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Citing safety, MnDOT plans highway interchange west of Bemidji

By John Hageman / Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — On a recent rainy afternoon, a bouquet of flowers sat in the ditch separating the two directions of U.S. Highway 2, adjacent to its intersection with State Highway 89.

The flowers are a reminder of an unspecified crash at this crossing —it’s unclear from driving by if the bouquet is marked. But it does mark one of the most dangerous intersections in the state.

With that in mind, the Minnesota Department of Transportation is planning a major overhaul of the intersection of Highway 2 and Highway 89 west of Bemidji. Construction on that project won’t begin until July 2015 at the earliest, but state officials are now finishing the preliminary designs.

While some tweaks have to be finalized, the completed design will include an interchange, providing easier and safer access onto the highways. Construction is currently projected to cost about $5 million, said Brandy Pemberton, MnDOT’s project engineer.

"It is a very high-crash intersection," Pemberton said. "It has been for a long time."

There have been almost 70 crashes at that intersection in the past 10 years, said Bill Pirkl, the Northwest District traffic engineer for MnDOT. Four of those crashes resulted in fatalities.

Several smaller-scale changes have been made at the intersection over the years in an effort to improve safety, but the crash rate remained high.

"Something more significant needed to be done," Pemberton said.

Engineers weighed many options but ultimately arrived at the interchange design.

According to a preliminary design provided by MnDOT, southbound traffic on Highway 89 will have two options: crossing a bridge over Highway 2 before looping back around to head east on Highway 2 toward Bemidji, or taking a left before the bridge to accelerate into westbound traffic on Highway 2.

The entrance onto Highway 89 will also be changed so drivers have to make a right turn before heading north.

MnDOT had initially considered turning Scribner Road Northwest/Beltrami County Road 515, which connects Highway 89 to Highway 2 west of the intersection, into a state highway. But MnDOT’s consultants warned they wouldn’t solve future traffic flow problems by doing that, Pirkl said.

"That kind of brought us back to the drawing board of opening it up to many different options," Pirkl said.

That drawing board included u-turns, traffic signals, roundabouts and frontage roads to provide access to local businesses. Several proposed changes have gone to two public meetings in the past year, with nearby business owners and residents providing feedback.

The interchange design eliminates the possibility for vehicles merging onto Highway 2 to be broadsided by westbound traffic, one of the most common and dangerous types of crashes there.

MnDOT will have to purchase several pieces of land adjacent to the highways before construction. One of those pieces of land includes the West Side Motor Sports property located in the fork splitting the highways.

Gary Coan said he doesn’t know where he’ll move his business until he knows what the state will pay for his property. He has been there nine years, he said.

While Pemberton acknowledged that the changes won’t eliminate all crashes, it will solve many problems.

"We’re making an investment now that should take us far into the future," Pemberton said.

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