BEMIDJI -- The cold weather vehicle testing industry, existing for decades in Bemidji, was the subject of a City Council work session Monday.
The topic came to the council’s attention because of calls from citizens concerned about the effect the testing has on neighborhoods. Bemidji Ward 5 council member Nancy Erickson said she’s received numerous calls about noise and the time of day the the testing is done.
“I hear about the rattled windows because of the noise, so I don’t blame people for calling,” Erickson said. “It’s a combination of things. It’s the noise, it’s the headlights in their windows at night, and it’s just the fact that there’s a lot of traffic and there’s little kids walking from school. Just in general, there are concerns about using the streets and beating them up.”
The two companies with cold weather testing in Bemidji are Roush Engineering, located near the Bemidji Regional Airport, and MDE Engineering Division Kett Engineering, operating in Northern Township. Both companies conduct testing on a mix of city, rural and highway roads.
This year, MDE is testing four cars and six trucks. Of those trucks, three are semis, two are box trucks and one is a flatbed truck. The three semis all test on major roadways and in the city’s Industrial Park, while the other three operate on major roadways as well as some residential streets.
Each winter, MDE employs about 80 drivers, with shifts taking place from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. For the two box trucks, there are three routes that go through Wards 2, 3 and 5 on Saturdays. Flatbed trucks, meanwhile, also go through Wards 2, 3 and 5 every day of the week.
Roush, meanwhile, is testing 60 vehicles in Bemidji and has more than 20 routes based on the standard testing each manufacturer seeks. The company employs up to 220 drivers during the winter and shifts can run from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or from 4:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
“We try not to go into the high residential areas. But, some manufacturers say ‘We want to have 45 percent be left turns and the rest be right turns, and we want an average of 20 mph,’” Roush representative Jeremy Jensen said. “So, to keep that speed down, you end up putting a route in that has a lot of turns and a lot of stops.”
“I think we’ve identified that this is a great economic benefit in our community and the council certainly supports that,” Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said. “On the other side of the ledger, there’s the cost here and the resident complaints are included in that.”
Erickson agreed that the economic boost from the industry is a positive, but said residents’ concerns remain. “We don’t want to throw them (the drivers) under the bus. My purpose here is not to say ‘Go away and go somewhere else,’” Erickson said. “What I also have to consider, though, are my residents in Ward 5. They paid money for their houses, to live in a quiet neighborhood. I’m asking to alleviate some of the pressure in Nymore.”
Bemidji Ward 2 council member Roger Hellquist, who has about 20 years of experience in the industry, had a different take on the matter.
“Nancy, you’re talking about a small percentage of issues. They’ve already told you how seldom these trucks go through Nymore,” Hellquist said. “They go right by my house on 18th Street, I get it all the time, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s not an issue. It’s a growing, thriving industry in Bemidji… I’m not going to support anything that curtails this industry.”
“We also try to keep our vehicles in smaller groups and we do alter routes sometimes for different residents where possible,” Jensen said. “If you do have a resident or constituent who does have an issue, bring it to our attention. I can’t guarantee it, but I can look into it. We’re going to start to slow down here soon and I will do an audit of our routes and see if there’s a way to move somewhere.”
Near the meeting’s conclusion Albrecht said she’s encouraged that Jensen and MDE’s representative, Gary Rients, are willing to work with the city in discussing concerns over routes.
“I feel we’ve gotten some agreement from these two gentlemen that they can assist us by communicating with (City Manager) Nate (Mathews) and (Public Works Director) Craig (Gray), and in the past they have,” Albrecht said. “If there are some specific streets, they seem willing to look into that.”
Gray said that during the winter months, the testing really does no additional damage to city streets when they’re frozen.