by Tammy Sakry
As Highway 10 traffic zoomed by, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, listened to city officials and business members, concerned about the highway, who were seeking his help in funding improvements.
Franken learned about the safety, traffic flow and harm the highway’s current condition is having on economic development and to existing businesses during the April 1 conversation with Anoka, Ramsey, Elk River, Sherburne County and St. Cloud representatives.
“Highway 10 is important to our business,” said Chuck LeFebvre of Elk River’s LeFebvre Company, which delivers precast concrete products and other dimensional freight, such as construction beams.
His company relies on the highway to get products to work sites.
When the Highway 61 Hastings bridge was under construction, LeFebvre Company delivered a 174-foot bridge girder using Highway 10, because “we could not get a permit to use Highway 101 or Highway 94 (for the) oversize load,” LeFebvre said.
He loves the proposal to install an overpass at Armstrong Boulevard in Ramsey and what it would do for traffic flow, he said.
The state keeps designing the infrastructure bigger and his company needs to have a way to get the beams to the project sites, according to LeFebvre. So the company needs the infrastructure to deliver the infrastructure, said Franken.
This area is sliding behind the times in terms of economic development, said Marty Fisher of Premier Commercial Properties, Ramsey.
Large commercial buildings are being constructed in Rogers and Shakopee, but not along the Highway 10 corridor from Anoka to Elk River, he said. The current state of Highway 10 is why, he added.
Area land prices are depressed compared with other areas, and unemployment is higher because of the transportation issue, Fisher said. If a prospective employer comes to the area at the wrong time and sees traffic backing up, the deal is over, he said.
They are losing potential employers because Highway 10 cannot give them what they are looking for, including limited and easy access to the highway and low congestion, said Jim Deal, owner of PSD Holding, LLC of Ramsey.
His land development company is losing tremendous opportunities because of transportation issues, he said.
Deal told Franken about one company that loved one of PSD’s location in Ramsey, but told him to come back when the Armstrong Boulevard overpass was built.
In the 26 years he has been president of the Anoka Area Chamber of Commerce, Pete Turok has seen a lot of changes in the area.
But Highway 10 has not changed from Anoka to Elk River, he said.
Manufacturing and retail businesses are all touched by Highway 10, Turok said.
“This road is long overdue for improvements. We have the players in place; now we just need the money,” he said.
“Highway 10 is a critical piece for Ramsey and Anoka, and 26 years is too long. How long do we have to go (before improvements are done)?”
Any help Franken can provide, “We will take it,” Turok said.
While improving Highway 10 will help businesses and economic development, Ramsey City Councilmember Jason Tossey said Highway 10 needs to be improved to fix the major safety issues. Ramsey is the only city in Anoka County that has three of its accesses to Highway 10 cut off by at-grade railroad crossings, he said.
During emergency calls, seconds could mean a life and Ramsey police officers are being blocked from Highway 10 by trains, Tossey said.
It is the reason Ramsey is lobbying to construct an overpass at Armstrong Boulevard, where the railroad crossing is two car lengths from Highway 10, according to Tossey.
The railroad crossing at Armstrong also impacts traffic on Highway 10, said Ramsey Police Chief Jim Way.
When a train approaches the railroad crossing, the southbound traffic signal turns green to clear the traffic, he said. This happens even if the east-west traffic lights have just turned green; the train will trigger the east-west lights to turn red, Way said.
Malfunctioning rail arms also trigger the light change, he said. The rail arms malfunctioned 40 times in 2012, Way said.
The Ramsey Police Department does not have the officer strength to be directing traffic on Highway 10 when the arms malfunction, he said.
The trains themselves also cause some traffic issues, according to Way.
The trains can be a mile long and block two rail crossings at a time. If they stop for any reason, the trains can block traffic for a long periods of time, he said.
This is a common occurrence and Ramsey Police officers have had to drive to Anoka to get past the train, Way said.
There have been similar cases with ambulances trying to get to hospitals and overpasses are needed, Franken said.
As the meeting progressed, a train pulling black oil tanks traveling from the oil fields of North Dakota to various refineries passed by in full sight of the meeting, which was held at the Fountains of Ramsey.
That oil traffic could be doubling in the next few years, Way told Franken.
Over the years, funding and economic development have gone to southern communities, like Shakopee and Rochester, said Dan Erhart, former Anoka County commissioner.
If they are not careful, the economic center will shift from Minneapolis to the south; if that happens, that will be harmful to the whole northern tier, he said.
They are asking for Franken’s help to see that the north end gets a fair shake, Erhart said.
“Improving Highway 10 will benefit the whole state,” he said.
“I agree. There needs to be balanced growth,” Franken said.
Franken said he wants to be able to get a robust transportation bill passed. The Senate budget has an additional $100 million over the next 10 years for a transportation infrastructure that is deteriorating and needs to be updated.
Improvements to Highway 10 are important to the northern suburbs as well as the northern ex-burbs, Franken said. But it also important to the rest of state north of the Twin Cities, he said.
Franken also asked about the Northstar Commuter Rail and if there any barriers to ridership he could help resolve to make it more successful.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) cost efficiency standards are hard to meet, something that is required to be able to extend Northstar to St. Cloud, said Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing. It does not take into account traffic coming south from St. Cloud and the effect on the congestion in the Anoka to Elk River area, he said.
The FTA changed the cost efficiency standards and it is hard to meet the standards now, Erhart said.
As housing development picks up, there will be a lot more daily trips, which will increase traffic on Highway 10, and more people and businesses will depend on the commuter train, he said.
The FTA standards do not take into account the reverse commuters, according to Schmiesing.
There also are a lot of students and professors traveling to St. Cloud that could use Northstar to a greater degree if the line was extended from Big Lake to St. Cloud, he said. Every car that is taken off the road in St. Cloud means it does not flow through here, Schmiesing said.