BEMIDJI -- Growing concerns over the new design of Beltrami County Highway 9 led to a discussion with elected officials Tuesday.
During its work session and regular meeting, the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners heard from Eckles Township officials, where the road is located, and Highway Department staff. The conversation comes after two fatalities were reported on the highway in August.
On Aug. 13, a single-vehicle crash was reported on the highway between Balsam Road Northwest and the Bemidji Regional Airport resulting in a fatality. Then, on Aug. 25, a collision involving a bicyclist and a motor vehicle occurred at the junction of the highway and Blue Mayflower Road Northwest.
Concerns about the highway date back to before the collisions occurred, though. The project to County Highway 9 was completed in October 2019 and since then, Eckles Township residents have raised issues.
The construction project narrowed the shoulders and used the new space to create a larger center buffer while adding multiple rumble strips along lane edges. Opponents of the changes argue that the lack of shoulders has made the street more dangerous.
To address the safety concerns, County Engineer Bruce Hasbargen said Tuesday that one option is constructing a shared-use trail for pedestrians and bicyclists alongside the highway. Still to be determined with that idea is which side of the road it would be on, the trail's relation to existing right-of-ways and the source of a 20% local funding match required for possible grants.
In total, the proposed one-and-a-half-mile trail would be estimated at about $400,000. Resurfacing the road between U.S. Highway 2 and Grange Road, converting it back to how it was, would come to $700,000.
During an open speaking period at the meeting, Eckles Township Chairman Don Hazeman said the entire board has been called repeatedly from citizens asking about the state of the highway and if changes can be made. Hazeman said he supports reverting the road back to how it was before.
"I'm going to use the fact that the county engineer put in this road without the information being disseminated to our township about what this particular road was going to be," Hazeman said. "There were thousands of dollars spent on it. But he's not in the position to spend $700,000 to change that road. However, you as elected officials have the right and obligation based on the facts.
"The figure for putting the new road down is $700,000," said Hazeman, "And then I hear a bike trail put in as an alternative quoted at $400,000 for a mile and a half when you can strip that road down and put it back the way it was for $700,000? I don't think there's a question there."
In his remarks, District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig said he supported changing the road back.
"I certainly agree that it would be nice to have the trail," Gaasvig said. "But my priority would be to put the road back to the way it used to be with the wide shoulders and have a safer option for bikers in the meantime, as well as those who have problems with their cars, in a scenario where they have to pull over."
District 2 Commissioner Reed Olson, meanwhile, said more data is needed related to safety concerns on the highway before action is taken.
"Were either crashes caused by the changes in the road and would they have happened if the road was the way it was before?" Olson said. "I think we just don't have all the answers right now. I caution making a decision until we have all the information."