By Gabe Licht
INDEPENDENCE AND DELANO, MN A total of 16 people have died in fatal crashes on the 38-mile stretch of Highway 12 from Wayzata to the western Wright County border over the past five years.
After six fatalities in the past year alone, the Highway 12 Safety Coalition is challenging drivers to go “12 for 12,” meaning zero fatalities over the next 12 months on Highway 12.
The coalition issued the challenge during a Nov. 30 press conference at the West Hennepin Public Safety Department.
“We’ve made tremendous strides to improve safety and save lives, but people continue to die,” said WHPSD Chief Gary Kroells, who serves as chair of the coalition.
To make that happen, individual drivers are being asked to do their part.
“In order to achieve this goal, distracted driving needs to stop immediately,” Kroells said.
“By paying attention, wearing a seatbelt, slowing down, and driving sober, we can all help go 12 for 12,” Minnesota State Patrol Col. Matt Langer added.
He noted that the 38-mile stretch of Highway 12 has the highest fatality rate in the metro when compared with similar two-lane highways.
Liz Squire knows all too well how dangerous the road is.
She lost her 25-year-old sister, Chelsea Langhans, when 69-year-old Arthur Henningsen crossed the center line near Wayzata and hit her head-on, killing Langhans and himself.
“My world crashed down around me,” Squire said, with her mother, Tina Langhans, by her side. “My little sister, my best friend and confidant, was just gone.”
Squire called the loss heart-breaking.
“No family should have to know how it feels to lose a loved one so suddenly in a crash, but, unfortunately, too many families of other victims of Highway 12 know that feeling,” Squire said.
She applauded the efforts of the coalition, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Minnesota Department of Transportation, and others for working to improve the safety of Highway 12.
“With our continued and combined efforts, we can improve the safety of Highway 12 and, hopefully, prevent future fatalities,” Squire said.
Kroells noted that law enforcement alone cannot eliminate fatalities on Highway 12.
“We are aware we can’t cite, issue tickets, or arrest our way out of this problem,” Kroells said.
Nonetheless, law enforcement will be adding additional traffic enforcement patrols with officers focused on finding distracted drivers and violations of law.
Overall, the “12 for 12” campaign will utilize the five E’s of the Toward Zero Deaths campaign: engineering, enforcement, education, emergency services, and everybody.
“We know it takes time to implement engineering solutions to crashes, but we want to make sure we get the most effective, long-term solutions possible installed on Highway 12,” MnDOT Metro engineer Scott McBride said. “That’s why TZD campaigns are so important. They bring together the other E’s and provide immediate actions and steps that can be done to keep people safe while we work to find the best long-term solutions.”
Following the Monday press conference, the coalition met Thursday, with much of the meeting focused on funding for solutions and a Wednesday conversation with Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle.
“The people affected by Highway 12 are expecting action other than three- to 10-year improvements,” Rep. Jerry Hertaus said.
He expressed that sentiment to Zelle.
“I appreciate Rep. Jerry Hertaus’ actions,” said Kroells, who was one of several coalition members who met with Zelle. “He was very to-the-point. He made sure Commissioner Zelle knew what the coalition is looking for.”
Hertaus pointed to the state’s projected budget surplus of $1.9 billion, of which the state could spend nearly $1.3 billion.
He identified passing a transportation budget that includes funding for Highway 12 as a priority, and he plans to author three different bills to increase the odds that funding is granted.
“I told Zelle, ‘If you get the money, please commit to us,’” Hertaus said. “Beyond public safety, there’s economic benefits to improving Highway 12, too.”
Kroells said the estimates for a full design and development plan for the highway, corrective actions at both Hennepin County 92 intersections and the Hennepin County Road 90 intersection, and a barrier on the “Super 2” bypass of Long Lake range from about $3 million to $8.5 million.
MnDOT Metro West Area engineer Ron Rauchle noted that MnDOT has begun analysis on the projects in anticipation of funding.
“We used to have to wait,” Rauchle said. “Now we talk about shovel-ready projects. That’s what this would be.”
As hearings on the issue are scheduled, Hertaus said he would invite coalition members to testify and write emails about the dangers of Highway 12, and coalition members vowed to be as involved as possible.
Odds and ends
In other business, the coalition:
• heard about upcoming projects from MnDOT senior transportation planner Claudia Dumont. Highway 12 will be resurfaced from Howard Lake to Cokato in 2018 and from Cokato to the Meeker County line in 2019. In 2021, a large highway project is planned from Howard Lake to Delano, which will likely extend into 2022.
“We have funding available and we will be meeting with communities to discuss these projects,” Dumont said.
• discussed moving a “Crash Reduction Area” sign that was erected just east of the 38-mile stretch of highway to a more noticeable location within the stretch. MnDOT engineer Chad Erickson said the sign could be moved, though he was unsure if that would take place before spring, with crews becoming busier with winter road maintenance.
• re-elected Kroells as chair, Delano Councilwoman Betsy Stolfa as vice chair, and Delano management analyst Bobby Schoen as secretary.
• scheduled the coalition’s next meeting for 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7.