BEMIDJI-The debate over the future of State Highway 197 spilled into the Beltrami County Board of Commissioners' meeting Tuesday.

A two-mile stretch of the highway in Bemidji, between Bemidji Avenue and Gillett Drive Northwest, has come under scrutiny recently, as the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been studying the corridor to determine how to upgrade it in the next five to eight years.

MnDOT, along with a panel of public works officials and business owners, have been reviewing the corridor to determine the best way to accommodate traffic growth while also improving safety.

Potential options developed the past several months have been met with concern by business owners, especially an option involving roundabouts. During Tuesday's meeting, commissioners learned what the roundabout option, and two others, would entail.

Darren Laesch, MnDOT District 2 planning director, told commissioners on Tuesday the roundabout option would cost about $17 million and include up to six roundabouts at intersections along the corridor. The basis for MnDOT looking at the option, according to Laesch, is the impact it will have on the corridor's safety.

According to MnDOT data, there are 64 points of access where drivers can enter or exit the highway. Over the past decade, MnDOT has recorded 577 crashes, with 161 involving injuries, causing the agency to label it as a critical crash location.

The corridor is expecting a higher volume of traffic along the highway, too. On a daily basis, up to 16,000 vehicles travel the two-mile stretch. By 2030, MnDOT data shows the potential for 20,500 vehicles to drive over the pavement daily.

With the installation of roundabouts, though, Laesch noted some space from businesses will be absorbed, causing concern for some commissioners.

"Why can't MnDOT find a compromise point that would preserve our businesses, provide a decent increase in safety and still preserve bike and walk paths, too," District 5 Commissioner Jim Lucachick said.

"It sounds like you're taking more than you are giving for the local businesses, some of them may be put completely out of business," District 1 Commissioner Craig Gaasvig said. "I think it's possible we can do something to improve this, but I think this is pretty drastic."

The six-roundabout idea wasn't the only option presented Tuesday, though. As part of his presentation, Laesch shared another option to forgo roundabouts and instead add more concrete medians, limiting the number of left turns, at an estimated cost of $16 million.

The third option shared Tuesday is to only focus on a street reconstruction with no additions at a cost between $6 million and $8 million. Regardless of which option is chosen, though, MnDOT officials say the corridor does need a full reconstruct.

According to the agency, the pavement was last paved in 2008 and needs a new overlay. Additionally, the corridor has water utility systems nearly 50 years old and portions of sidewalk noncompliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The corridor study process for MnDOT will end in July and according to MnDOT District 2 Director of Public Engagement TJ Melcher, the agency is hoping for the support of both the city and county governments. The actual reconstruction is expected to take place sometime between 2022 and 2027.


Here's a look at some of the proposed roundabouts that are options for the Highway 197 reconstruction in Bemidji, via a video from the MnDOT Facebook page:

Click on the link to watch: