Officials called for public input in a Highway 13 study they hope will guide decision-making about the roadway’s future design while balancing needs for mobility and access to local Savage.

John Solberg with the Minnesota Department of Transportation said the department plans to launch a study of the highway and its connecting roads that could take two or three years. But the funding isn’t entirely pinned down at this point, and a consulting firm hasn’t been hired.

An estimated price tag will become available once the scope of the study is determined, but Savage City Engineer Seng Thongvanh said the city plans to commit around $65,000.

Rapid growth in Scott County is expected to continue over the next decade, leading to higher traffic volumes on Highway 13, Solberg said.

“We are projecting already for the next 20 years that traffic volumes at every major roadway in the metro will be congested — bottom line,” he said. Solberg served as the south area manager for the metro district with MnDOT for four years before recently transitioning to the environmental stewardship department.

Thongvanh said that keeping access points into downtown Savage poses challenges when considering how to improve mobility on Highway 13.

A congested roadway could deter customers from businesses along Highway 13 just as much as removing spotlights that provide convenient access points— it’s a “double-edged sword,” he said.

Experts at the state level closely consider how lower-level roadways impact higher-level roadways, Solberg said. In this case, he said that means analyzing how Highway 13 improvements could create issues on Interstate 35 West. The state focuses on safety and mobility, while additional factors come into play for city staff, such as land use and economic health.

“There are competing interests,” Solberg said. “The hope with this study is that we are blending those interests.”

Finding solutions

For business owners along Highway 13, there’s a lot riding on the changes that could be made — the study will include several opportunities for public input. Input from residents and business owners is crucial, Thongvanh said, and could impact the direction of Highway 13 improvements.

With average daily traffic counts on Highway 13 approaching 60,000 cars — a volume normally seen on freeways — Thongvanh expects that some recommendations on the table will include removing stoplights and limiting access into Savage.

“I think MnDOT also understands that we need to keep the downtown viable and we need access to get to those business, and I think they are really engaged and open,” he said.

The highway runs roughly east to west between Highways 77 and 169, crossing the interstate in between and running alongside Burnsville and Savage. It also branches southward in Savage toward Prior Lake.

Anne Masis, president of the Savage Chamber of Commerce, said the issue is a double-edged sword — businesses need drivers to have access to downtown, for example, but congestion on the start-and-stop road is also a problem for them.

“We do need to look for a long-term solution,” she said Friday, adding the problem won’t go anywhere with the area’s continued growth. “That’s just the name of the game.”

According to Solberg, several studies have been conducted on Highway 13 since the early 2000s through joint ventures between the department, cities and the counties. While the previous studies have looked at sections of the roadway, the new study will provide a more in-depth look at the overall road network.

“It’s a hybrid project where we are combining long-range planning and project initiation,” he said.

In 2017, a design study funded by the City of Savage and Scott County created plans for an interchange in the area of Highway 13 and Dakota Avenue that would bring Highway 13 over Dakota. The project is slated to begin construction in 2022. These designs will be evaluated in the new study to determine how well they fit into the bigger picture, Thongvanh said.

Rising traffic counts on the Highway 13 corridor is inevitable, Solberg said, so improvements center around “right-sizing” the system — in other words, making improvements in affordable steps that don’t waste infrastructure.

The process of making improvements can become more complex when multiple agencies share authority over a roadway, Solberg said. For example, any changes made to an intersection along the Highway 13 corridor in Savage would require the approval of MNDOT and the Savage City Council. The same complexities come into play for county roads.

“Certainly one of the things we know is Highway 13 carries a high level of freight,” Solberg said “That’s been documented in the past, but recently the department and the MET Council completed a study showing the highest freight corridors in the metro and 13 is one of those.”

At any given moment, around five to nine percent of the vehicles on Highway 13 are commercial trucks, Thongvanh said. This number can be as high as 18 percent.

Solberg said that drivers who feel frustrated about delays on Highway 13 aren’t wrong. However, the conflicting question he asks is whether or not those delays meet engineering standards for an acceptable delay in the context of the entire road network.

“It is our major roadway through Savage, and sometimes it’s hard to get people involved,” Thongvanh said. “But I think MnDOT, Scott County as well as the city would really appreciate the public being involved in what the solution is there.”

Christine Schuster is a reporter for the Savage Pacer.

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