BEMIDJI -- The future of a major corridor in Bemidji was under discussion by the City Council on Monday evening.
During a work session, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation gave a presentation about a renewed effort to explore improvement options for State Highway 197. The stretch of road in question extends from Gillette Drive to Bemidji Avenue.
On a daily basis, between 10,000 and 16,000 motorists use the highway, and by 2030, the number is expected to hit 20,500. According to MnDOT, the pavement is expected to end its service life by 2025.
In addition to resurfacing and upgrades to utility infrastructure, MnDOT is looking to make the corridor safer for residents. MnDOT estimates one crash per week on the corridor, one injury per month and one pedestrian or bicycle crash per year.
In 2019, MnDOT began discussions with the community about a possible option for the stretch of road. The proposal included roundabouts to be installed at the Menards entrance, Middle School Avenue, Hannah Avenue, Pine Ridge Avenue and Bemidji Avenue.
The proposal was met with opposition by several business owners, though, and the council voted it down in 2019. MnDOT revived the planning process in 2020 for some type of upgrade to the corridor, partnering with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission for community outreach efforts.
A few community meetings have taken place so far, and on Monday, MnDOT officials told city officials that they will be breaking up the corridor into three sections for more specific reviews. One part will be Gillett Drive to Hannah Avenue, the next from Hannah Avenue to Ridgeway Avenue, and the third from Ridgeway Avenue to Bemidji Avenue.
MnDOT has invited stakeholders of the corridor to be involved in the process and evaluate the different alternatives in those three sections. On Monday, Ward 2 Council member Josh Peterson was skeptical of MnDOT's plans, as roundabouts are still on the table.
"Through this process, I've been at these meetings since August, and from the get go, it's been 'roundabouts, roundabouts, roundabouts,'" Peterson said. "I was under the assumption the council rejected that. We're still getting a tailored message saying 'roundabouts.' Why are we still getting it proposed to us as a suggested option. . . It's not feeling all that transparent on MnDOT's behalf."
"We're looking for that compromise solution," MnDOT representative Darren Laesch said in response. "We're looking at what we can do for safety. Adding right in, right out only turns, cutting down the number of access points, looking at roundabouts and trying to slow traffic down. I think it's going to be all hands on deck, all four of those will have to be looked at. In a lot of ways, roundabouts are going to be the least impactful of those four, that's why it's still on the table. Roundabouts have a significant benefit."
In his comments, Mayor Jorge Prince said it's important to remember the council has changed because of recent elections.
"You really only have three members of the council that were here for the last discussion," Prince said. "You have three new faces and you're about to get a fourth on Feb. 9. So we're all doing our best to represent all of our citizens, and you're dealing with a new council with perspectives on things. So, as you're bringing things forward and having discussions, please keep that in mind."
Ward 3 Council member Ron Johnson also spoke Monday, telling the community that roundabouts aren't completely off the table.
"I'm not anti-roundabout, and I don't think the council was really saying that," Johnson said. "I think we were just against that many in this particular corridor. I think it's going to be good to separate it out. I think by breaking them down, we'll see some results."
Laesch said MnDOT is hoping for a "unified corridor vision" that's supported by the city and community in September. Final planning is then expected in 2024-2025 with construction in 2026-2027.
U.S. Highway 71
Before talking about Highway 197, MnDOT officials also gave a presentation on a proposal for improvements on U.S. Highway 71. The corridor selected is from Highway 197 to Town Hall Road, an 8.5 mile stretch.
The proposed project would reconstruct the road, while also making drainage improvements, with the replacement of multiple culverts. Additionally, MnDOT is suggesting a roundabout at the Anne Street intersection, and reduced conflict intersections at Fern Street Balsam Road, Blueberry Lane, Lakewood Drive and Town Hall Road.
Reduced conflict intersections eliminate left turn options, allowing drivers to only make right turns on to the highway, and make U-turns instead of left turns. The proposal would also improve turn lanes at Winter Sumac Road.
Construction is expected in summer 2022 and the project is estimated at $13.3 million. The city would be involved in cost sharing for the Anne Street intersection. Construction is expected in 2022.