Officials: Coronavirus shouldn’t upend Minnesota road construction

Roads are devoid of traffic.
Interstate 94 is quiet with few cars on the road during typical morning rush hour time on on Thursday in Minneapolis. The Minnesota Department of Transportation says it expects to start work on road construction when the season begins in April.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

Minnesotans are sticking close to home due to coronavirus precautions — and that could be a good thing for road construction crews.

With fewer people on area highways, roadwork might happen more quickly. And with the snow gone in many places, the bulldozers and concrete mixers are about to move in.

April is typically the start of the spring-through-fall road building season. And so far, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is expecting that schedule to hold, said Jake Loesch, the agency’s top spokesperson.

“Some projects are already under way but many projects will begin in the next month here,” Loesch said.

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The full roster of work hasn’t been released yet. But some of the bigger projects include:

  • The I-35W MnPASS express lane construction between Roseville and Blaine

  • The Highway 5 redo around the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

  • Work on Interstate 494 in the south metro area

COVID-19 hasn’t produced many silver linings. But here’s one:

“If we can adjust or extend times when the contractors could for example close lanes down given the decrease in traffic volumes and less people on the roads, we may be able to extend those times and allow work to happen a little bit more,” Loesch said.

He said state officials are also working to figure out if they can accelerate projects lower on the to-do list.

“For some of our projects that are scheduled this year we have communicated with contractors about an ability to start early and looking at options dependent on weather and if contractors, for example, have the crews and materials to begin work ahead of schedule,” he said.

MnDOT is closely tracking travel patterns. Traffic volume has already fallen by 25 percent or more on many roads. That could be problematic later because fewer trips mean fewer gas fill-ups — and gas tax revenues that fuel road projects might take a hit.

Loesch said newer projects that haven’t been fully laid out could be harder to fast-track.

Some county and city offices are closed or on limited hours, making permits and variances harder to get. Timely inspections could also be harder to achieve if more government workers are told to stay home.

Contractors are still bidding on work and anticipating a busy season.

“From our industry’s perspective and everything I’m hearing from our members and the public contracting authorities is that we are proceeding unimpeded in the world of construction,” said Tim Worke, chief executive officer for the Associated General Contractors, the state’s largest commercial construction trade organization.

He said crews stand ready to begin road work. Construction companies are also watching school calendars to see if class disruptions could give them earlier access for building renovations or expansions that usually don’t start until June.

Worke said his organization is working with companies on strengthening safety protocols. They’re going to ditch shared water coolers, for one.

“Contractors are looking at things like having everyone have their own water source,” Worke said.

They’ll also take extra steps to monitor cleanliness of those portable bathrooms, change break time practices to discourage large groupings and, where possible, stagger shifts or stress a need to keep space between workers.

“Like everyone else is doing, using hand sanitizers and making sure that tools and equipment are wiped down regularly,” Worke said.

Some things won’t change: Drivers are still encouraged to be patient, slow down and give those road crews plenty of space.