Lake Elmo completes Highway 5 safety audit

Higher than expected crash rates among findings

Lake Elmo civic leaders have long discussed traffic safety on the city’s main thoroughfares, citing Minnesota Highway 5 from Jamaca to Manning avenues as a particular area of concern.

At the Feb. 19 Lake Elmo City Council meeting, Minnesota Department of Transportation officials presented the results of this winter’s safety audit.

After a 30-day “no tolerance” trial period for traffic speeding in October, city officials began collaborating with MnDOT to conduct a safety audit of Highway 5.

In December, MnDOT held two meetings examining the audit, one with city council members, elected officials, local law enforcement and Lake Elmo residents, and a follow-up meeting on the morning before the safety audit with MnDOT metro district and Washington County staff.

“We’ve been meeting with the city and county for a number of years,” said Adam Josephson, MnDOT east area manager, at the city council meeting. “We thought we’d take a step back, get a fresh set of eyes on the corridor and figure out how to move forward.”

In order to conduct the audit, the corridor was divided into three segments: west (Jamaca Avenue to Lake Elmo Avenue intersection), middle (Lake Elmo Avenue intersection to 39th Street) and east (39th Street to Manning Avenue).

The east and west segments have ditches and wide shoulders, which can cause drivers to perceive the highway as more rural and thus drive at faster speeds.

The middle segment, which runs into to the Old Village downtown area, does not include the visual clues most drivers would associate with an urban setting, which would promote lower speeds.

“Drivers perceive that this road is a rural roadway, because the design of the road is rural. It has slopes and ditches as opposed to curb and gutter, or any of the other amenities that would reinforce the notion in drivers that it’s urban,” explained Howard Preston, a study consultant with CH2M Hill, at the city council meeting.

High traffic & crash rates

The safety audit discovered a higher than average crash rate in the middle and east segments. The majority of these were rear-end and right-angle crashes.

Preston explained that “higher than average” is in comparison to roadways with similar characteristics.

“This is unusual from the perspective if the design of the roadway is rural, the primary crash type you find in rural areas is a single vehicle running off the road,” Preston said.

“So we have a pattern that is a more urban/suburban kind of a crash pattern with rear-end types of crashes and angle crashes from the intersections.”

“Ninety percent of the crashes in the corridor are intersection-related,” Preston added. “The intersection in the corridor that has the highest crash rate and most number (of crashes) is Manning Avenue.”

Additionally, MnDOT predicted an increase in traffic volume over the next 12 to 15 years. Currently, about 12,000 vehicles traverse Highway 5 each day. Officials expect that number to rise to about 16,000 vehicles per day in coming years, especially with the Old Village development plan.

Preston said the predicted growth in traffic volume “will increase congestion and that will push Highway 5 really beyond the limits of what a two-lane road would normally carry, anywhere in the state.”

He added that “12,000 vehicles a day is a lot of traffic on a two-lane road, and 16,000 vehicles in a day is an extraordinarily high level of traffic on a two-lane road.”
 

Potential improvements

One of the safety audit’s short-term suggestions is to convert the existing two-lane highway to a three-lane highway on the existing road space through the middle segment.

If approved, the three-lane roadway could be completed as soon as this summer with the scheduled MnDOT resurfacing project.

Currently, the highway is striped with 12-foot wide lanes in either direction. The resurfacing project could reallocate space of the existing roadway to include a 13-foot center two-way left turn lane with two 11-foot lanes in either direction, narrowing the shoulders.

Preston added that converting to a three-lane roadway could lead to a drop in the number of crashes and lower the average speed by three to five miles per hour. Part of this reduction in speed could be attributed to the more urban appearance of the three-lane road.

Another improvement MnDOT suggested was to evaluate a potential school speed zone with a reduced speed limit for the area surrounding Lake Elmo Elementary.

“We’re trying to keep this on the table and suggest we think it’s a good idea to look at that and see what other things that might be done as part of this pedestrian safety issue that would support this notion of establishing a school speed zone,” Preston said.

Before the safety audit, the Lake Elmo council had planned to ask MnDOT to reduce the speed limit between the roundabout and Manning Avenue from 50 mph to 30 mph.

In the past, city council member Anne Smith has expressed concerns about pedestrian safety near the school.

“I want to make sure that we have safe access across Highway 5,” Smith said in a previous interview.

“I might want to get my kids down to the ice cream shop, but Highway 5 is a detriment. Highway 5 is not safe, and I want to continue to push to make Highway 5 safe,” Smith said.

Previous attempts to improve safety

Lake Elmo has made a series of safety improvements to Highway 5 in the past in an attempt to curb drivers’ tendency to speed through the community.

In 2003, the Highway 5 speed limit between Manning Avenue and 58th Street was lowered from 55 mph to 50 mph, but vehicle speeds remained virtually unchanged.

In 2009, the stretch of Highway 5 east of Manning Avenue was converted to a three-lane road. Shortly thereafter in 2010 a roundabout was constructed at Jamaca Avenue and Stillwater Boulevard North. It remains to be seen if these modifications have affected driver speed.

Unfortunately, these safety improvements did not prevent the head-on collision of vehicles carrying two Stillwater sisters, ages 15 and 20, and a St. Paul man last August. All three sustained serious injuries.

City council members opted to discuss possible solutions at an upcoming workshop session.

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7814.

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