Commuters who travel in Interstate 494 through Plymouth know to expect backups every morning and every afternoon as the highway drops from three lanes to two, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation has a creative solution.
MnDOT officials say they know the traffic congestion needs to be addressed, so they've proposed using the shoulder as a temporary driving lane for use during high-traffic times.
Just a few years ago, officials got rid of the shoulder on Highway 100 to add a third lane through St. Louis Park, and that solved a lot of the problems in that area.
The stretch of I-494 that officials are now focused on is used by 100,000 vehicles every day, and soon the Metro Transit Buses go zipping by on the shoulder may not be the only ones.
For the past decade, MnDOT has been making room for cars by adding a third lane on I-494.
"It started in Eden Prairie, worked through Minnetonka and then Plymouth was really supposed to be next," explained Plymouth Mayor Kelli Slavik.
Yet, when the priorities shifted, Slavik said the traffic bottleneck just moved farther down the road.
"I think it's just a natural occurrence when there's just that much traffic trying to squeeze down into two lanes -- people trying to merge," Slavik said. "It's not a safe situation and it just creates congestion."
"I hear 'Congestion, Fish Lake' every day on the radio," said MnDOT's Scott Pedersen.
Engineers say they are well aware of the problem, but starting in the spring of 2014, they will introduce commuters to a new term -- "dynamic shoulder."
It's kind of like opening an extra check-out lane when a store gets busy. When traffic is moving slowly, the space will remain a shoulder -- but it can convert to a driving lane when things slow down.
"In the off-peak period, even if there was a crash say in the left lane, you could open up the right shoulder so people could maintain two lanes of traffic during the incident and provide room for the emergency vehicles," Pedersen explained. "It gives us a lot of flexibility."
The project will be combined with existing plans to resurface the 5-mile stretch of interstate between Highway 55 and Fish Lake Road. The two-year project is expected to cost about $34 million.
MnDOT called it a temporary solution, adding that a long-term fix could be decades away.
"The dynamic shoulder is not a perfect solution. It's not the solution we've been working for," said Slavik. "We've been working for a general-purpose, third lane on 494 -- but it's something. We'll take it. We'll work with it. We'll make it work. Anything to relieve congestion and make the roads safer."
In the long-term, MnDOT is looking at adding a MNPass lane stretching from Rogers to the airport, but that could be a decade off.