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Photo Tours, Travelogues, And Random Topics

Odd Twin Cities — The Highway Edition

A Photo Tour Of Odd, Unusual, And Weird
Sites On Twin Cities Area Highways

Introduction Here are a collection of odd, unusual, and interesting locations along the highways of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul metro area that I have stumbled over in the past 20 years since I have moved to the Twin Cities. If you know of other similar stories or things in the area that are just plain odd, please let me know.

Note—click on each photo to see the full size image.

Short Street Lights Short Street Lights If you look closely, you will see that the street lights in this photo are abnormally short. Some are attached directly to the top of the traffic lights, while others are barely taller than the traffic that flows through this area where MN-62 and MN-55 meet. The reason for the short lights is that runway 4/22 was extended by 2700 feet northeast towards this intersection. At the same time, the existing ground level intersection was converted to be a freeway interchange. In addition, the new light rail system crosses this intersection with a flyover bridge. So, the combination of traffic higher up in the air and lower flying aircraft lead to the installation of short street lamps.

Virgin Prairie Grass This small patch of weeds is located just north of MN-62 and west of MN-55 (near the airport). Why is this area fenced off? And why is it not mowed like the rest of the grass in the area? Well, it turns out that this is the last patch of virgin prairie grass left in the 7 county metro area. It has never been plowed or otherwise disturbed. The fence is there to keep people out. At one time, the Crosstown freeway was actually diverted from its planned course as to not disturb this land. A new interchange was built between MN-62 and MN-55 which allowed MN-62 to built much straighter, and still not require any of the virgin prairie land.

Freeway Walkway Freeway Walkway Freeway Walkway Heading either direction on I-94 in Saint Paul just west of Snelling Ave, there is what appears to be a pedestrian walkway crossing the freeway. That wouldn't be too much of a surprise since there are a number of such walkways over nearly every twin cities freeway.

If you look closely, you will see a few odd things about this walkway. First off, it looks like the railroad bridge is sitting right on the walkway, so there is no way to walk across this structure. Second, the ends of the walkway are at a sheer concrete wall, so there is no way to walk onto the walkway. Third, the hand rails are only about a foot tall, far too short for humans. Finally, there are no tracks in snow visible in the 3rd picture.

One theory is that this was a former walkway, but it was taken out of service when the railroad bridge was built. Good theory, but it turns out that this rail corridor far predates the freeway. Some of the more creative natives claim that this is a passageway between parallel universes. The explanation that is most likely to be correct is that this is a carrier for electrical cables across the freeway, and it has been set-up this way since it was built. Or maybe it is for very small sized wildlife to cross the freeway. We may never know.

MSP Walkway MSP Walkway While on the subject of walkways to nowhere, another such walkway has recently appeared over I-494 in Bloomington near the MSP Airport. This walkway is odd in that it doesn't have ramps or steps leading up to either end of the walkway. Plus it has a vertical jump in the middle—that isn't going to work very well for people in wheelchairs.

As it turns out, this is a structure for supporting the ILS (instrument landing system) antennas for the new north-south runway. The new runway ends very close to the north side of the I-494 freeway just east of the 24th Ave interchange. In fact, a number of buildings on the south side of I-494 had to be torn down because they were in the flight path. This includes the Sheraton Hotel, Super America gas station, the Doubletree Hotel, and the Mall Of America Grand Hotel. In fact, the Doubletree was only two years old when it was demolished.

Overhead Sign Gantry Overhead Sign Gantry These curious boxes mounted on a pedestrian overpass over I-35W at 73rd Avenue in Richfield has been a topic of discussion by Roads Scholars for many years. They have been installed at this location for as long as I can remember, at least since the late 1980s. These boxes have a clear window, behind which appears to sit a camera. There are six total, three pointed north, and three pointed south on the opposite side of the bridge. The sensors only cover the southbound lanes, and only the right two lanes. An aerial photo shows that there are lines painted across the highway, three on each side of the bridge.

There is a debate whether or not this system is still in use. MN-DOT did not add more sensors to cover the additional traffic lane that was built in the early 2000s. At the same time, they did replace the lines across the highway when new pavement was installed.

The best guess is that this is an early traffic speed sensor. It likely was experimental since I have only found one in the metro area. MN-DOT does measure traffic flows in real time, and does have traffic cameras deployed, but those systems do not use this hardware. Anyone have any more details about what these things are?

Exit 20 Located on I-35W just north of the Mississippi River crossing, we see BGS (big green signs) for Exit 19 and Exit 21. So, hey, what happened to Exit 20? There are a number of partially constructed ramps and places where bridges appear to be planned. Did Exit 20 ever exist? Was Exit 20 abducted by aliens?

The answer is that Exit 20 was to be the now canceled Interstate I-335 north loop around downtown Minneapolis. The project went so far as to have over 90 percent of the right of way purchased and cleared, and construction actually began here on I-35W. If you drive through the area, you can still see some of the ghost ramps.

