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Opinion

Has Northbound I-35W Traffic Through South Minneapolis Gotten Worse Post-Reconstruction?

We asked the experts. We asked the people.

Google Maps|

It’s you. You’re stuck in traffic. Ahh!

How ungodly bad has traffic become along a major swath of northbound I-35W since the highway fully reopened in 2021? A spokesperson with the Minnesota Department of Transportation called my question "a bit subjective," and ya know what I say to you, the very prompt and helpful media relations pro Anne Meyer? You're right!

But consider the following anecdote, which I presented to MnDOT as "purely anecdotal"...

My various business wheelings/dealings take me from I-35W's 46th Street onramp to the University of Minnesota on a weekly basis. Beginning in 2017, that stretch of highway underwent a four-year reconstruction process. The average motorist, like yours truly, could be forgiven for expecting that massive reimagining* to improve traffic flow once completed. (*Meyer quibbled with this phrasing, stressing that the $240 million project was more focused on upgrading existing pavement and bridges, as well as adding the Lake Street Transit Station.)

In any event!

The commute I mentioned above, one that reliably lasted around 10 minutes in non-rush hour settings pre-'17, now exceeds 20 lurching minutes no matter the time of day. This is especially irksome to someone like me, a longtime traffic whiner who once described the general phenomenon to WCCO as "a slow-moving river of sadness." "You wanna get out of the slow river of sadness that guy mentioned!" 'CCO anchorman Frank Vascellaro exclaimed after the segment, more or less agreeing with me.

The apparent culprit is a long, confused line of vehicles attempting to merge onto the one-lane I-94W exit, which now unfortunately sits—effectively!—tucked between the downtown exits and the continuation of I-35W, with just a few blocks of walled-off separation.

Uh oh... this will become a de facto center-lane exit to I-94W in this, the year of our lord 2024.

Prior to reconstruction this offramp was situated as a purebred right-lane exit with surplus dedicated runaway and a long grassy divider, as my memory suggested and extensive Google Maps research confirms below.

Relax, it's 2013! Take your time. You're in the right lane for I-94W.

Returning to our premise: What the hell gives, is traffic through this corridor now caught in a perma-snarl situation?

MnDOT's Meyer couldn't specifically address my hyper-specific query, though she did confirm that I-35W traffic is booming post-pandemic. (We're so back, etc.)

"Traffic volumes are back to what they were, and slightly higher than before the pandemic across the metro," she says. "Typically, volumes go down during winter months, but that didn’t happen as often this past season due to dry/warmer conditions. The metro also used to see a dip in volumes between the morning and evening commute, that’s not happening as much anymore. The commute starts earlier and lasts longer, but, both in the morning and evening hours."

Meyer also provided this informative chart of metro highway traffic averages from 2020 through this past April—enjoy!

Having not sufficiently proven my (anecdotal, subjective) thesis, I turned to Racket readers to get a sense of whether northbound I-35W traffic has indeed become more nightmarish since the Obama era.

This top response does the most to fortify my argument, thus securing its placement above all the others:

"One thing I've noticed is it seems like the Northbound 35W to 94E & 94W exits have sort of... flip-flopped in backups?" writes @iamJustinBailey. "It used to be those two lanes that split to the right would be super backed up, but now it's that middle lane that splits left to 94W that is, and it gets LONG!"

Adds @cheycab, a professional driver of considerable local renown:

"Worse. Much like the Lafayette Bridge project, things are worse and more dangerous since the redo. 94WB and 35W NB back up dangerously and the cut across to Hennepin/Lyndale from the flyover is also more dangerous."

And here's the rest of the peanut gallery...

"Worse," writes @dontsweattt. "Prior to Lake Street getting demolished, I would zig zag S MPLS and pop out at Groveland Ave to get to 94W. Saves ~5-7min doing it this way cause its so congested on the 94W exit now."

"35W is a clogged drain that never clears, ever," writes @BrendanKennealy.

"It has gotten worse northbound starting at 35th street, and gotten much worse southbound at the crosstown interchange," writes @elvisomaro.

"Relatively new car owner here: Oh my god, have you people just been dealing with this forever? IT SUCKS!!!" writes Racket co-owner and new Subaru Baja owner @biketrouble.

"I'd call it a slow moving river of sadness," writes my wife @lucy_hawthorne.

"35W northbound does actually seem better, despite what feels like a larger number of cars," writes @smackthud. "I see fewer panic merge problems now, but signage is still awful. To me the biggest problem is Saturday gridlock on 62. Like WTF, its Saturday, how is there this much traffic all day?"

"I live off Diamond Lake Road - it's worse, and often at entirely random times of day outside of rush hour," writes @emily7m.

"Overall better," writes @whatyeswhy. "NB lines going into DT still exist, but flow is better. SB 35 to 62E is now terrible (but completely predictable). Thru Crosstown is night and day better."

"The same from what I can remember, but that was with pre pandemic downtown drivers in the mix," writes @WalkMinnesota. "I imagine it would be much worse if downtown had the same traffic it did before. Most of the daily traffic seems to be people trying to go on 94/35."

"It sucks. Just as bad," writes @TheSotaSwede.

"It feels worse at times," writes @mike55410. "The signage needs to be improved. There are often cars trying to get from the far right lanes to 94 west or downtown and that slows down the 35W and 94 east lanes. They should paint on the road like in some other cities."

"Still just a lot of people struggling to make the zipper merge happen," writes @fcchambers. "Instead choosing to hug the right lane for miles in advance of their exit creating unnecessary back up."

"Northbound from diamond lake road in the am is usually speedier," writes @marzybark. "There are tons of shenanigans going southbound in the evening. The 35th st merge is filled with stupid drivers driving to the bridge then stopping. The lake street exit from 35 W south honks up the commute."

"It is way worse," writes @nicoleschoep. "On my way to and from the office and I think about how traffic is always bad. It seems especially worse trying to go north on 35."

"Worse, especially northbound from 46th street to 94," writes @lindsayinMPLS. "It's a guarantee pretty much every day to sit in traffic somewhere along that stretch."

"It's just as awful and feels like a huge waste of money and time," writes @SerafinaScheel. "Cars are always lined up, and signage is inadequate. Makes me really apprehensive about what MnDOT is planning for I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul."

"I used to live in NE and frequently visit family in south, and now I live in south and frequently visit NE," writes @dream_salad. "I never take 35W northbound because it seems like it is always stopped, any time of day, any day of the week. Same-to-worse post reconstruction."

"A few weeks back I witnessed a car come in at full speed and rear end a car stuck among a typical backup," writes @NxNorthwoods. "Amazing it was just those two cars that took damage. This was between 36th and 46th exits."

"Just drove it. for 12:30pm on a Wednesday it's pretty terrible. Built for a different era, unfortunately," writes @gwld. "80% of the 35W lanes (3-4) dump into downtown and are just wasted space, while the 94 interchange and 35W further north split 2 lanes that are always backed up. Not good!"

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