Delays loom as municipal consent falters for Rice/I-694 interchange project


courtesy of Ramsey County • With long-sought funding finally in place, Ramsey County is set to rebuild the Rice Street bridge and interchange at Interstate 694, with construction work starting as soon as the end of the year. However, three cities, Little Canada, Shoreview and Vadnais Heights converge on the site, and Vadnais Heights has yet to give its municipal consent for the project over concerns about its impact, putting the county’s timeline into question.

file photo • Built in 1958, the Rice Street bridge over Interstate 694 has long been targeted for replacement to improve traffic movement through the corridor and to improve bike and pedestrian safety.

Last summer, elected-officials celebrated after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bonding bill that included $20.5 million for Ramsey County to rebuild the Rice Street bridge and interchange at Interstate 694.

Replacing the obsolete bridge has been a goal of area mayors, legislators and others for decades, but they may have to wait a bit longer.

The nearly 60-year-old bridge sits at the confluence of Little Canada, Shoreview and Vadnais Heights, and all three cities, which will contribute cash to the estimated $31.1 million project, need to give the go-ahead to Ramsey County in the form of municipal consent for work to proceed.

Though Little Canada and Shoreview both voted this month to give the county their blessings for the project, the Vadnais Heights City Council has yet to do so, and its unclear when, if at all, that it will.

The county, for the past couple of years, has had plans at the ready should state funding, along with already secured federal funding, all line up. The county’s plans feature three roundabouts, which will replace four intersections currently on Rice where it meets the interstate.

“The city council is not enthusiastic about the roundabout concept and I do not foresee approval any time soon,” Vadnais Heights City Administrator Kevin Watson said in a Jan. 18 email. He also said the council has concerns about two city businesses, including the near 80-year-old Vadnais Inn, that will be eliminated by the project, as well as potential congestion and backups due to the roundabout design.

Beth Engum, the Ramsey County engineer who is managing the project, presented the plans to the Vadnais Heights council Dec. 19 at a public hearing on municipal consent. 

Though the city has 90 days from the date of that hearing to make its decision on consent — that puts the deadline at March 19 — Engum said in an interview that the county had requested cities provide municipal consent by the end of January in order for early construction work on the project to begin late this year.

Vadnais Heights has a city council meeting scheduled for Feb. 7, and Engum said that’s the latest that municipal consent could be granted for everything to stay on track.

“We’re in jeopardy of not keeping our schedule if we don’t get it then,” she said, saying it would shift the start of construction from the end of 2018, to late 2019.

Though Watson said the Vadnais Heights council may use all of its allotted 90 days to make its decision on municipal consent, he held the door open for an earlier decision. 

“The city council may consider it on Feb. 7th,” he said. “The city and county are in constant communication, so there is always the chance there could be a resolution by then.”

If Vadnais Heights does not grant municipal consent, Engum said there is an appeals process the county would follow.

“We’re not going to abandon the project,” she said. “We feel very strongly there’s a need and we have been working towards this for a decade.”

What about the 

roundabouts?

The plan for the rebuilt Rice Street bridge and interchange, specifically its roundabouts, has long been met with skepticism. 

Some 200 people showed up for an open house about the project last February — crowds that big are not typical for such events — largely drawn there out of concerns about the circular traffic feature that is still a rarity in the metro area.

Engum, at various presentations to city councils, has said the roundabout design was chosen for its safety — roundabouts force drivers to slow down and pay attention to what they’re doing — and because the plans, based on modeling, will be able to handle increases in traffic, expected to jump by 33 percent through the corridor by 2040.

In recent years, backups have been a common sight coming down the exit ramps from Rice Street, onto the interstate.

The lack of enthusiasm for the roundabout design was acknowledged at the Dec. 10 Little Canada City Council meeting, during which council members voted unanimously to give the city’s municipal consent.

“I don’t think anyone was initially thrilled with the roundabout concept,” said City Administrator Joel Hanson. “But when you look at the data as far as improved efficiency of traffic flow, speed, safety aspects, it becomes a no-brainer.”

Council member Tom Fischer more than pumped the brakes — albeit before voting in favor of municipal consent — saying he wouldn’t be proud of the project, needed or not.

“I’m not drinking as much Kool-Aid on that. Keeping the big picture in mind, this interchange needs to be reconstructed, desperately,” he said. “I give my support to this because of the big picture.”

During the Jan. 2 meeting at which the Shoreview City Council unanimously granted its municipal consent, the discussion revolved around questions of bicycle and pedestrian safety with the new design, which is slated to be much more friendly to those traveling on foot and by bike than what’s currently there.

Mayor Sandy Martin, who made her fair share of trips to the Legislature over the years to lobby for funding for the project, said she’s worried about pedestrians and bikers crossing the highway entrance ramps, what with drivers paying more attention to navigating the roundabouts than to pedestrians.

She said it will fall to those making the crossings to be more aware.

“I think this is as good as we can expect,” she said.

 

For more information about the project, go to www.sehinc.com/online/rice694.

 


– Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. 

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