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Bewildering road detours baffle drivers

Crews use a roto-mill to remove asphalt on Highway 71 north of Menahga Monday. Contractors will recycle up to 30 percent of the asphalt in a new bituminous layer that will replace the old pavement. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

As construction cardiologists began operating on the main north-south artery through central Minnesota, motorists seemed irked and confused by the lack of direction along the Highway 71 detour from Menahga to Park Rapids.

"This sucks!" said one Minnesota-licensed minivan traveling along County Road 87, issuing a single digit salute to emphasize his frustration.

Meanwhile, emergency repairs to North Highway 71 caused motorists and business owners some consternation when that stretch of highway was detoured, too.

A three-pronged attack began Monday morning on the southbound 12.5-mile stretch of highway, which will be getting an asphalt angioplasty in the coming six weeks.

Workers began replacing curbs along Park Rapids streets that will intersect with the newly built highway when it runs through town; a second crew was replacing culvert pipe on the Hubbard/Wadena county line and a third crew was milling off the bituminous pavement north of Menahga to be recycled and reused.

Southbound motorists frustrated by the lack of detour signs along the route south of Park Rapids veered off the detour and took either the Twin Lakes or Stocking Lake roads into Menahga, rather than following the detour to its finality.

A flagger at the south end of the project patiently explained to Menahga northbound motorists they would have to use the detour. "It's pretty confusing," she admitted. "But it's our first day."

Superintendent Al Minnerath said most problems involved motorists determined to follow the "local access" route on the highway, only to be turned around and sent to the detour.

"People are driving willy-nilly over the county?" he questioned skeptically.

Indeed, they were.

Twin Lakes Road was clogged with traffic; it was a similar story over on the Stocking Lake Road. Many motorists said they saw the road signs pointing toward Menahga and headed in that direction.

"This sign says 'Menahga 4 miles,'" said one man, explaining why he'd taken Stocking Lake Road. "Isn't this the detour?"

Project supervisor Larry Randall said Department of Transportation crews were placing additional signs along Wadena County Road 31 to guide travelers.

The detour, heading in a northern direction, leaves Menahga eastbound on County 31, then heads north on Wadena County 23, which turns into Hubbard County 6 at the county line. The detour then proceeds north to Highway 87, where motorists head west, back to Highway 71.

Blueberry Pines golfers found the course, just north of Menahga, with no problems Monday. "I think a lot of them got here before the detour signs went up, but this has been a very busy day," said manager Jim Carlson.

"It'll be interesting in the next few days," Carlson said. "Lots of people are struggling out there" to find their way north and south.

The tiny hamlet of Hubbard was seeing long lines of traffic, so a billboard advertising the Long Lake Theatre's ongoing production of "Nunsensations" was getting lots of mileage, so to speak. The production is sold out through this weekend.

The Hilltop Inn was right in the center of the detoured traffic. Owners did not return a call seeking comments as to whether they were preparing for extra business.

Meanwhile, emergency culvert repairs necessitated an unplanned detour on Highway 71 north of Park Rapids, near Summerhill Farm.

"They're routing traffic away from our business," said Nancy Utke, co-owner of Utke's Country Pine Furnishings on Highway 71.

DOT engineer Todd Vonasek said the "unforeseen collapse" of a culvert necessitated the work, anticipated to be finished late Wednesday.

"I'll be brutally honest," he said. "It's not pretty" the way traffic was re-routed.

Signs in Park Rapids warn motorists of the approaching repairs and detour.

The main contractor for the south 71 project, Central Specialties, Inc., is predicting an Aug. 20 completion date, one month ahead of schedule.