Council retains firm to conduct downtown traffic corridor study

Mike Christopherson

With the Crookston City Council this week unanimously approving the retaining of a consultant to lead the effort, the community is one step closer to embarking on a year-long study of the U.S. Highway 2 corridor through downtown Crookston that could result in significant changes in the way traffic, both motorized and non-motorized, flows on Main and Broadway.

    All that remains to be done before the study can officially commence is the approval of a finalized joint powers agreement between the City and the Minnesota Department of Transportation. The council in March green-lighted MnDOT to begin drafting the agreement.

    The driving force behind the entire project is the need to make the corridor’s brick-paver sidewalks compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Previous inspections have found pitch angles that are non-compliant, and in several areas deteriorating bricks or portions of sidewalks pushed up by the trees lining the sidewalks have resulted in trip hazards and other problems for both the disabled and non-disabled to navigate them.

    In a nod to the high degree of need for a downtown sidewalk fix in Crookston, the state ADA office has committed $4 million to a downtown Crookston project in 2024. MnDOT has said it will kick in additional $1.5 million, and the City will have to invest significant dollars as well if the council at the study’s conclusion sometime in 2022 approves going forward with a project.

    If a project is eventually approved, it’s likely that the ADA-compliant sidewalks will be wider than they are now, increasing the likelihood that the current traffic pattern that has three lanes of motorized, one-way traffic on Main and Broadway with parallel parking on both sides will be modified.

Consultant chosen and hired

    The actual U.S. Highway 2 corridor through downtown begins on Main and Broadway north of Robert Street. MnDOT previously set aside $100,000 to cover the cost of retaining a consulting firm to conduct the study. The city council previously approved also including in the study the six blocks on South Main and South Broadway south of Robert Street in order have a consistent project on the entirety of Main and Broadway. MnDOT previously estimated that including the “local” blocks outside of the corridor would add around $50,000 to the study’s cost, which would be the City’s responsibility.     (The council also previously decided against including side-streets between Main and Broadway in the study, choosing instead to start an annual plan of tackling the worst spots first as side-street sidewalk improvements are made.)

    Perhaps not surprisingly, given the almost-post-pandemic climate that has costs for just about everything soaring, two of the three bids that were submitted in response to the City’s request for proposals were higher than projected, City Administrator Amy Finch said this week. But when she did further research into the trio of bidders and consulted with MnDOT Project Manager Matt Upgren, Finch said it was determined that the best strategy was to not simply go with the firm that submitted the lowest bid, but to go with the bidder, SRF Consulting Group, Inc., of Fargo, that has extensive experience with similar corridor studies and, in Finch’s words, has the “most robust project team” comprised of around 15 people to address downtown Crookston’s fairly unique traffic situation.

    SRF’s bid was $203,970. With MnDOT kicking in its $100,000, that still left the City on the hook for almost $104,000, more than twice what was estimated. But Finch said MnDOT was able to commit more dollars to the study – two-thirds of the cost – leaving the City responsible for $68,000. Previously, Finch said the City’s general fund reserves would be able to come up with the previously estimated $50,000, and this week she said covering an additional $18,000 would be doable.

Community involvement, and three “alternatives”

    A major component of the study will involve a “Community Review Panel” that will provide constant input to the consultant as the study progresses. The study’s goal is to produce three “alternatives” for the downtown Crookston Main and Broadway corridors, which could involve things like adding a bicycle lane and reducing motorized traffic lanes from three to two. Then, the Community Review Panel and the consultant will recommend one of the alternatives, which will be passed along to the council, which will have the final say.

    At that point, Upgren said, the council can approve the recommended alternative, pick another alternative, or nix proceeding with any project at all. If the latter happens, Upgren said, “It will be over.” In other words, no project would happen and the ADA and MnDOT money committed to a 2024 project in Crookston would be earmarked for something else elsewhere. Given the good condition of the Main and Broadway surfaces, Upgren previously said it would likely be 15 to 20 years or more before another significant project would be explored for the downtown Crookston corridor.

    To give some context, the City of Bagley recently commenced with a similar effort along U.S. Highway 2 through its downtown. There were some bumps in the road, figuratively not literally, and eventually the city council there voted against doing a project after the study’s completion. A little to the west, in Fosston, a similar study was conducted, and Upgren said the city council there proceeded with a re-striping of U.S. Highway 2 through its downtown that is resulting in middle turn-lanes at various intersections.

    When Ward 2 Council member Steve Erickson suggested that local officials should consult with officials in Bagley and Fosston as Crookston commences with its study, Upgren said he thought that was a good idea.

    At some point in the study, as alternatives emerge or one is recommended, it’s possible that a “demonstration project” could be done that would take a small area of Main or Broadway and, using cones and other barriers, attempt to incorporate in temporary fashion the changes being considered. Upgren said that’s an option “on the table” at some point.

    But he said that’s a decision to be made later. For now, he said the City’s selection of SRF is a strong one and positions the community for a high-quality corridor study.

    “It’s important that we get this right,” Upgren said. “The alternatives, should the council vote to proceed with a preferred alternative, that has a lasting impact. …It’s more than just sidewalks, it’s traffic signals and the geometric layout of the whole corridor.

    “It’s a big decision that affects the future of Crookston,” he added.

    Ward 1 Council member Kristie Jerde said the extensive community input is a critical component of the study, because she says she hears from constituents who are concerned about safety along Main and Broadway.

    Upgren, as he has in previous discussions, stressed that the city council will have the final say, and that MnDOT can’t force changes to the downtown Crookston U.S. Highway 2 corridor.

    “Legally, MnDOT can’t increase or decrease access in a city without the City say-so,” he said. “We can’t make any changes even if we wanted to, in Crookston, add a lane or reduce a lane. We don’t want to operate that way anyway.”