BEMIDJI -- Greg and Beth Kleeb were skeptical about the idea of roundabouts on Division Street back when city officials first considered installing them, but the two eventually changed their minds about the new system.
Beth and Greg live just west of the roundabout located directly in front of Bemidji High School, and, because of that, they were among those most affected by the controversial traffic-control system. Construction crews completed the roundabouts roughly a year ago, and in the time since then, both the Kleebs and others around town have had time to adjust to the new system, although universal approval of them is still lacking.
“We were very apprehensive when they talked about it -- didn’t think it would work out,” Beth said. “But the conclusion of it, I think, is wonderful; the traffic flows so much better in the morning.”
Aside from the traffic that would often snarl the roadway during the school commute, there were still other hazards Beth and Greg had to watch out for. Beth said they routinely had near-collisions when they’d try to turn into their own driveway from Division Street and other drivers behind them wouldn’t slow down. That hasn’t happened since the roundabout was installed, though.
According to Beltrami County Engineer Bruce Hasbargen, the amount of good feedback his department received has also outweighed the negatives.
“From what we’ve heard, everything’s going good,” Hasbargen said. “We haven’t heard of any major accidents, and we’ve heard it’s going well. Of course it’s not perfect; there are some who don’t like roundabouts, but the majority is positive on it.”
While it’s too early for hard numbers, Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin also said the corridor changes have been an improvement.
“I can say anecdotally the number of accidents have heavily gone down and the speeds have definitely come into compliance with what’s posted there,” Mastin said. “The speed limit there is 45 mph, and prior to the roundabouts it was not uncommon to see someone driving 60 mph on the street there.”
Kris Berndt lives on Division Street on the other side of the high school roundabout. And, like the Kleebs, he was skeptical about the project beforehand but has since come to appreciate the change.
“It seems a lot easier for us to get out of our driveway,” Berndt said.
If he wanted to turn east on Division Street, toward Fifth Street from his driveway, that wasn’t always a possibility back when a traffic light ruled the intersection. If there’s a day when traffic is still heavy enough that it prevents him from turning left, he knows he can make a quick about-face in the roundabout. Before, however, he would have to go all the way to Adams Avenue and either turn around in one of the businesses’ parking lots or make a large loop and go into town via 15th Street.
Not everyone has gotten on board with the concept of roundabouts. Within the last week, the Bemidji City Council entertained the possibility of installing multiple more roundabouts on the Highway 197 business corridor. While there was some support for the proposal, the council ultimately voted against the initiative with a 4-3 vote.
And, even some of those who changed their minds on the subject admit there might be one or two challenges to the system. For example, Beth Kleeb said the weeds grow so high in the middle of the roundabout that it’s difficult to see cars approaching from the other side. It’s also caused some snow plow issues for the Kleebs’ neighbor, whose driveway exits directly into the roundabout in front of the high school.
The city of Bemidji, Beltrami County, the school district and the state all played a role in the construction of the Division Street roundabouts. In total, four of them were installed along the corridor, with one in 2017 and three more in 2018.
The 2017 project came to a total of about $1 million while the 2018 work was just under $3 million. Bemidji Area Schools provided $1.1 million, while the city contributed $236,000 for the 2017 work. The state of Minnesota also contributed to the project through its Local Road Improvement grant program.
The roundabouts are located at Jefferson Avenue, Adams Avenue, the Bemidji High School entrance and at Becida Road near Gene Dillon Elementary School.
Those four roundabouts have now been joined by another on the north side of the Bemidji. Last week, Beltrami County completed work on a new roundabout connecting Irvine Avenue with a U.S. Highway 71 off-ramp. Construction on the roundabout was $775,000 and the state covered $482,000 of the total.
“I think there was apprehension when these were first built because of unfamiliarity,” Mastin said. “I think people now driving near them say that they have improved traffic and there aren’t the type of back-ups we used to see.”