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Benefits of roundabouts shared during virtual MnDOT meeting

Highway 197 web art.jpg

BEMIDJI -- Bemidji business owners, officials and residents heard anecdotal details Tuesday of how roundabouts impact traffic in other communities.

During a digital meeting hosted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, city engineering officials and entrepreneurs from Mankato and Richfield discussed how traffic has improved with little impact to businesses with the installation of roundabouts on key corridors. The meeting comes as MnDOT works with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission to study improvement options for a stretch of Minnesota Highway 197 in Bemidji.

Known as Paul Bunyan Drive in the city, the corridor stretches from Gillette Drive to Bemidji Avenue and has 64 access points. On a daily basis, between 10,000 and 16,000 motorists use the stretch of road, and that number is expected to be up to 20,500 by 2030.

According to MnDOT, the pavement on Highway 197 is expected to end its service life by 2025. Along with needing to replace the surface and improve sidewalks, the agency is also looking to make alterations to increase the corridor's safety.

In 2019, after several community meetings , MnDOT introduced the city to a proposal to install six roundabouts along the corridor. The roundabouts would have been installed during the mid-2020s at the Menards entrance, Middle School Avenue, Hannah Avenue, Pine Ridge Avenue and Bemidji Avenue.

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The first phase of the project , which would have started with three roundabouts, was denied by the Bemidji City Council in August 2019 . Voting against the project were council members Mike Beard of Ward 2, Nancy Erickson of Ward 5, Ron Johnson of Ward 3 and At Large representative Jim Thompson. Voting in favor of the first phase were Mayor Rita Albrecht and Council members Michael Meehlhause of Ward 1 and Emelie Rivera of Ward 4.

In 2020, MnDOT chose to partner with the HRDC to once again have a conversation with business owners and citizens on how to improve the corridor. Next year, another proposal for improvements on Highway 197 is expected to go before the council.

Following resignations by Beard and Thompson because of health reasons, and results from the 2020 election, the council will look different than it did in 2019. In 2021, the council will include Jorge Prince as mayor, Audrey Thayer representing Ward 1, Josh Peterson in the seat for Ward 2, and either Daniel Jourdain or Dave Larson holding the At Large position depending on the results of a special election. Remaining on the Council will be Erickson, Johnson and Rivera.

As part of the conversation for the new proposal at Tuesday's digital meeting, roundabouts were once again up as part of the dialogue. During the meeting, Bemidjians were able to ask questions to individuals from both Mankato and Richfield on how roundabouts have changed traffic flows.

In speaking at the meeting, Richfield Public Works Transportation Engineer Jack Broz said, "people still ask the question 'do people avoid the corridor,' and I tell them the answer is 'no.' There's more traffic on the corridor now than in our history. The idea is fear of the unknown Vs. breaking through with education."

RELATED: More on State Highway 197 project

Highway 71 also on the schedule

The Highway 197 corridor is just one of two in the Bemidji region that MnDOT is working on. The agency is also in the planning process for improvements to intersections along U.S. Highway 71 between Highway 197 and Winter Sumac Road.

On that stretch, there are eight intersections being reviewed, with crossings at Anne Street, Balsam Road, Blueberry Lane, Glidden Road, Lakewood Drive, Net Way and Winter Sumac Road.

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Planned for 2022, the project will include resurfacing and safety improvements for the intersections. To provide more information, MnDOT is holding virtual open houses from Dec. 1-14, which can be accessed at mndot.gov/d2/projects/hwy71-bemidji .

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