A new normal for Twin Cities commuters

Driving over the new bridge
Paul Larson of Minneapolis drives over the new 35W bridge Thursday morning. He took the same route to work every day for 20 years, until the old bridge collapsed last August.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Before the bridge opened this morning, scores of drivers sat in their cars waiting to get across. Doug Dokken of Richfield wanted to be the first motorcyclist across the new bridge.

"This is a moment in history, the new bridge," he said. "After all the news media coverage of it over the year, I thought, 'Why not be at this end of it? The happy end of it.' So I thought I'd be here for it."

35W bridge opening
State Trooper Pat Miles lead the northbound traffic across the new Interstate 35W bridge when it opened at 5 a.m. this morning.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

At 5 a.m. a parade of emergency vehicles performed what's called a rolling stop across the 10-lane bridge. The procession included state, county and local police cars and other first responders, who drove slowly across the north and southbound lanes.

After the ceremonial drive, Kevin Gutknecht, the MnDOT bridge project spokesman, says traffic began to flow freely across the bridge.

"There was an awful lot of traffic out on 35W this morning for 5 a.m.," he said. "It was good to see. Good to see."

The real test of how the reconstructed bridge affected traffic came a few hours later, as commuters like Paul Larson hit the road.

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Motorocylist Doug Dokken
Motorcyclist Doug Dokken was first in line to cross the northbound side of the new Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. Dokken is a retired air traffic control worker from Richfield. He was riding his BMW R1200GS.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"Here we go," Larson said as climbed into his car.

Every morning for the last 20 years, Larson has crossed the 35W bridge during his commute from northeast Minneapolis to his job in Bloomington.

He takes a different route home because of afternoon traffic patterns. Larson says he and his wife frequently used the bridge to get to south Minneapolis to visit friends.

"You take something like that for granted," Larson said, until last Aug. 1, when the old bridge collapsed.

"The next morning it's like, 'OK, I've been going this way for 20 years, now what do I do?' That started a couple months of exploring detours and alternate routes."

Larson says he actually started finding alternate routes just before the bridge came down, to avoid the construction on the bridge which reduced the number of lanes.

Bridge traffic
Traffic began moving this moving over the new I-35W bridge. The bridge was opened to traffic at 5 a.m. this morning.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

Larson pulled onto 35W southbound, and reflected on how, had things been a little different, he or his wife could've been a victim of the collapse.

And then, after a few minutes of driving, the road widens out into the new 10-lane span.

"Here it is," Larson said. "Oh, it looks good. It's wider. I gotta admit, I did have a few butterflies in my stomach."

The journey over the bridge takes maybe 10 seconds, but it's already saved Larson several minutes of commute time compared to the detour route he used to take.

"It looks good. I gotta admit, I did have a few butterflies in my stomach."

Larson says a few months back he calculated how much longer he spent in the car while the bridge was out.

"I figured it was at least 10 minutes per commute extra, five days a week, over 14 months," he said. "My rough, public school math figured it was about, at least a week's worth of time over the last year extra, taking detours and alternate routes."

Larson adds that also has meant extra wear and tear on his car and more money for gasoline.

Despite a few minor detours due to construction work on the Crosstown highway, Larson makes it to work 15 minutes before he has to punch in.

There's evidence that Paul Larson was not the only commuter with a smoother ride to work this morning.

MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht
Kevin Gutknecht is communications director for MnDOT's Interstate 35W bridge reconstruction project. He watched the first rush hour traffic pass over the newly opened bridge this morning.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

MnDOT traffic management spokesman Tom Heininger says traffic moved relatively quickly across the bridge. Heininger says the same was true for traffic on other arteries near the bridge.

"Looking at other roads, especially 280 which took the brunt of the traffic due to the closure of the bridge, that was moving very well today," Heiniger said. "Speeds were near the posted. There was no congestion, especially when you get down toward the lower part near the 94 and University area. That was flowing very well today."

But it may be too early to say morning rush hour traffic will always be this smooth.

Heininger says without a count, MnDOT won't be able to assess the volume of cars on the road today.

He says traffic over and around the bridge may have been lighter on opening day, because some commuters aren't rushing back to their old routes.