Community opposition lead to I-335 being canceled. Some of the land has since been turned over to housing developers, while other land is sitting vacant or used as parks. For many years, the cancellation of I-335 was hailed as the first victory against highways. But with pressure mounting on the Lowry Tunnel and huge traffic delays, many people are starting to think that I-335 should have been built after all.

Note—road scholar Adam ‘Froggie’ Froehlig wrote to tell me that my description is all wet. First off, Minnesota freeway exits are numbered by mile, not by sequence. There is no need for an exit 20 just because there is exit 19 and exit 21. Exit 20 was, however, planned for I-335. In addition, the way I-335 was designed, it is unlikely that it would have helped overall traffic flow in the downtown area, especially not for the Lowry Tunnel. As of 2007, MN-DOT is considering using the ghost ramps to build an interchange for Johnson Street.

I-35E For some reason, every road project in the twin cities area has some screwball problem. If it isn't right angle corners and lane drops, it is ramp meters and silly speed limits. As far as that goes, I-35E has it all. Called the "practice freeway" by the locals, it was held up in court for many years. To get the project moving, MN-DOT agreed to put a 45 MPH speed limit on the freeway.

That is one of the problems with our form of government—decisions by a few can be imposed on the many. Now, everyone suffers because a few nimbys were afraid to drive on 55 MPH roads. Studies have shown that most people ignore speed limits and drive the speed where they are comfortable. That is about 60 MPH on this road, and that is where most people drive. Heavy patrolling by the State Patrol still only catches about 1 in a 100,000 speeders.

MN-55 If you think the 45 MPH freeway is bad, here is the 40 MPH freeway, MN-55 (Hiawatha Ave) Freeway heading southeast out of downtown Minneapolis. A ten year letter writing campaign recently resulted in increasing this speed up from the unthinkable 35 MPH. Putting a 35 MPH speed limit on an 8 lane freeway should be a criminal act, and those that do it should be made to pay the price in the criminal justice system.

The speed limit increase, which was opposed by the City of Minneapolis, was somewhat of an anticlimax. The new light rail system has seriously broken the traffic light system from Lake Street to the Minnehaha Tunnel. The lights go red any time a train is in sight, and right combination of trains can keep the lights red for up to five minutes at a time. MN-DOT worked for months on the problem, then called in consultants. The verdict is that little can be done given the train running so close to the highway. Now I am sure that some people are wishing that the Hiawatha Freeway was built after all.

Ayd Mill Road And if you can have a 40 MPH freeway, why not have a freeway to nowhere? This is the Ayd Mill Road freeway/expressway. It was built in a now unused industrial and rail corridor in southern Saint Paul. It was to have been a short-cut from I-35E to the Midway and University areas. Local opposition resulted in the north end never being finished, and the ramps on the south end were never opened. Mayor after mayor kowtowed to the locals, until we recently got a mayor with a bit of cojones.

The idea was to open Ayd Mill Road, and try three different configurations. Studies showed that Ayd Mill Road had a significant impact. It took cars off of local streets, it reduced travel time, it reduced pollution, it took traffic load off of I-35E, and most of all, it reduced noise in the neighborhoods. The nimbys were horrified that everything they had predicted turned out to be totally 100 percent wrong.

MN-DOT and the City of St Paul are now considering a number of alternatives for a permanent configuration to Ayd Mill Road, including the connection to I-94.

Ayd Mill Road Stop Sign Here is the stop sign for no apparent reason on northbound Ayd Mill Road. There is no cross street. There is no cross traffic. There is no place for oncoming traffic to turn, either right or left. This stop sign has absolutely no purpose, other than to make people stop. It serves no traffic or highway purpose. All it does is punish people for using the road.

In watching this stop sign for 15 minutes on a Friday afternoon, I found that nearly every car slowed slightly and then ran the stop sign. It is silly ideas like this that make otherwise normal lawful citizens break a somewhat serious law on a regular basis. If people are trained to ignore this stop sign, or roll through the stop sign, who knows where else they will do the same thing? Perhaps the reason that so many people are running red lights these days is that they have been trained to do so.

Road Scholar Greg Buchner suggests that this stop sign is to provide a protected U-Turn for businesses and residents on Pascal Street to be able to access Selby Ave. heading west. That is the best explanation that I have heard so far.

MN-55 Tunnel If you like the stop sign for no apparent reason, here is the tunnel for no apparent reason. The late 90's rebuild of the lower portion of MN-55 was highly controversial. In fact, it was held up in the courts for over 30 years. One lady was so upset about the project that she sat in a tree for nearly a year.

One part of the design was to try to join the parks on both sides of the road near the Minnehaha Creek. The idea was that the roadway could be put underground, and a seamless park could be created. The problem, however, is that the Minnehaha Creek is located at the south end of this tunnel, and the tunnel could not go deeper than the high water level of the creek. That determined the height of the roadway. The resulting tunnel looks like a large one-story building, the park ended up being a huge mound.

This tunnel is also an example of government budget magic. The light rail system was expected to cost nearly a billion dollars. Knowing that the public would probably not go for that, the planners worked to move as much of the light rail work into other projects. That allowed them to advertise the light rail cost at only $600-million. Here, the light rail section of the tunnel should have been in the light rail project budget. But instead, it was built as part of the MN-55 highway project before the light rail was even given the final go-ahead.

