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MnDOT agrees to study road options for Horace May Elementary School

Bill Pirkl, district traffic engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, talks about the proposed access road to Horace May Elementary School to the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education at a work session on Wednesday night. Pioneer Photo/Anne Williams

The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education had three words for the Minnesota Department of Transportation at a work session last night: Rethink your proposal.

The District met with the Horace May Grounds Development Committee and officials from MnDOT to discuss the proposed access road to Horace May Elementary School.

MnDOT plans to close Horace May's two access points along U.S. Highway 71 as part of a larger project to widen Highway 71 into a four-lane road.

As it stands, the proposed access road from the north would force the District to build a driveway through a part of Horace May's school forest.

The cost of building the driveway will be reimbursed by MnDOT. The amount of the reimbursement has yet to be negotiated.

Bill Pirkl, MnDOT district traffic engineer, presented details of the proposed access road to Horace May at Wednesday night's work session.

"We feel the access road designed from the north is the safest option," said Pirkl. "The best potential for a traffic signal in the future is at Oak Hills Road."

Pirkl gave the following reasons why an access road from Oak Hills Road was preferred:

- Significantly less traffic on Oak Hills Road during peak school traffic hours.

- Intersection has a more "urban feel" for northbound vehicles once over the crest of the highway in front of school.

- Potential for traffic signal if development occurs in adjacent quadrants.

- Traffic coming from school takes a right turn onto Oak Hills Road.

- Right-of-Way road is already purchased from a developer to the north (Anita's Way).

- Local road authority has been involved in design of public road for maintenance issues.

- Gives cars and buses options if not wanting to return to Highway 71.

Pirkl said some of the cons of the proposed road include removing habitat from the school forest, additional traffic through a subdivision on Anita's Way, increased cost to the District for driveway upkeep, and tree and sign removal from the school's current access points.

MnDOT had purchased a strip of land in September from the developer who has plans to build a subdivision to the north of the school, said Craig Collison, MnDOT assistant district engineer.

Kate Pearson, a teacher at Horace May and Grounds Committee member, expressed concerns that MnDOT officials made the decision to buy the land without discussing it first with school officials.

"When you (MnDOT) came to Horace May five years ago for discussion on this issue, we said, 'Please reconsider coming from the south.' Why did you purchase land from the north before we had discussed another option?" said Pearson.

Collison responded by saying when MnDOT started the project in 2004, it had talked to the school and had received letters of support on developing an access road from the north.

"I won't apologize for what we've done, but I agree we should've had this discussion two years ago," said Collison. "Right now my plans have to be turned in shortly."

Heated discussions continued throughout the meeting on alternative access road options, the impact to the school forest, the upkeep of a driveway, and the potential to work with land owners to the south.

"What would it take for an access road from the south (from North Plantagenet Road) to be a viable option?" Superintendent Jim Hess asked the MnDOT representatives.

"I have heard from no one at tonight's discussion who is in favor of the proposed north access road," he said.

"We are in a time crunch, but we'll put it back on the table," said MnDOT district engineer Lynn Eaton. "This will set us back 18 months but we will work with the District to further look into the south option."

Superintendent Hess said he expects to hear from MnDOT officials before a final decision is made on the Horace May access road.

"We appreciate what MnDOT is doing to reconsider its decision," said Pearson. "It means a lot to us."