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MNDOT: It's rare to be ear-marked for ADA project

Mike Christopherson
Crookston Times

    It’s “very rare” for $4 million to be earmarked for a “stand-alone” Americans With Disabilities Act project like the one proposed for 2024 by the State of Minnesota to make Crookston’s sidewalks along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor downtown ADA-compliant, the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s manager of the proposed project told City leaders this week. But if the Crookston City Council decides not to move forward on the project, MnDOT’s Matt Upgren said, that’s their prerogative.

    Asked by Ward 1 Council Member Kristie Jerde what would happen if the council decided not to pursue the sidewalk replacement project, which will likely result in reduced motorized traffic lanes and/or reduced parking on Main and Broadway (U.S. Highway 2) downtown, Upgren said the only thing that would likely happen is traffic signals along the downtown corridor would be replaced because the current ones are near the end of their life.

    “You don’t have any other funds programmed for a while,” Upgren said, adding that it would probably be another 15 to 20 years before the State allocated any funds for any major paving work along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor in downtown Crookston (considered to be Robert Street and heading north on North Broadway and North Main).

    “It’s a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offer; an opportunity that if you want it, go for it,” Upgren noted. “But if not, we’ll move the funding somewhere else.”

    Reached by the Times after this week’s discussion with the council and asked to comment on the amount of outside money being made available to the proposed Crookston project, Upgren said getting $4 million from the State ADA office is a “big deal” and that “not many communities get special ADA funds.” They are not funds earmarked by MnDOT District 2, he noted, in which Crookston is located.

    “That’s why this is such an opportunity for the City,” Upgren said.

    He added that MnDOT, in addition to the ADA Office’s $4 million, has set aside approximately $1.5 million for the proposed Crookston project for the construction portion along the actual U.S. Highway 2 corridor, for a total of $5.5 million in outside funding being put toward the proposed project. He expects the City’s share would be in the $1 million range.

    (Upgren stresses that any dollar figures mentioned now are “very early estimates” and that the numbers can and will change because of things like inflation, the climate surrounding contractor bids in 2024, and the price of materials.)

Pavers checkered history

    Downtown business owners and Crookston residents who frequent downtown have had a love/hate relationship with the quaint brick-paver sidewalks since they were first installed in the mid-1990s. But personal opinions aside, MnDOT says in many areas along the downtown corridor they are significantly out of compliance with ADA, and any project would replace the pavers with more traditional concrete.

    But it would cost the City significant dollars, which would likely necessitate issuing bonds or some other form of financing. On the plus side, the City is currently carrying very little, if any debt.     As for local dollars that might need to be expended, if the council decides to include South Broadway and South Main – outside the U.S. Highway 2 corridor – in the sidewalk replacement project or any side-streets between North Broadway and North Main, it’s going to be on the City’s dime. (If the council eventually decides to pursue the project, indications at this week’s discussion seemed to lean toward it making sense to include those areas.) In addition, the City would have to come up with half the cost to replace and relocate around 100 downtown street lights, and downtown traffic signals as part of the project.

Just an agreement and a study for now

    Upgren continues to stress that all MnDOT is looking for now is to, hopefully by March, finalize a joint powers agreement with the City that, for starters, would allow a downtown corridor study to commence that would last up to a year. City leaders, along with a Community Review Panel that would be formed once the agreement is in place, would meet frequently as the study progresses, and would debate the preferred scope of the project. Mostly, they’d discuss and eventually help decide if the three lanes of one-way motorized traffic on North Main and North Broadway would be reduced to two lanes, or if the current parking on both sides of the streets would have to be reduced, or if a bicycle lane would be included as part of any reduction in lanes or parking.

    Once the community panel has made its recommendation, the city council in early 2022 would have the opportunity to endorse it with a vote in favor, or reject it, Upgren says.

    It’s all included in the draft “scope of services” that the council and Mayor Dale Stainbrook are currently perusing. This week, City Administrator Amy Finch suggested that they continue their discussion at a strategic planning session scheduled for Feb. 16. The hope, Finch said, would be that the council would arrive at some level of consensus at that session and then would vote on the proposal on the table it at a subsequent meeting.

