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Changes sought at Bemidji's Second Street intersection

Craig Gray, city engineer, reported that it took him 7.5 minutes to travel the detour route along Irvine Avenue during Thursday morning rush hour. "I did not think that was bad at all," Gray said. He was among about 20 people who attended a meeti...

Craig Gray, city engineer, reported that it took him 7.5 minutes to travel the detour route along Irvine Avenue during Thursday morning rush hour.

"I did not think that was bad at all," Gray said.

He was among about 20 people who attended a meeting Thursday morning about the ongoing roadwork for Bemidji Avenue at Bemidji City Hall. Much of the discussion focused on the detour along Irvine Avenue and the stop light at Second Street and Bemidji Avenue.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp asked if there was any way to create a second left-turn lane or disable the red light to allow for better traffic flow at the intersection.

Kari Howe, owner of Dunn Bros. Coffee, said she was sitting at the red light on Bemidji Avenue waiting to turn left onto Second Street and drivers behind her began honking, urging her to drive through the red light.

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"People aren't heeding that anyway," she said.

Todd Vonasek, resident engineer with MnDOT, said it was disheartening to hear that drivers are not following the traffic laws.

Bemidji Police Chief Gerald Johnson affirmed in an interview Thursday afternoon that the Minnesota State Patrol and Bemidji Police Department are enforcing traffic laws along the detour route, including at the Second Street intersection.

"Any time you violate the laws of a traffic signal, you run the chance of being charged," Johnson said.

Vonasek reminded attendees that the detour will be moved to Fifth Street once the first portion of the roadwork is done in mid-June. He said it would not be beneficial to change the current traffic control at Second Street because new traffic patterns would not be duplicated at Fifth Street.

MnDOT is trying to train everyone so they know what to expect, he said.

When the detour was first put in place Monday morning, it wasn't long before MnDOT closed the left-turn lane from Bemidji Avenue to Pamida due to traffic cutting through the parking lot, Vonasek said. On Thursday, that lane was reopened at the owner's request.

Johnson reiterated on Thursday that the parking lot is private property and traffic should not be cutting through to access the detour route.

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Vonasek said that MnDOT's goal was to keep traffic moving; slowly, perhaps, but moving nonetheless.

Howe said her business has seen a loss in customers due to drivers taking the U.S. Highway 2 bypass or finding alternate routes through downtown to avoid the detour.

"Our customers have just dropped," she said.

The Second Street stop light is set up so traffic leaving the waterfront parking lot triggers it to change, MnDOT officials explained. However, the light also will turn to red for Bemidji Avenue traffic once it has remained green for the maximum time allowed.

Vonasek said retraining drivers would be disastrous.

"It's a monumental task to do it and it has a monumental impact," he said.

Lori Paris, the executive director of the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce, said there were multiple aspects to consider, including the impact on local businesses.

Gray suggested that perhaps a sign could be erected to tell drivers it is only a seven-minute drive to downtown along the detour route. He also asked if the length of the red light for Bemidji Avenue could be shortened; even if traffic is leaving the waterfront, he said it probably doesn't need to stay red for 30 seconds.

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Howe said she was worried that people will get used to their new route and not revert to driving downtown even when the roadwork is complete.

"Please shop your local businesses," she said.

Paris suggested to Howe that perhaps the Chamber could develop an advertising campaign to promote the downtown businesses.

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