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Council leaning toward participating in downtown U.S. Highway 2 corridor study

Mike Christopherson

Members of the Crookston City Council, after discussing the matter at a strategic planning session Wednesday evening, appear to be leaning toward participating in a year-long downtown U.S. Highway 2 traffic corridor study that’s a required component leading up to a proposed replacement of the brick-paver sidewalks in 2024 that would make them compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

    Not only that, council members seem to favor including South Broadway and South Main in the study along with the various side-streets connecting Main and Broadway downtown, even if it means the City is going to have to kick in some money in addition to the $100,000 the Minnesota Department of Transportation has in its budget for the City to hire a consultant to conduct it. (Anything south of Robert Street downtown is not considered part of the U.S. Highway 2 corridor, nor are any downtown side streets.)

    In what District 2 MnDOT Project Manager Matt Upgren says is an unusually large investment in a single project, the state ADA office has earmarked $4 million for the downtown sidewalk replacement project. MnDOT is adding another $1.5 million, and it’s anticipated that the City of Crookston would have to invest significant dollars in the project.

    While the major state investment in the downtown Crookston project was a driving force behind much of the council’s positive talk Wednesday on undertaking the corridor study, another reason bolstering council members’ apparent support for including the entire downtown in the study and, potentially, if the local cost doesn’t lead to sticker shock, in the replacement project itself, is ADA compliance. Or, more specifically, the risks that come with continuing to have sidewalks that are not ADA-compliant, and knowing they’re not ADA-compliant.

    “If we know we’re not in compliance and we don’t do anything, we have a problem,” City Attorney Charles “Corky” Reynolds said. “To know about it and do nothing, then you suffer the consequences.”

    Those consequences don’t have to be suffered solely in the event that a disabled person falls or has some other kind of accident and gets injured trying to navigate downtown, Reynolds stressed.

    “Just an individual saying they don’t have access to a certain area, they could sue you,” he explained, adding that, in that event, the City would potentially not only have to pay to make the sidewalk ADA-compliant as a result of the litigation, they might also have to pay damages to the person who filed the lawsuit.

    It’s not just about getting rid of the brick-pavers, which many Crookston residents have thought are attractive and quaint since the day they were installed back in the 1990s, but have attracted a louder chorus of critics, including many downtown business owners, as they’ve aged and become more uneven with the passage of time. Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson, a downtown business owner himself, recalled a walk around downtown he took a couple years ago with Public Works Director Pat Kelly and a representative from the state ADA office, who tried to navigate the sidewalks in his wheelchair while also taking slope measurements at various locations. The worst sidewalks of all during that stroll were on the side-streets, Erickson recalled.

    “It was great information, and to just see how bad our sidewalks are,” he said. “It’s not just the bricks, it’s ADA.”

    “It’s worth the cost to have that analysis” of the entire downtown that would result from the study, At Large Council Member Wayne Melbye added.

    If the council in the coming weeks approves MnDOT’s proposed scope of services, the consultant would be hired and the study would commence. A “community review panel” would also be formed, a required component of the study, to make public engagement and input a constant part of the process, leading up to the panel making a recommendation on what “alternative” is included with the sidewalk replacement project. With ADA-compliant sidewalks needing to be several feet wider than the current sidewalks, it’s highly likely that the current traffic layout on North Main and North Broadway – three lanes of one-way motorized traffic with parallel parking on both sides of the street – will be altered as part of the project. Whether that means the number of motorized traffic lanes is reduced to two lanes and/or parking is reduced or a bicycle lane is added is yet to be determined.

    Whatever “alternative” is chosen by the community review panel, the city council will have the final say, whether they vote in favor of the entire project as forwarded to them, approve a modified version, or reject the entire initiative. That vote would likely take place around this time next year.

    Assuming the council votes in favor of proceeding with the sidewalk replacement project in some way, shape or form, it’s possible the City will issue bonds to cover some or all of whatever the local share of the cost ends up being. City Administrator Amy Finch said she reached out to the City’s financial consultants and, using a $1 million bond issue as an example, learned that the annual debt service on a 10-year term would be around $120,000. On a 20-year term, she said the annual payment would be around $75,000. But, Finch pointed out, with the project not scheduled until 2024, as cost estimates come more into focus and the City share is identified, the council will have some time to prepare by aligning City dollars and strategizing on the best financial vehicle to utilize, whether it’s bonding or something else. That could also include the council setting aside funds for the project over a couple budget cycles leading up to the project, she added.