BEMIDJI-One of Bemidji's busiest thoroughfares is only expected to get busier in the next decade.
On a daily basis, the stretch of state Highway 197 between Bemidji Avenue and the area just west of U.S. Highway 71 handles up to 16,000 vehicles.
By 2030, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is expecting between 12,500 and 20,500 vehicles per day on that road.
To handle the expected growth in traffic, MnDOT officials are in the early planning stages for a reconstruction project within the next five to eight years.
Along with aging pavement, the corridor has storm sewer systems, gutters and sidewalks more than 50 years old. Additionally, portions of the sidewalk are noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
By updating the infrastructure, officials are also hoping to make the highway stretch safer, especially considering the anticipated growth. According to data from MnDOT, the corridor has been listed as a critical crash location, with 180 collisions happening from 2011-2015.
Many of the collisions are because of the high amount of access points dotted along the corridor. In total, the stretch of highway has 64 access points where drivers can turn onto the road.
To create a corridor model appropriate for the 21st Century, though, MnDOT officials are trying something different for their project planning.
Unlike in the past, MnDOT District 2 officials are involving the public from the very beginning, with a series of community meetings scheduled the next few months, allowing residents to have input on what sort of changes are made along the way.
On Tuesday, the first of the meetings was held, with civic leaders and business owners along the corridor in attendance.
Tuesday's meeting served as an introductory session for the volunteer group to learn about the ins and outs of the corridor. However, no potential designs were brought forward at the meeting, as TJ Melcher, MnDOT District 2 director of public engagement, said it's something that will take place later in the process.
"We've been very intentional with not putting out any proposals," Melcher said. "We don't want it to be a scenario where it appears we already have things we want to do. We are including the public at the very beginning of this process. We're going to do this together."
The group is scheduled to meet every few weeks until July, when a decision will be made on what Melcher called a preferred alternative option for the corridor.
"When this is all finished, in July, we'll decide on the alternative and go on for design," Melcher said. "At the very least, the road needs resurfacing, and since we're coming in to do that, it gives us the opportunity to make additional changes."
While the planning work is taking place in 2019, it could be a few years before shovels go in the ground. According to MnDOT, the project is expected in the next five to eight years.