for the first day of class.

"They're already complaining. People I've talked to have described anecdotally how their commutes are affected," says David Levinson, a civil engineering professor at the U.

Civil engineering professor David Levinson oversees the 'Transportationist' blog. Even before school starts, he's seeing driving tie-ups.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Levinson also writes the Transportationist blog on transportation related issues and research. He notes the bridge collapse isn't the only commuting challenge on campus.

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"The problem is not simply that the bridge fell down. It's that there's also this simultaneous construction on the other end of campus. That's creating a significant number of changes in traffic on campus," he says.

Construction on a new on-campus football stadium has led to torn-up streets and the loss of hundreds of parking spaces. Kathleen O'Brien, Vice President of University Services pleads with commuters to think ahead before getting behind the wheel and driving toward campus.

"The message the university would want to send to the U community and the larger community is it would be prudent not to use the right of way through the university in the next couple of weeks."

It would be prudent not to use the right of way through the university in the next couple of weeks.

University police will be on hand to direct traffic at bottlenecks if necessary. Officials are also talking with vendors, restaurants and even the post office to time deliveries to off peak driving times. The university is moving money from its parking fund to reduce the price of the staff bus pass, according to O'Brien.

"This is really since the bridge collapse that we've gone back and looked at our ridership and we really believe that the university--as every other employer--has to be part of the solution to reduce congestion. And even though the university has a good record using means of using methods other than cars we want to get even better at that."

The university has also added 1500 parking spaces on the state fairgrounds where people can take a shuttle to Minneapolis. There are additional shuttle areas along Como and University Avenues. Officials hope those will also help move cars away from campus.

Already, two thirds of commuters get to the Minneapolis campus in some way other than driving alone in a car. Most of those walk. The next most popular way is by bus. U of M students have logged more than two million MetroTransit rides so far this year. Officials will be watching to see how the first few days go in case any changes are warranted, according to MetroTransit's Bob Gibbons.

"We have planned to add more buses and will on our key local routes and express routes to the U. We'll also be holding some buses in reserve so we can respond quickly should be see overloading or overcapacity on those buses that serve the U."

MetroTransit has also changed the cards students use when they board buses, Gibbons says. The new smart cards are quicker than the old passes and will hopefully cut down on backups at busy bus stops along Washington Avenue.

However difficult traffic is during the start of classes, university officials expect traffic problems to improve in a couple weeks as new students and other commuters adjust to new traffic patterns without the bridge.