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Stoplight discussed as alternative to Akeley roundabout

A work session led by MnDOT to discuss options for a Hwy. 34 project was held Thursday in Akeley. The project is scheduled to begin in 2022.

Council members Bobbie Wosika and Dan Riggs attended, along with business owners Nancy Lewis and Jill Walker from T&M Express and Zita Howard from Zappy's Cafe. Akeley resident Frank Lamb also attended. Laura Hadrava, project manager from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), facilitated the meeting.

"I'm here to listen," she said. "I'll try to draft something up that addresses your highest priorities." Hadrava said the area included is from Hillside to Franklin, "maybe a little beyond that depending on drainage."

Traffic light or roundabout?

Riggs said he has heard positive feedback about the Hwy. 34 project, which includes new sidewalks and storm sewer, but everyone he talked to has been against a roundabout at the Hwy. 34/Hwy. 64 intersection. Walker agreed.

"For our business that's right on the corner with a roundabout right there, how are people going to get in and out of our establishment and how are semis going to get in to deliver gas?" she asked.

Having enough space for larger vehicles to maneuver a roundabout was also discussed.

"If I had a camper on the back of my truck and you had a roundabout there, there's no way I could make a left turn," Riggs said. "Even if there was no roundabout and everyone was out of my way, it would be hard to swing out without infringing on someone's real estate."

Hadrava said a full-sized roundabout would fit if they took a little land from the gas station as well as from memorial side where the flags are.

Wosika said a roundabout may not work to solve traffic and pedestrian safety issues "and then we'd have to spend money to fix that issue."

Lamb suggested that while a roundabout would reduce speeding, a traffic light would be a better solution.

Wosika asked for a cost comparison between a roundabout and a stoplight.

"I have not run costs on the roundabout," Hadrava said. "I can tell you a stoplight is about $300,000 to do the intersection. MnDOT would pay for three-quarters of it. So you'd be looking at $75,000."

"I'd rather see a traffic light than a roundabout," Riggs said.

"A light would slow traffic a lot too," Wosika added.

Lamb suggested a "traffic light ahead" sign would also help reduce traffic speeds.

"A traffic light is ideal. It's the best way to go, there's no doubt about it," Lamb said.

"It doesn't really warrant a traffic light right now," Hadrava said. "That would be up to our traffic engineer."

"He needs to sit out there on Friday and Sunday in the summer," Lamb said.

Hadrava was asked if MnDOT had done a traffic count recently.

"Not to my knowledge," she said.

Lamb said at busy times, like Eelpout and WeFest, cars may be backed up for four blocks, making it hard for some residents to exit from their driveways.

Pedestrian safety

"I walk a lot in the spring, summer and fall and I would like to see some way to make it safe for pedestrians in the crosswalk," Wosika said. "People don't want to stop and if you're in the crosswalk. They're tooting at you or flipping you off and they're not saying very nice things. When they come around that corner, they're not going 30 miles an hour. They're going 50 to 60 miles an hour and I'm hightailing it back to where I started or I'm hightailing it to the other side because they're like a bunch of speed demons coming into town. I really worry now that school's going to be letting out. I live on the corner of Pleasant and Hwy. 34. I have gone out there and stopped traffic so kids can walk into the crosswalk or go across on their bikes because nobody wants to stop for them. You've got kids in the crosswalk and drivers are zipping around them. I get really worried."

Crossing safely is even more challenging for those with scooters or wheelchairs.

"Look at Mark," Howard said, referring to her uncle who is in a wheelchair. "Often he'll sit at the corner for 10 or 15 minutes before he can cross the street. Ninety percent of the time he'll wave on traffic just because he doesn't want to take the risk. It is a very busy corner. He's been in a wheelchair for 50-some years and if you put a roundabout there the time he'll take crossing to the bank or gas station to come uptown it will be just as long because they won't stop."

While traffic lights do have signs telling pedestrians when it is safe to cross, Hadrava said they can also give pedestrians a false sense of security.

"We know people can run red lights," she said. "There are pros and cons to both."

"I reiterate that I'd be concerned about pedestrian crossings with a roundabout," Wosika said.

Wosika also expressed concern about drivers passing on the shoulder. "We need to figure out that issue, too," she said.

Howard added people drive way too fast and that has caused accidents and near misses near Zappy's. She said some drivers cut through her parking lot going about 30 miles an hour, adding "some members of the younger generation don't pay attention to signs and generally go as fast as they want."

Wosika said she has often seen people go through Zappy's parking lot rather than wait to turn at the corner.

Bike lane and green space

Riggs said the city sees quite a bit of bicycle traffic on the Heartland Trail, and that often filters into Paul Bunyan Park.

"They come to the museum in the summertime and they come to town," Lamb said.

"It seems if you're going to be tearing up all the roads and you've got a trail right in town that you're encouraging people to use it makes sense to add bike lanes," Lewis said.

The concern was expressed that in some other cities, cars have been seen driving in the bike lane, making it unsafe for bikes.

"The thing with Akeley is you have a lot of room, so you could have a bike lane and pedestrian lane with enough room to have green space between so people can't drive in the bike lane," Hadrava said.

Hadrava said MnDOT will pay for up to 12 feet of parking, and anything beyond that is 100 percent city responsibility. The entire width of the road currently is 76 feet, leaving room for many layout possibilities for a combination of sidewalk, pedestrian lane and bike lane designs.

Adding a green space was discussed. MnDOT will cover the cost of planting grass. Riggs said the city would likely have the responsibility of maintaining the area, which could also be used for snow storage.

"If you just put in grass and no trees you could mow it all in about an hour," Lamb said.

After the meeting, Hadrava said 4-foot-wide sidewalks are required for pedestrian accessibility for the disabled.

Detour options

Hadrava said the work would be expected to last all summer.

Riggs said that the last time they had a detour in town it destroyed the street used "and MnDOT just left the city with the destroyed street to fix. I'd sure hate to see that happen again," he said.

"The trucks chewed it up," Lamb added.

Hadrava said a separate truck detour may be an option, but that would be up to the project engineer.

"Is there a way to do half of the project and put two lanes on the other side?" Riggs asked.

"It's wide enough we could do that," Lamb added.

"That would cut the wear and tear on the detour by half," Riggs said. Wosika suggested a pilot car could be used.

Moving forward

While the project is still four years away, decisions need to be made this year to give engineers direction moving forward.

"My goal is to have this decided before the end of this year," Hadrava said. "I would like it before the end of summer."

"Then we can plan for anything we're going to incur as a city as well," Riggs said. "We start on our budget in July."

"Who makes the final decision for this project?" Lamb asked.

"I'd like to take some of your concerns back and talk to the functional leads and the design engineer and bring some things back to this group and have you prioritize," Hadrava said. "You're not necessarily going to get everything you want because of standards and requirements we have to abide by. I'd like to find something that we can all live with."

"I'd like to see stoplights," Lamb said. "I think it's the ideal solution. If we can come up with $75,000 we should do it."

The rest of the people at the meeting agreed.

"It's not until 2022 so that gives us plenty of time to budget for it," Wosika said.

"It would give us time to search for grants as well," Riggs added. "Would MnDOT go for a stoplight if the city agreed to pay its share?"

"I will definitely bring it up," Hadrava said. "In the end it would have to go to the city council, too."

"Before there is any additional talk of a stoplight moving forward, it would first have to be approved by MnDOT," Hadrava said after the meeting.

The date for the next Highway 34 project work session has not yet been set.