BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji City Council narrowly squashed a proposal Monday that would have added three roundabouts to the Highway 197 business corridor.

Proposed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the three roundabouts would have been installed between Hannah Avenue and Gillette Drive, with the goal of helping to reduce the severity of traffic accidents and increase access to the area for pedestrians and cyclists. The three roundabouts were proposed as Phase 1 of a long term reconstruction project for the busy traffic corridor.

“We’re either in the preservation mode or we’re in the reconstruct mode; and to be in the reconstruct mode, we have to address the safety concerns out there,” MnDOT representative Darren Laesch told the council Monday night. He then added that roundabouts are an effective way to increase the safety of motorists. “It’s been a proven measure to reduce those injury-type crashes.”

Council members Nancy Erickson, Jim Thompson, Ron Johnson and Mike Beard voted against the possible roundabouts. Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht and council members Michael Meehlhause and Emelie Rivera voted in favor of the possibility.

Because the council rejected the first phase of the roundabout proposal, Laesch said the concept of roundabouts for the entirety of the project has been scrapped.

“We’re definitely pushing our timeline back,” Laesch told the Pioneer on Tuesday. “We were proposing 2023 for that first construction phase, but now it will slide back to 2025 or 2026. We’re looking now at a preservation project focused on infrastructure. However, we do know there are some bike and pedestrian needs we’d like to address where we can.”

When including both phases, the proposed project would have added six roundabouts on the corridor from Gillett Drive to Bemidji Avenue. Those roundabouts would have been installed at the Menards entrance, Middle School Avenue, Hannah Avenue, Pine Ridge Avenue and Bemidji Avenue.

In addition to the roundabouts, the project would reconstruct the road, storm sewers, gutters and allow for other utility work. The first phase was estimated to cost up to $8 million, with the second phase nearing $11 million.

Mixed feelings

Although the council ultimately denied the proposal, the reaction during Monday’s meeting to the possibility spanned the gap from support to opposition to requests for compromises in the scope of the project if the council did, in fact, allow it to move forward.

One of the community members who spoke on the issue, Wes Hegna, received an ovation from the rest of the those in attendance when he said he would like to see the council vote against the roundabouts.

Kevin Williamson of Super 8 said he was also against the proposal and said his business would lose quite a bit of property. He asked that his property be moved to the second phase if the council approved the motion Monday to move forward with MnDOT’s plans.

Both Erickson and Johnson voiced support for the businesses that would have been affected by the change.

“I have not talked to one business that wants this -- not one,” Johnson said. “Half of our tax base comes from the business community… If the business owners haven’t bought in, you haven’t done your job yet.”

There was one community member, though, who voiced support for the project, saying she appreciated the fact that the plan would make the corridor more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists.

Meehlhause referred to the proposal as a “once in a 30-year opportunity” to make the business corridor better.

Following Monday’s meeting, some Bemidji elected officials took to social media to express disappointment over the vote. On Twitter, Albrecht said “sometimes you are the visionary and ‘plan from the future,’ but the luddites hold you back.”

In responding to another tweet about Monday’s meeting, Meehlhause called the vote a “lack of (expletive) courage.”

In speaking to the Pioneer on Tuesday, Albrecht also discussed what she sees as missed opportunities. For example, Albrecht suggested MnDOT’s proposed project would have improved alternative transportation and cut down on time as well as gas use since less cars would sit at red lights.

“Thinking into the future, this project is one that will have life long into the future,” Albrecht said. “What I heard in comments last night was ‘We prefer the status quo.’ I don't think the community here in Bemidji was ready to take that courageous step forward and try something very forward thinking.”

According to Laesch, MnDOT will work with the city government and community members moving forward on the Highway 197 project. However, Laesch said public engagement won’t likely happen in the near future with the project now being delayed.