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Businesses grill MnDOT on Highway 197 roundabouts

Two of the roundabouts suggested as part of one proposed plan for the reconstruction of Highway 197 in Bemidji. (Taken from video)

BEMIDJI -- A presentation on highway improvements became a two-hour inquiry Thursday, with business owners questioning the state’s study and possible intentions for a key Bemidji corridor.

For nearly six months, the Minnesota Department of Transportation has been studying a two-mile stretch of State Highway 197 between Gillett Drive Northwest and Bemidji Avenue.

Officials say the study is to explore how to improve safety along the road, renew aging infrastructure and handle expected traffic growth. The actual construction project is expected to take place in the next five to eight years.

Options for improvements have been met with skepticism in the community, though, especially a concept to convert at least six of the intersections to roundabouts. On Thursday, business owners were able to again voice their issues, this time at a gathering with MnDOT officials organized by the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce.

At various other meetings the past few weeks, and again Thursday, business owners shared their concerns about roundabouts, ranging from their size cutting into property to the number of accesses being reduced along State Highway 197 (also known as Paul Bunyan Drive).

The corridor has 64 access points where drivers can turn onto or off the roadway. On a daily basis, there are up to 16,000 vehicles traveling through the stretch, and by 2030, the number could reach as high as to 20,500.

Having so many accesses with a multitude of options to turn has made the corridor a more dangerous spot, MnDOT says and has labeled the stretch a critical crash location.

"We're all on the same page of what we want. We want a corridor that's safe," TJ Melcher, MnDOT District 2 director of public engagement, told Thursday’s gathering. "We're prioritizing people getting to and from businesses. No longer are we making the corridor just move as fast as possible up and down, but rather getting people off and on efficiently."

The option to reconstruct the highway and add six roundabouts along the corridor is estimated to cost about $17 million. However, it remained a point of contention at the meeting.

"I'm all about improving safety and access for the corridor, I think that's a good thing," said First National Bank President Hugh Welle. "But, what they've proposed is drastic to us. I think that's where the disconnect is. We're having trouble wrapping our minds around that, and that's the conflict I think we have. If there's a way to do it without taking property from owners, that has to be the goal."

MnDOT District 2 Planning Director Darren Laesch explained -- regardless of what safety upgrades are added -- the corridor is in need of a fix. The last time an overlay of new pavement, for example, was in 2008.

Along with aging pavement, the corridor also has gutters and water utility systems more than 50 years old. Portions of the sidewalk are also out of ADA compliance and a few of the traffic signals need to be replaced. To only reconstruct the corridor with no additional safety add-ons would cost between $6 million and $8 million.

As Thursday's session developed a sort of compromise idea came to the surface. Business owners suggested MnDOT approach the project in phases, with consideration for roundabouts only at places with less accesses and for the agency to continue its study to see how the community responds.

As part of his presentation, Laesch also said MnDOT will not move forward on the project without approval by the city.

"If this doesn't work for the public, it's a failure," Laesch said.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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