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Horace May Elementary School: Proposed access road keeps school forest intact

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Last year, the Minnesota Department of Transportation discovered that developing a new access to Horace May Elementary School was not going to be an easy process.

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Now, a new school access plan designed by MnDOT and tentatively approved by the Bemidji School District has been established. The plan was presented at a school district meeting Monday night.

MnDOT's two-year, $13.5 million reconstruction of U.S. Highway 71 South is nearing completion, from Lueken's Village Foods South to the U.S. Highway 2 bypass. Next summer, a new access road to Horace May Elementary will be developed along with the second phase of the highway reconstruction.

With the construction of a four-lane highway, the elementary school's two current access points will be closed. In planning for this closure, MnDOT had designed a new access road to be constructed off Oak Hills Road to the north.

The proposed "north option" was considered by MnDOT as the safest option. At a school district work session last October, MnDOT officials stated this option would have minimal impacts to the school's current parking lot. MnDOT determined there was less traffic recorded on Oak Hills Road during peak school trip hours. In the north option, traffic would enter the highway on a public road instead of a private entrance and this option removed two access points from a major trunk highway.

But this option would also remove a portion of the Horace May School Forest, a 40-acre tract declared a school forest in 1997 for Horace May Elementary.

Almost one year has passed since the work session between the Bemidji School District's Board of Education, officials from MnDOT and representatives of the Horace May Elementary Grounds Development Committee to discuss the proposed access road. The meeting adjourned with MnDOT tabling its proposal until further notice. Pleas from community members followed, asking for MnDOT to rethink its proposal.

Now, Chris Leinen, the school district's business manager, said the district and MnDOT have come up with a new access road proposal.

The proposed access involves two entry points and one exit-only point along a new frontage road. One of the entry points will be where the current bus entrance is and the other will be at the south corner of the property. The existing car entrance will be removed.

"We want traffic flow to be as safe as possible," Leinen said of the restricted enter/exit-only points. "When you have a four-lane road, the more times you cross the lanes, the more points of contention you potentially could have."

A traffic study conducted by MnDOT last year cited that approximately 170 vehicles enter Horace May Elementary between the hours of 7 and 8 a.m. on a typical week day. During the same time frame, 660 cars travel on U.S. Highway 71 past the Horace May access point.

A few modifications have been added to the plans since its initial design, including an exit-only acceleration lane on the highway for buses and an additional lane added to the frontage road near a parking lot.

"We're proceeding along with the design," said Phillip Bergem, MnDOT district design engineer. "We have not received any indication (from the federal transportation department) that it won't be accepted."

While this new plan saves trees in the school forest, it requires removing trees buffering the school from the highway. Additionally, half of one parking lot (roughly 50 parking spots) will be removed to make way for the new frontage road. These parking spots will have to be replaced elsewhere on the school grounds.

And the current proposed plan ignores MnDOT's previous statements that having access points along a four-lane highway would be a safety hazard.

When asked about MnDOT's current proposal to have three access points along the four-lane highway, Bergem said, "While this layout was not our first choice, we feel this alternate alignment will meet the needs of the community and provide a safe driving experience for the public."

Bergem said MnDOT's new policy called "Context to Sensitive Designing" has engineers learning to work better as a partnership with the community.

"Those are the new marching orders," Bergem said. "We're still working on it. We listened to what the school really wants and we worked with them."

But working with the school to find a new design for an access road also meant starting from scratch after MnDOT's "safest route" design was rejected by the school district.

Did this process cost taxpayers more for MnDOT officials to "re-work" design plans for another year?

Bergem replied, "It did," but he didn't know how much.

In past discussions, some school officials said if MnDOT would have asked the school in its beginning highway reconstruction phase where the school would prefer to relocate its access road, the transportation department wouldn't have had to rework its plans.

In hindsight, Leinen acknowledged that what is now important is that a design has been agreed upon by both parties.

"This proposed plan isn't 'ours' or 'theirs.' It belongs to all of us. We've had several meetings with MnDOT engineers on how we can make this frontage road work in the safest and most effective way possible."

MnDOT will acquire a temporary easement to pay for and construct the frontage road and access points. Bergem said he hopes to have the plans for the access road finalized by mid-January.

Bergem said MnDOT will fund the construction of the frontage road and will negotiate a settlement with the district to place the parking, lighting and signage lost from the construction of the frontage road.

The school district has met with a MnDOT appraiser with regard to the amount of damages relating to the loss of parking spaces. The process is ongoing, Leinen said.

Leinen said the process of negotiating and finalizing plans for Horace May Elementary will happen in time so construction plans can be a part of next summer's construction project.

"It's one thing to have a road being constructed, but it's another thing to totally impact the accessibility to your school," Leinen said. "This frontage road will have to be constructed during the window of June through August."

In hindsight, Leinen said, while the planning process of a new access road to Horace May has been long, he looks forward to moving ahead with the new proposal.

"We've had a good working relationship with (MnDOT)," he said. "We put a lot of ideas on the table. We're looking at the best way to access the school, given the fact that there's going to be a four-lane highway right in front of it."

At the school board meeting, school board member John Pugleasa said he appreciated MnDOT's re-design of the access road.

"MnDOT gave us their word that they would rethink it and they did," he said. "We greatly appreciate it."

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