Vocal 'focus group' discusses and debates merits of potential 'traffic calming' project in downtown Crookston

    Although Minnesota Department of Transportation officials and an engineer from a firm they’re working with stressed at a “focus group” meeting at city hall Monday meeting that no actual “project” has been identified that would result in reduced lanes of motorized traffic on Main and Broadway downtown and the addition of a bike lane, they did say that a MnDOT steering committee working on a bicycle plan for each MnDOT district in the state and “active transportation” initiatives has identified downtown Crookston as a prime candidate for “traffic calming” measures in MnDOT’s District 2.

    MnDOT, as it often does, is consulting with City officials on various topics, and traffic calming has jumped to the forefront, City Administrator Shannon Stassen told the Times. So, in advance of a meeting set for Wednesday afternoon to discuss traffic calming and other matters, Stassen said MnDOT District 2 Planning Director Darren Laesch asked that a “focus group” of sorts be convened Monday evening in the city hall council chambers to have a discussion on the potential traffic calming measures on Main and Broadway, which would most likely involve the reduction in traffic lanes from three to two and the addition of a bike lane. So for more than two hours Monday, around 40 people, a mix of City officials, city council members, downtown business owners and traffic calming proponents, as well as those less enthusiastic about making changes to downtown traffic, debated the issue and tossed ideas back and forth.

    K.C. Atkins, director of engineering for the Midwest with Toole Design in Minneapolis, presented seven possible traffic calming, from the quickest, simplest and cheapest option that would require little more than modified lane striping, to a full reconstruction that would cost millions of dollars. No one seemed to have an appetite for any expensive options that would result in recently refurbished Main and Broadway being torn up, along with the sidewalks, and utilities being relocated, and, also, no one seems to think that’s feasible, anyway, for multiple reasons. If there was an option that rose above the rest – it generated a couple positive comments – it was one of the cheaper, quicker options that includes a bike lane with a “buffer” in the form of various planters (instead of less attractive marker poles) that could be removed and stored for the winter to ease in snow removal.

    “We don’t need the $35 million solution,” Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese noted. “We can do a whole lot with paint.”

    “These are totally abstract options to get the conversation going,” Atkins added.
Many reasons it’s being explored

    Laesch and Atkins called it “active transportation.” Tim Denney of Bike Crookston called them “complete streets.” No matter the labels, everyone agreed that any talk of traffic calming on Main and Broadway is about making downtown more welcoming and safer for everyone, whether they get around in a vehicle, on a bike, or by walking. Reducing lanes of traffic, they said, has been shown to reduce traffic speeds, and basically everyone in the council chambers Monday agreed that people drive too fast on Main and Broadway.

    “We’ve been talking about downtown Crookston for years, but it’s a challenging concept, in that we wonder what we can do that best serves everyone. It’s a limited amount of space but a busy corridor,” Laesch explained. “So how do you find the balance when using a space with a lot of truck traffic, car traffic, pedestrians and bikes.” The steering committee launched around a year ago to look at bike plans in MnDOT districts, including District 2, identified downtown Crookston as a “preferred choice for a project,” Laesch continued. “But we don’t have a good answer yet,” he said. “But if there’s a corridor in the district that needs more analysis, this was the corridor of choice.”

    One of the aspects of Monday’s session involved people offering up things they like about downtown Crookston’s traffic corridor, and things they don’t like. In the end, the big sheets of paper on the wall had a lot more things people don’t like than they do like. Speeding vehicles and a lack of safety in general were two topic areas that seemed to envelope a majority of the specific dislikes.

    “We’re trying to grow our downtown, but people just race through on the long straightaways; they don’t pause long enough to look around or see any businesses,” Planning Commission Chair Joe Kresl said. “People who aren’t from here, they just keep on going. Maybe if they were going slower, they’d stop, park, and see some of the town.”

    In addition to questions about how large semi tractor-trailers will be able to make tight turns onto a traffic-calmed Main and Broadway and stop to make deliveries – Laesch said those concerns must be addressed in any potential project – snow removal was also a hot topic Monday. But when Atkins was told that after significant snow events City Public Works crews load up and haul away plowed and piled-up snow from downtown, she said that was a “huge” positive factor that would improve the performance of traffic calming measures in the winter, and something that not many cities  in size similar to Crookston do.

    To questions about the actual number of avid bicyclists in Crookston, Atkins and Denney noted that when traffic calming projects are considered, the vision goes beyond 5 or 10 years and instead extends decades into the future, when the assumption that the vast majority of people will still be driving their own vehicles everywhere comes under more scrutiny. Younger and future generations, Denney said, want “complete streets” that attract everyone, no matter their mode of transportation, to downtown and the businesses, entertainment and housing opportunities located there.

    Laesch and Atkins were to take the topics discussed Tuesday into Wednesday’s meeting with City officials and the City’s engineers, in the anticipation of further exploration into traffic calming in downtown Crookston. Laesch has said previously that no traffic calming project would be implemented without the community buying into it, and the city council approving it.