Who wouldn't want to drive faster on a wider freeway?
Adding another lane to Interstate Highway 94 between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities may seem like an obvious solution to the traffic backups that often frustrate motorists.
But engineers and transportation experts say it isn't that simple to ease the flow of vehicles in one area without causing problems somewhere else. Adding another lane is not only expensive, it wouldn't solve the congestion and could even make the bottleneck near the Twin Cities worse.
"If we just add a lane out here, we're going to be dumping traffic into a freeway system that's stopped," said Terry Humbert, assistant district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation's District 3, which includes St. Cloud.
Factor in varying traffic levels along the I-94 corridor and the uncertainty of population and driving trends, and predicting the future can be tricky for transportation planners.
If a six-lane I-94 isn't likely to happen in the near future, are there other options? Experts said it would be more practical to consider multiple fixes, possibly including improvements to access ramps, public transit and a managed lane that shifts some of the cost to motorists.
"I think it is important to consider that this whole area is a puzzle, and that more lanes is a possible solution. It's not the only solution," MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle told the St. Cloud Times Editorial Board in late September.
Traffic isn't steady
Traffic varies widely along the corridor, with the worst congestion building closest to the Twin Cities and backing up past Rogers to Albertville during weekday rush hours and summer weekends.
Traffic counts range from about 40,000 vehicles per day between St. Cloud and Clearwater to almost double that — 75,000 vehicles a day — close to Rogers.
Part of the congestion is due to seasonal recreational drivers. MnDOT's data show a big difference between summer and winter traffic on I-94 — a daily average of 32,211 vehicles in January near Clearwater compared with 51,535 in August.
The worst backups occur on the southeast end near the junction of I-494 and I-694, said John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory and an adjunct assistant civil engineering professor at the University of Minnesota.
"That's where the congestion begins, and it spreads all the way backward to Rogers," he said.
So would adding a lane improve the situation? Hourdos says no, because it would simply bring vehicles more quickly to the bottleneck.
Expanding I-94 southeast of Rogers is a tougher proposition because it would require the approval of the Metropolitan Council, which has jurisdiction over transportation projects within the seven-county Twin Cities metro area.
In an email response to the Times, council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said her agency places a priority on lower-cost projects with high benefits rather than major new expansions, and it promotes solutions such as ramp meters and toll lanes when possible.
On I-94 outside the Twin Cities, "It appears this corridor does not experience the extent and duration of congestion" as other metro freeways, Kollodge wrote, although it does experience a higher level of seasonal weekend recreational traffic.
"As MnDOT suggests, resources for such an expansion may be difficult to come by, and there may be more cost-effective solutions to addressing congestion on the corridor," Kollodge wrote.
With population growth along the corridor slowing, plus other demographic changes, traffic counts that were once rising sharply have leveled.
The populations of Sherburne and Wright counties, for example, grew by almost 40 percent during the 2000s. Cities such as St. Michael and Albertville were among the fastest growing in the state. But since the housing market crash in 2007, the growth of those exurbs has slowed.
There's another demographic change at work: In Minnesota and across the nation, people are driving less.