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Highway 197 design approved

Six men addressed the Bemidji City Council during a public hearing Monday, stating their opposition of construction planned along state Highway 197 on the south end of town.

"I'm very concerned that they might shut the road down for a three- or four-month period," said Don Pearson, the owner of Bemidji's Best Auto on Highway 197/Washington Avenue South. "That would be devastating to us."

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to reconstruct Highway 197, running south from Lueken's Village Foods South to U.S. Highway 71, to be reconstructed to have two driving lanes in each direction and a center left-turn lane.

The work is scheduled to begin in April 2010.

Business owners objected to the plan, in part because some did not feel the traffic warranted such an expansion, but also because MnDOT is considering the possibility of shutting down the entire roadway at once and setting up a detour route to get construction completed as soon as possible.

Some business owners said they would prefer that one lane be done at a time to keep the highway open.

William Pirkl, district design engineer with MnDOT, said the agency would ensure that the road, even if under the construction, would continue to be open to local customers and business workers.

"We'll do whatever we can to keep access to businesses," he said.

In explaining the reasoning for closing the entire roadway, Pirkl referenced last summer's reconstruction of Bemidji Avenue North/Paul Bunyan Drive/Highway 197 reconstruction, during which the entire road was closed to expedite its completion.

But business owners said Washington Avenue/Highway 197 to the south is different because there are very few back streets and no alleyways.

"We've got a lot to lose," said Doug Underthun, the owner of the Nymore Car Wash on Washington Avenue.

The reconstruction is a state project, but the local council is required to conduct a public hearing and consider adopting a resolution in support of the design plan.

The Bemidji City Council voted 3-1 in favor of the design as Councilor Greg Negard was opposed.

"I'm not against progress at all," Negard said. "But I'm concerned about businesses having real access during construction."

Absent from the meeting were Mayor Richard Lehmann and Councilors Barb Meuers and Roger Hellquist.

Pirkl and select city councilors noted that the redesign of Highway 197 has been in development for a number of years.

In addition to the work scheduled within the city limits, the project includes the following plans:

- North of U.S. Highway 2, the road would become a divided four-lane highway.

- A new bridge would be built crossing over Highway 2. Northbound traffic on Highway 71 would utilize the new bridge while southbound traffic would continue to use the existing bridge, which would be rehabilitated.

- The divided four-lane highway would continue south of the Beltrami/Hubbard county line and become a two-lane road. A center turn lane is planned about one mile north of Hubbard County Road 9 (the Nary road) and would continue throughout the duration of that intersection.

Pirkl said MnDOT did consider the possibility of a three-lane road in the city limits, meaning that it would have two lanes in each direction and a center turn lane.

But, he said, it just did not seem to make sense to have a three-lane road linking a four-lane highway south of town and another a four-lane highway through downtown.

He said MnDOT would consider its options for the actual construction and whether it would be possible to construct one lane at a time.

However, he also said that would cause construction to last longer.

"It will take longer, but it will have more visibility to businesses," he said.

Bids approved

The council also awarded the bids for work on the Lake Bemidji West Shore Trail and Irvine Avenue North reconstruction on 4-0 votes.

Gladen Construction Inc. was awarded the bid for the trail work with a bid of $555,555. The bid includes an "alternate" for $102,146.40 for mill and overlay work on Birchmont Drive Northeast from 23rd to 29th streets. The project will include $430,000 in federal funds, $220,774 in sales-tax funds, and about $40,000 from city reserves.

Northdale Construction was awarded the bid for the Irvine Avenue work with a bid of $1,963,349.99.

The bids for both projects came in under the projects' estimates.