Walkway The Irene Hixon Whitney Footbridge connects Loring Park with the Walker Art Gallery. Irene Hixon Whitney is part of the Whitney family that is heir to the Northern States Power fortune. Whitney was honored with this bridge based on her lifetime of giving to the arts community.

The bridge was designed in 1985 by Siah Armajani, and built in 1988. It is 379 feet long and crosses 16 lanes of traffic. It is the largest piece of public artwork in the state. What is unusual about the bridge is that it is made up of three different types of bridges...the blue section is an arch, the yellow section is a suspension bridge, and the walkway itself is a through truss.

Trolley Tunnel The Twin Cities recently saw the return of light rail to the metro area. What few people remember is that the Twin Cities once had an extensive light rail system that consisted of trolley cars, cable cars, and interurban rail, plus the Twin Cities were a major hub for numerous passenger railroad lines.

When bus travel was introduced after World War II, the trolley system was seen as old fashioned, something we didn't need when we were thinking about sending men to the moon. The cars were burned and the rails were ripped out with amazing speed. Almost nothing of the trolley era survives, especially outside of the local transportation museum.

One artifact that did survive is the Selby Avenue Trolley Tunnel. The tunnel was built to avoid a high hill on Selby Ave near the Saint Paul Cathedral. The tunnel started on Selby west of the Cathedral Hill, and the entrance was the center two lanes of traffic on Selby Ave. The lanes simply dipped below the surface. The line emerged east of the Cathedral in a cut that was dedicated to trolley traffic. The line would have then entered Saint Paul along 7th Avenue. The line is cut off today by I-35E, which is built in a trench just to the east of this location. The tunnel is still intact, but both ends have been closed off.

Trolley Tunnel This is another item pointed out to me by Luke Farrell. This photo is picture of the old Cedar Avenue Bridge in Bloomington. This was once one of the major crossings of the Minnesota River. This five span truss crosses a backwater area, and then there was a swing span over the main channel. The swing span was removed when the new freeway bridge was completed in the 1980s. This backwater bridge was left in place to access the island in the middle of the river. The bridge continued to deteriorate until it had to be closed to all traffic, including bicycles and pedestrian. The signs on the bridge make that clear. What is odd, however, is that if you look at the far end of the bridge. The other end has a number of signs on it to keep people off of the bridge. Since this is an island, and this bridge is the only way onto that island, why did that end of the bridge have to be closed off an so much expense spent on all those signs? Are they concerned that deer would use the bridge, or that people would swim the river to try to use the bridge?

Update—here is yet another place that my explanation falls apart. When I first visited this site, the main river channel bicycle bride was blocked off, so I assumed that there was no way to the south end of the old Cedar Avenue Bridge. It turns out that the bicycle bridge was closed for only a short period of time. The island in the middle of the river turns out to be a popular place to hike, so it makes complete sense that the south end of the bridge is blocked off. But it did look odd when it was first pointed out to me.

Ammo Plant Ammo Plant Ammo Plant Dakota County completed a new east-west highway across the county in the late 1990s. It is named CSAH-46, for County State Aid Highway 46. The highway passes though the U of M research farm, which is now called U-More Park. Strange concrete objects are built along the south side of the road, and if you look off into the trees, you can see other concrete remains. These are some of the remains of the abandoned Gopher Ordnance Works, a plant that was built during World War II to supply a new type of smokeless gunpowder to the US Navy.

The plant was started in 1942. It was largely finished, and then was not used for almost two years when WWII appeared like it would wrap up in 1944. It turned out that powder was used at a more rapid rate at the end of the war, so the plant was then rushed into operation. The peak workforce during construction was 19,428 workers, and nearly 9,000 were employed to run the factory. Once the war was over, the buildings were torn down. The wood was salvaged and used on other military building projects. The concrete foundations were abandoned in place, and the land was turned over to the University of Minnesota. The remains have sat all but forgotten in the 60 years since the war.

A dark chapter in this story is the land condemnation process where the US Government paid farmers far less for their land than what it was worth. Many farmers bought their land in the 1910s and 1920s when prices were high, and the Government was offering 1930s depression era values. The low land prices hit one farmer doubly hard. He had bought his farm in Rosemont because the government had taken his previous farm on the north side of Minneapolis to build the US Army Twin Cities Ammunition Plant.

Trolley Tunnel This device looks like an ordinary storm warning siren. It is, however, a bit smaller than the typical storm warning or civil defense siren. As one travels around the Twin Cities, you might notice two concentrations of these devices. One such group is along I-94 near the Albertville Outlet Mall just northwest of the cities. The other is along the Mississippi River just northeast of Red Wing near the Treasure Island Casino. It turns out that these are nuclear alert sirens that are posted around the two nuclear power generator stations located in Minnesota. More than 100 of these sirens cover a ten mile radius around the power plants at Monticello and Prairie Island, standing ready to alert residents and travelers to tune into local radio stations to receive news and instructions about any event or emergency that might pose a danger to humans.

Made With Macintosh
Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
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