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Drivers asked to avoid County 81 as a detour for construction project between Park Rapids, Dorset

This DOT map outlines the three phases of the Highway 34 project, assuming no government shutdown.

Use an alternate route.

That was the mantra state and county engineers repeated over and over Thursday at the weekly project meeting for the Highway 34 construction.

But the problem is, the state cannot show the way.

As frustration and delays mount on the roadway between Park Rapids and the Dorset corner, highway officials are urging the public to travel north, taking either County Road 18 or County Road 40 to Nevis.

"Don't use County 81," Hubbard County engineer Dave Olsonawski urged. "We can't and won't continue to maintain it."

Graders were out Wednesday morning trying to repair the damage heavy traffic and heavy trucks have done to the gravel road just north of Highway 34 after heavy rains fell the day before. By noon, the road was rutted and slippery again.

Olsonawski said spring coatings of Class 5 gravel and a layer of magnesium chloride to keep the dust down are all but gone, leaving County 81 a soupy mess. He said if the road continues to get the heavy traffic, he'll post a "no trucks" sign on it.

The time spent to take the paved alternate routes will be made up for in lost time waiting for a pilot car on Highway 34, he reasoned.

Motorists reported lengthy delays this week as Central Specialties, Inc., milled off asphalt pavement under traffic.

"It's the nature of the beast," said Department of Transportation spokeswoman Karen Bedeau, who traveled from Bemidji with other DOT officials for the meeting. Bedeau reported her own delay on a recent trip was 12 minutes.

But because County Roads 18 and 40 are not state highways, the DOT cannot designate them as official detour routes, so motorists must use some ingenuity to get around the three-mile stretch of work.

CSI superintendent Allan Minnerath said crews are trying to keep the work area "as tight as it can" but two miles of pavement are generally blocked off when workers are only removing pavement on a smaller part of Phase 1 of the project. The rotomill is constantly moving.

Crews must leave room for the milling machine and trucks coming and going, Minnerath said.

"It was a mess Wednesday," acknowledged chief inspector Tim Lundorff. "It was potholing due to rain. It bounced people around quite a bit."

Workers kept going through the rain. Heavy traffic hasn't helped the work go faster, Minnerath agreed.

Crews will try to stay away from Dorset June 24 when the small town holds a street festival, Minnerath reiterated.

Nevis officials also attended the meeting, already worried about Phase 2 of the project, which is slated to begin July 1 if there is no government shutdown and Phase 1 is complete.

DOT officials agreed to sign the way to Nevis on the alternate routes south of the town, so visitors can find their way through the abyss. Nevis has a number of events coming up that attract people from out of the region.

Highways 87 and 64 will have signs pointing the way to Nevis, said project manager Larry Randall. Highway 64 should remain open throughout the Nevis to Akeley phase of the project, he said,

And local traffic can get to Nevis, mayor Paul Schroeder was assured.

The great unknown is whether Minnesota state functions will shut down July 1 if legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton cannot agree on a budget for the next biennium.

"We got our layoff notices as well," Bedeau pointed out of the DOT employees. "Hopefully there will be a resolution reached."

Meanwhile, "be patient," Minnerath urged. The project is still behind due to delays in moving telecommunications lines and cables. Minnerath said he couldn't guarantee meeting the July 1 deadline to complete the stretch to the Dorset corner and Highway 226 through Dorset.

"We're working as many daylight hours as we can."

And although County Roads 18 and 40 aren't state highways in the normal patrol path of state troopers, Olsonawski asked if the highway patrol could nonetheless check them occasionally because County 18 has speed limits on it.

No problem, the trooper attending the meeting said.

And Minnerath said if ambulance crews call ahead, they can speed through the roadwork to emergencies.

"We can try it," said North Memorial Ambulance supervisor Brett Haynes.

"Right now we're using every route we can. Trouble is, from the time 911 gets notified and we get notified, we're out on the highway in one minute."

As if it was an omen, ambulance crews were called to the scene of a serious crash Thursday night, but were able to use a route south of Highway 34.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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