By Gabe Licht
DELANO, MN Dawn Whipperman began to cry as she addressed the Highway 12 Safety Coalition during its meeting Thursday.
“I live in the Cities and I’d never driven on Highway 12,” Whipperman began. “My daughter was taken away from me. Since then, I’ve traveled this road many times to visit the site where she was killed.”
Whipperman’s daughter, Jamie Lee Whipperman, was killed Dec. 2, 2014, a mile east of Maple Plain when her car crossed the center line and struck a semi.
Whipperman was one of about 25 people who attended the meeting, with many of them seeking action on the stretch of Highway 12 east of Hennepin County Road 6, commonly referred to as the Long Lake bypass, where an Aug. 22 head-on crash claimed two lives.
Representatives from Long Lake and Wayzata have joined the commission, which voted to add the stretch of road to the safety audit the Minnesota Department of Transportation finalized before the meeting.
MnDOT traffic safety engineer Derek Leuer estimated doing so would take two to three weeks, as the data has already been collected.
Before identifying options, MnDOT Metro District engineer Scott McBride addressed those gathered at the meeting.
“It’s very, very sobering just to go through the list of crashes and hear the names of those involved,” McBride said. “The effect on the community is extraordinary. It also affects us . . . When we see a report of a crash, we try to glean any information from it to find out what possibly went wrong. Was it an engineering problem? We take it extremely personally. I extend sympathy to anyone who has lost someone.”
In response to the Aug. 22 crash that killed two, McBride said MnDOT would consider expanding the existing concrete median barrier further west, but doing so would present challenges.
For example, the stretch was not designed to have a barrier in the middle of it.
“A barrier is an impediment in the road,” McBride said. “It can cause a crash to happen, but can also prevent a head-on crash.”
At 5-feet high, the barrier shields drivers from the oncoming headlights of semis, but also restricts the view of vehicles stopped around a curve. Furthermore, the bridges were not designed with the idea of a barrier in the road drilling holes in bridge decks can cause problems and adding a barrier would likely reduce the width of the lanes by one foot.
In addition to those potential logistical issues, another big hurdle is funding.
“We don’t have a firm cost,” McBride said. “I’d guess millions, probably $3 million to $5 million.”
A man identifying himself as a first responder asked how many people had died since the Long Lake bypass was opened Dec. 11, 2008.
Orono Police Chief Corey Farniok put that number at six.
McBride said, while other two-lane highways in the metro area are overburdened as well, Highway 12 is unique because of its design and because its fatality rate is higher than the state average.
However, MnDOT receives $10 million to $12 million for safety issues throughout the entire eight-county metro area.
That doesn’t mean local legislators won’t fight for more funding.
“Because Highway 12 is unique, I believe we have an advantage,” Rep. Joe McDonald, of Delano, said. “Many folks who have been around the capitol for years will fight for dollars. It is also good to know we have a friend in MnDOT. First, we have to find solutions. Once the plan is set, we will fight to get funding.”
McDonald said he would approach funding Highway 12 improvements as an emergency issue. He added that US Rep. Tom Emmer, also of Delano, would fight for funding at the federal level, although the priority for such funds is for interstates.
McBride estimated that it would take a matter of months to redesign the Long Lake bypass and get feedback from the county, communities, and the commission.
“You can rest assured we will keep them accountable,” Maple Plain City Councilwoman Julie Maas-Kusske told a woman who was questioning McBride about the length of the process. “Together, we will get things done. Come to us so we can go to them.”
The speed limit on the bypass was also addressed, but McBride said, “If we sign it any differently, it wouldn’t change the speed unless we put law enforcement out there every day and ticketed people, and we can’t afford to do that.”
In addition to the Long Lake bypass, the stretch between Maple Plain and Delano was discussed.
Long-term, MnDOT would like to create a 2+1, with two lanes of traffic in one direction and one in the other, with the direction of the extra lane alternating every couple miles. McBride estimates that design at $25 million, and said it is not in MnDOT’s 20-year plan.
When asked why not, McBride said, “Name the road and it’s pretty inadequate right now.”
Short-term goals of improving the intersections of Hennepin County roads 92 and 90 could be done in three to five years, McBride said.
Smaller improvements can happen in the meantime.
MnDOT identified $100,000 in funding for lighting at the intersections, but the project has been delayed until the spring.
Adding asphalt to the current bypass lanes and restriping them would create left-turn lanes, with traffic routed around them. That work is slated for the fall or spring at the latest.
Recommendations have been made for Highway 12 stretching west to Dassel. The full audit will be available on the MnDOT website in the near future.
“The safety audit paints a true picture of the corridor,” McBride said. “We had anecdotes, but being able to do the audit was extremely helpful.”
Engineering of the road is just one aspect, as Minnesota State Patrol Capt. Mike Hanson noted. He promoted Toward Zero Deaths because it is a locally-led initiative that has helped decrease road fatalities from 650 annually to 370 annually in 12 years.
Whipperman said she appreciates the work of the coalition and the focus on changing driver behavior.
“We have to talk to people more about driving and distractions,” Whipperman said. “Obviously, this coalition has been wonderful. To see the work you’ve done to try to save lives, I appreciate it. We all have to play our part to save lives.”
The commission will meet again at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1 at Delano City Hall.
NOTE: This story was modified from its original version to correct some identification errors.