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Bemidji City Council hires firm to study impacts from Highway 197 construction

On Monday, the Bemidji City Council approved hiring an engineering firm to study impacts from a reconstruction project on State Highway 197, with an emphasis on Middle School Avenue and Hannah Avenue.

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The intersection of Paul Bunyan Drive and Hannah Avenue is one of several intersections that will be upgraded during a major reconstruction of State Highway 197 (Paul Bunyan Drive) within the next several years. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The Minnesota Department of Transportation has come closer to settling on options for improvements to the State Highway 197 corridor.

The stretch of road under review extends from Gillett Drive to Bemidji Avenue, with several stores, restaurants, gas stations and the Paul Bunyan Mall along the way. On a daily basis, up to 16,000 vehicles use the road, and that number is expected to reach 20,500 per day in 2030.

During a Bemidji City Council work session Monday, Oct. 25, MnDOT officials gave an update on project proposals for the highway. The agency's communication with the city regarding the project has been ongoing for the last several years, with the council rejecting an earlier proposal for the highway in 2019.

That year, MnDOT held a series of community meetings before submitting its proposal to the city. The proposal would be to add roundabouts at the Menards entrance, as well as Middle School Avenue, Hannah Avenue, Pine Ridge Avenue and Bemidji Avenue.

The proposal was met with opposition from business owners, though, and it was voted down by the council. In 2020, to get better communication with the community, MnDOT worked alongside the Headwaters Regional Development Commission to reach out to the public better.

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A community review panel was established and MnDOT held an online open house from May 24-June 25, as well as popup events at businesses on June 18 and 19, all with the goal of improving feedback for corridor improvements. The top priorities from 407 survey participants were access, safety and traffic flow.

Based on the feedback, MnDOT showed two proposals for the center and east sections of the corridor.

In the center of the corridor, both the entrance to Paul Bunyan Mall and Ridgeway Avenue would continue having stoplights. On the east section, Park Avenue would have a divided intersection, allowing motorists to only make right turns, while Irvine Avenue would continue having a stoplight.

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Center and east segment options along State Highway 197 are shown in this map provided by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Courtesy / MnDOT)

The west section of the corridor still has factors to be determined. Currently, MnDOT has two options for the area, which is to either have stoplights at Middle School Avenue and Hannah Avenue or roundabouts.

Regardless, either plan for the west end would include a roundabout at the Menards entrance.

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The west segment options along State Highway 197 are shown in this map provided by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Courtesy / MnDOT)

To better understand how changes at the intersections would impact Middle School Avenue and Hannah Avenue, the council approved a $26,000 agreement with KLJ Engineering of St. Paul to do a study.

"The Community Review Panel is advisory to the council, and fundamentally, it comes down to what the city council feels is best for the businesses and general public," City Manager Nate Mathews said. "That's why we have to do this extra analysis on our side to look at these two alternatives and what the impacts from that are."

In total, the project is estimated at $18.5 million, with the city share coming to $2.6 million. In addition to reconstructing the pavement, which is needed by 2026, the project will include work on storm sewers, gutters and other utilities.

"When you make that kind of investment, you want to maximize the investment," Assistant District Engineer Darren Laesch said. "We know this corridor had more than 500 crashes in the 10 years we've studied it and it has five intersections considered critical crash locations. We want this to work for all users and be safe for all users. That means cars, trucks, people walking and people biking."

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