Council: Major MnDOT project in ’24 on the table

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    Downtown Crookston, including the Main and Broadway arteries and various side-streets, could be in for a major project in 2024 involving new sidewalks that could reduce the number of traffic lanes on the two U.S. Highway 2 thoroughfares from three lanes to two.

    After a lengthy discussion with two Minnesota Department of Transportation officials from MnDOT’s District 2 office in Bemidji, the Crookston City Council and Mayor Dale Stainbrook this week agreed to move forward with additional planning and discussion that will involve getting feedback and input from the public, especially downtown business owners.

    It’s possible that a couple of the next steps will involve a corridor study of traffic through downtown Crookston, whether it’s cars, semis, pedestrians or bicyclists, as well as a “demonstration project” that would involve MnDOT re-striping a block or so of Main or Broadway to show what it would be like with a wider sidewalk and two lanes of traffic instead of three.

    It’s expected that more details will be available for the council and mayor to digest when the council next meets on Oct. 26. New City Administrator Amy Finch, who starts on Oct. 19, will also be able to provide her input.

Two years since previous discussions

    Downtown traffic patterns were the hot topic a couple years ago, with many discussions about a “road diet” and/or “traffic calming” that would reduce the number of traffic lanes on Main and Broadway from three to two. The thinking was that it would slow down motorists, making downtown safer for everyone and also increasing the chances that they actually notice some downtown businesses and other destinations and choose to stop.

    A big part of those discussions and another main driver behind reducing the lanes of motorized traffic was a pitch to make room for a bicycle lane, an idea that spurred widely varying opinions on how much a bicycle lane would actually be used.

    But Matt Upgren, MnDOT District 2 project manager, and Jon Mason, MnDOT District 2 planning director, stressed in the council chambers this week that the addition of a bike lane is not the driving force behind the possibility of reducing traffic on Main and Broadway from three lanes to two. Instead, it’s the very strong likelihood that as part of replacing the downtown brick-paver sidewalks in order to make them Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant – their slopes currently have them non-ADA compliant – the sidewalks would have to be made four feet wider, which would reduce space for motorized traffic on the two arteries by eight feet.

    MnDOT always plans several years ahead for various transportation-related projects across the state, Upgren said, and in 2024 money is being earmarked for the construction of new ADA-compliant sidewalks on Main and Broadway in downtown Crookston, on the portions of both roads that are considered part of the U.S. Highway 2 corridor. Main and Broadway south of Robert Street as well as various side-streets are under City control and it would be on the City’s dime to do any work in those areas.

    If the City wanted to, reconstructing the Main and Broadway roadways themselves could be added to the sidewalk replacement project, but the concrete surfaces, after being reconstructed in the late-1990s and getting spruced up in 2005, is in good shape, Upgren said, and is not included in any MnDOT projects projected out over the next decade. He and Mason estimated it would be 15 to 20 years and maybe even longer before MnDOT would earmark dollars for a project involving any concrete work or reconstruction of the Main and Broadway U.S. Highway 2 corridor through downtown.

    Although council members and Stainbrook said they’re open to considering all options at this point and like the sound of conducting a corridor study and demonstration project, there appears to be no appetite to reconstruct the Main and Broadway roadways when the concrete is still in good shape.

    But they do realize that the time to move on from the attractive but bumpy and difficult to maintain brick-paver sidewalks downtown has likely come. Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson, a downtown business owner, has long been a critic, and he was joined in this week’s discussion by Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee, secretary of the Eagles Club downtown.

    Even if the 2024 project involves only a sidewalk replacement and even though MnDOT has money earmarked for the project, it won’t cover the entire cost, Mason and Upgren said. MnDOT is required to partner with the City via a cost-share joint powers agreement, they said, and the City’s share is going to be substantial, likely to the point that the City, especially if the council wants to keep downtown looking uniform so they add City-controlled streets to the 2024 project, would have to issue bonds to finance the local share.

    “It’s a big project,” Upgren explained. “Even with just the sidewalk replacement, we’d have to replace the traffic signals and rebuild your storm sewer and intersections would be redesigned. MnDOT would take on the bulk of the work but we’d be bound to do some cost-sharing with the City.”

    The City has the option of doing nothing, he said, but the sidewalks’ non-compliance with ADA in regard to pedestrian ramps, accessible pedestrian signals, trip hazards and cross slopes is significant. Council members and the mayor seemed to indicate that maintaining the status quo was not a plausible consideration.

    “It’s a big risk to not be ADA-compliant,” Fee noted.

    But, as was the case a couple years ago, there are significant concerns about reduced traffic lanes on Main and Broadway. Will parking be lost? How will semis that unload materials for Northern Lumber find the space to do so with two lanes of traffic? How will semi tractor-trailers turning from Robert Street onto North Broadway navigate the tight window with wider sidewalks and two lanes of traffic?

    The corridor study would cost around $70,000, Upgren said. The City of Fosston is currently in the midst of a similar study and discussion regarding its downtown traffic patterns, and it’s spurring strong opinions on both sides of a proposal to reduce from four lanes of traffic to one lane each of east and westbound traffic on U.S. Highway 2 through town, with a continuous turn lane in the middle. The City of Bagley a couple years ago went through a similar process, and in the end went against a proposal to reduce the number of traffic lanes on U.S. Highway 2 through their town.

    Council members agreed with Upgren and Mason that the process needs to continue moving forward toward a potential variety of conclusions, mostly so the funding earmarked for 2024 isn’t lost or somehow missed out on.

    “Let’s move ahead with the study that addresses all of the areas we want to look at and learn more about,” Ward 4 Council Member Don Cavalier said. Cavalier, whose ward covers part of downtown, also added that a comprehensive survey of downtown business and property owners was recently wrapped up and the results will be disseminated in the coming weeks.

    “(The corridor study) would help determine costs, the cost-share and the timeline,” Upgren said. “Knowing what we know now, we should proceed. The City is interested in a project, in doing something, whether that’s two lanes or not, the study will help determine that.”