    “Right now, we think Crookston will have to drop one of the through lanes if you keep (all of) your parking,” Upgren said. “If the public wants three lanes, then maybe something else would have to give. The (Community Review Panel) will make the recommendation to the council a year from now. We can’t take a lane away from you guys…MnDOT can’t do that without the consent of the City. If the council votes it down, I guess it stays as it is.

    “The idea is to put Crookston at the helm and not a bunch of MnDOT people in Bemidji saying what’s best for Crookston,” he continued. “We go with your decision, and the study is the vehicle to get to that decision.”

    The study and involvement of the Community Review Panel as part of the larger public engagement process are required components of any project, Upgren said. The study itself is expected to cost the City little, if any money. MnDOT has budgeted $100,000 for the City to hire a consultant to conduct the corridor study; if bids come in higher than that, he said MnDOT would likely increase its consultant budget. If the council decides to include South Broadway and South Main in the study, Upgren said MnDOT wouldn’t cover that portion of the study costs, but would pro-rate the local share.

    Asked by At Large Council Member Tom Vedbraaten if the curbs along the non-ADA compliant sidewalks could simply be raised to reduce their pitch rate, Upgren said that would probably make a positive difference in some areas, but in other areas the curbs would have to be raised so much that doing so would create its own different set of problems. As things stand now, in order to reduce the pitch rate, the new sidewalks would be three to four feet wider than they currently are, thus making it difficult to maintain three lanes of motorized traffic and parking on both sides of both streets. (Wider sidewalks would also necessitate modifications to the City storm sewers along the corridor; Upgren said MnDOT would have contingency funds set aside for that work.)

    One thing Upgren said he wouldn’t suggest is the City rejecting the project being proposed in favor of simply “popping out” the brick pavers on the current sidewalks and replacing them with concrete. It would be costly to the City, he said, and the result would still be sidewalks out of compliance with ADA.

    “MnDOT won’t pay for anything that’s not compliant, and I don’t know why you’d do that, spend the money on it and then not be compliant,” he said. “I don’t think that would be a good idea for any reason.”

Not popular elsewhere?

    The City of Bagley, with a downtown also on the U.S. Highway 2 corridor, around two years ago went through a similar process and in the end rejected any reduction to the number of motorized traffic lanes going through their downtown. The eastern Polk County community of Fosston, to the west of Bagley along U.S. Highway 2, is in the midst of a similar corridor study, which Upgren said was impacted by the pandemic but is still progressing. Fosston, like Bagley, has four lanes of motorized traffic - two westbound lanes and two eastbound lanes - on the U.S. Highway 2 corridor through its downtown.

    When Vedbraaten mentioned the outcome in Bagley and added that he hadn’t heard a lot of “positive” reactions coming out of Fosston, either, Upgren again said by taking the step of approving a joint powers agreement that allows the corridor study to begin, the City of Crookston would not be “doomed” to having two lanes of motorized traffic on Main and Broadway.

    “Just to be clear, what we’re looking for is a thumbs-up to proceed with the study; we’re not saying you want to proceed with dropping a lane or losing parking,” Upgren said. “You’d just be retaining a consultant to work with the (Community Review Panel) to come up with a sound plan.”

    Upgren added that Crookston’s U.S. Highway 2 corridor downtown is not like the downtown corridors in Bagley and Fosston.

    “Crookston is very unique,” he said. “You have three through lanes going in the same direction, which is very unusual.”

Motorists make their way through the North Broadway and Second Street intersection this week. As part of the proposed 2024 downtown sidewalk replacement project, approximately 100 downtown light poles would be replaced, as would traffic signals at intersections, such as the ones at this intersection. Even if the Crookston City Council eventually votes against proceeding with the Americans With Disabilities Act-compliance project involving the sidewalks, MnDOT District 2 Project Manager Matt Upgren says the traffic signals would likely be replaced anyway because they’re near the end of their lifespan.