A UPS distribution center was scheduled to break ground a few months after I started as the staff traffic engineer in Maple Grove, Minnesota. The development project was through the environmental and city approval process before I started working for the city. A traffic study was prepared for the project the year before by a credible engineering firm and the recommendations in the study were adopted as conditions of the development’s approval.
The traffic study recommended adding traffic signals at two intersections on the adjacent county road as part of the project’s mitigation plan. The traffic signals were needed based on poor peak hour Levels of Service.
Hennepin County, Minnesota had (and still has) detailed standards for when a traffic signal is appropriate. Those standards prioritize intersections that meet the eight hour warrants, not just the peak hour warrants. When the developer and city submitted a permit application to install the two traffic signals, the county required the city to provide the eight hour warrant forecasts that weren’t done in the Traffic Impact Study. Unfortunately, one of the two intersections that needed a signal for UPS was only forecast to be busy during the peak hours and wouldn’t meet the eight hour warrants.
We submitted the full traffic signal warrant analyses and Hennepin County denied our permit to install the traffic signal at the intersection that didn’t meet the eight hour warrants. This put city staff in quite a bind. The politicians were excited to have attracted this big employer to the city and UPS was on board for paying for all of the required improvements. UPS thought they were good to go and had their contractors all lined up to meet their construction schedule. Everyone was expecting the facility to be built and operating that Fall.
Because the signal warrant issue wasn’t identified during the approval process, this little sticking point was on the verge of derailing a multi-million dollar project.
The mayor ended up working with our area’s county commissioner to get a “variance” to the county’s traffic signal policy and that intersection is still signalized almost twenty years later. It’s pretty common in the industry to call this situation meeting the “political warrant” that isn’t part of the official MUTCD.
The lesson here is that the traffic engineers need to do their homework when it comes to making recommendations. Even if the analysis wasn’t done to address the county’s full policy, the traffic study should have identified that the policy existed and more study would be required. Then city staff could have worked the process through before the city and state environmental approvals were granted based on implementing the recommendation plan.
Opening up the environmental/city process to address the signal would have delayed the overall construction project a year due to Minnesota’s abbreviated construction season. Addressing the signal during the first run of the approval process wouldn’t have cost any time.
(Or the underlying lesson is that politics often trumps engineering if the project is big enough, which is something I often let my development clients know when they don’t like how the engineers are working out improvement plans. Even though I don’t necessarily like it when developers try to go around our recommendations, property owners always have the right to try to exert political pressure in their favor.)
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