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Revealed: Why traffic cones on I-394 have caused gridlock for Minneapolis commuters

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If you've been commuting westbound along Interstate 394 from downtown Minneapolis this week then chances are you've been stuck in traffic.

The dreaded orange cones have appeared on the road from downtown to just past the I-94 interchange, at one point reducing the freeway from 2 lanes to 1 just yards after it shrank from 3 to 2.

Particularly frustrating has been the sight of a closed lane with no apparent work going on, causing havoc for commuters who have been backed up to the 3rd Ave. N. entrance during rush hour.

The reason for the closure, the Minnesota Department of Transportation told BringMeTheNews, is that the MnDOT's maintenance crews have been replacing an overhead sign near the interchange with I-94, which has involved the excavation and re-installation of concrete footing, drainage and barriers in the median.

Exacerbating the problem is that the lane closure has had to start farther away from where the sign is being replaced than usual, which MnDOT says is to give drivers enough time to react given that the sign being replaced is on the down-side of the I-394 bridge.

The good news? The closure should be lifted Friday. The bad news? Intermittent lane closures will start again on Monday and continue through the week, as more work – including concrete pours – is required.

It's not the only sign replacement work that's caused problems this week – contractors began a "short-term" project on the Highway 55 Mendota Bridge in the south metro Wednesday.

Unfortunately, the timing of the work didn't go down well, and caused horrendous backups.

Why do we see empty road construction sites?

The oft-repeated joke about Minnesota having two seasons – winter and road construction – seems to be proved every summer.

And this one will be no different, with several major construction projects underway that are affecting some of the metro area's most vital arterial roads, including the Highway 100 project in St. Louis Park, the ongoing work on I-35E in St. Paul and I-494 in the west metro, and several road projects affecting traffic in downtown Minneapolis.

Adding to drivers' irritations as they wait, as in the case of I-394, is the sight of empty road construction sites at a time when road and lane closures are taking a major toll on their daily lives.

Bobbie Dahlke, a spokeswoman for MnDOT, said one of the reasons for this is that road construction is a sequential process, saying it's often the case that "we cannot do something until we have done something else."

"If there's an area that's not being worked on, it could be that we are waiting to get there, or it could be that's the next step in the process."

Another reason, generally towards the end of construction projects, is that lanes will remain closed to allow the concrete time to "cure" – which Dahlke said is something I-494 users will notice when rehabilitation work is finished over the coming months.

Why isn't construction on vital roads round-the-clock?

Given how crucial many of these roads are to the function of Twin Cities traffic movement (congestion levels were at 21.1 percent in 2014, up from 19.9 percent in 2013), an argument could be made for round-the-clock construction.

This is sometimes seen on major arterial roads in Greater Minnesota, but is more difficult in built-up areas because of restrictions placed by local governments.

Cities in the metro area tend to restrict the hours that crews can work because residents live close by and authorities want to limit noise pollution at unsociable hours, though they can grant requests to extend working hours.

Some of the restrictions in place at the moment are:

  • I-494 (across 3 cities) – work time is "sun up to sun down."
  • Highway 100 (St. Louis Park) – work can be carried out from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. "Quiet work" allowed 6 to 7 a.m.
  • Eagan has a "sun up to sun down" policy.
  • Work in Minneapolis is restricted to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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