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Safe or unsafe? Recent accident at new Horace May School intersection causes MnDOT to speak out

As buses turn onto U.S. Highway 71 from Horace May Elementary, they use an acceleration lane allowing them to merge with traffic heading north into Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Ben Karkela

For Lynn Eaton, the fatal accident that occurred Monday at Horace May Elementary School hits close to home.

"It's so emotional right now," the Northwest District transportation engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation said. "We have several members here in the District whose children go to school there. Our traffic engineer's daughter was in the teacher's aide class."

Fladella "Mikky" McCullough, an 88-year-old teacher's aide at Horace May Elementary School, was preparing to leave the school's parking lot when she pulled in front of a southbound vehicle traveling on U.S. Highway 71.

McCullough's car was struck on the driver's side. After emergency crews arrived, McCullough was transferred to a medical center, but died during the trip. The other driver suffered minor injuries.

This occurred less than two weeks after MnDOT and Bemidji School District officials redirected Horace May motorists to use a new set of entrance and exit access points off Highway 71. These changes were designed by MnDOT engineers, with input from the school district, to accommodate the expansion of Highway 71 into a four-lane roadway.

A few days after the tragic incident occurred, a letter written by a Horace May parent was published in the newspaper suggesting it was MnDOT's "shortsightedness" that led to the fatal incident.

On Friday, MnDOT officials felt it was necessary to clear the air about the Horace May construction project and called an informal press conference.

"It's so unfortunate the accident happened," Eaton started out by saying. "It was sad for a lot of us, too, because we're all about safety. Anytime there is a fatal anywhere in the district, we kind of pore over it. Is there some engineering cause? What could we possibly do?"

Confusing roadways

There is not another intersection like the one currently in front of Horace May anywhere in the Northwest District, Eaton said. In fact, he added, it is rare to find one like it anywhere.

Five years ago, MnDOT officials began the process of looking at how the Highway 71 expansion would impact Horace May Elementary. In order to widen the highway, the school's driveway would need to be moved in order to keep traffic flowing.

Eaton said he could not remember exactly how many public meetings were held in the last five years, but said at least two were held at Horace May making people aware of the Highway 71 expansion.

Other meetings were held between MnDOT officials and the Bemidji School District's Board of Education, Eaton said, and numerous informal meetings took place with Greg Liedl, the district's transportation coordinator.

Eventually, MnDOT officials came up with a list of options that would get vehicles to and from Horace May from Highway 71. MnDOT employees studied how many and at what times vehicles traveled along roads to the north, south and east of Horace May, as well as the average speed of the drivers.

"One of the things that really challenged us here is the school is so close to the road," Eaton said. "It's not on another public route. We knew it would be problematic in this situation."

MnDOT officials preferred to have school traffic travel west on Oak Hills Road Southwest and then south on a road recently built for a housing development located north of the school.

MnDOT then proposed to leave it up to the school to design and build its own driveway from the housing development road to the school grounds.

Bill Pirkl, then a MnDOT district traffic engineer who met with the school board in October 2009, said then, "We feel the access road designed from the north is the safest option."

The option from the north would have had only one access route and a possibility of adding a traffic signal at the intersection of Oak Hills Road and Highway 71.

But members of the Horace May grounds development committee expressed concerns to the Bemidji School Board that the proposed roadway would cut right through the school's forested outdoor classroom.

In addition, some school district officials had concerns about how much it would cost to maintain a longer driveway.

"The school was really unwilling to compromise the outdoor classrooms that were there," Eaton said. "They really wanted us to find a way to get out here on Highway 71. We knew wasn't the best thing in the world, but it's what we had to work with."

So MnDOT officials went back to the drawing board and one year later made an agreement with the school district to keep the access routes to Horace May off of Highway 71.

Whose fault?

While an unfortunate situation, the accident involving McCollough is not MnDOT's fault, Eaton said, adding he did not want to speculate on what happened, as the issue could end up in court.

According to the state accident report, McCollough attempted to drive straight from a lane marked with a right-hand turn only sign.

Had she made it straight through the southbound lane, she would have entered into a crossover area, which is used for when drivers make a u-turn.

Ultimately, McCollough pulled out in front of a vehicle traveling southbound, resulting in the accident.

Craig Collison, assistant district engineer for MnDOT, admitted MnDOT officials had witnessed other drivers attempting to do what McCollough did - drive straight ahead from the lane marked with a right-turn only sign - which is why he said more signage will likely be added in the future to make it more clear to drivers what to do.

Karen Bedeau, District 2 public affairs coordinator for MnDOT, said MnDOT had planned on adding the additional signage even before the accident occurred.

"Drivers are still responsible," Collison added. "Drivers still have to be very aware."

Horace May Principal Renae Case Evenson declined to comment on the accident or intersection changes. Bemidji School District Superintendent James Hess and Business Services Director Chris Leinen could not be reached.

Changes ahead

Eaton is confident that once people become accustomed to the intersection changes, the new roadwork should work "very well."

"There is no situation like this for anyone to get used to anywhere, so we have to work with folks out there," Eaton said. "The school district has been great to work with. They've had people directing traffic and have worked very closely with us to improve things."

Some changes will still need to be made, though.

A stop sign will be moved to the left side of the "exit only" lane that extends from the school's frontage road, because drivers are turning left. The current stop sign is on the right side of the lane.

More signage will be added to the south exit where the right-turn only lane exists.

Eaton said Liedl suggested MnDOT find better ways to educate drivers heading north from the school so they do not cut buses off by merging too quickly from the acceleration lane to the left lane.

MnDOT also plans to keep the north access route on the back burner should the Horace May intersection prove unsafe.

"Heaven forbid we have another fatal accident here. (The north access option) may be the only alternative to make this work," Eaton said. "There's no way south. There's no way west. You have to go north if we can't make this direct access work."

Two things that will not likely change in the future are the speed limit, which is currently 60 miles per hour in front of Horace May, and the lack of a traffic signal.

A traffic signal could potentially be placed at the Oak Hills Road and Highway 71 intersection, Eaton said, because it is more likely traffic counts would increase enough at that intersection to warrant one.

But the stretch of Highway 71 in front of Horace May is busiest only during certain times of the school day.

"Traffic signals are put in more for traffic flow than as safety," Collison added. "It would be a non-warranted signal (in front of Horace May)."

With regard to speed, MnDOT officials have conducted speed studies, which are used to determine speed limits.

By law, MnDOT officials must set the speed limit for an area within 5 miles an hour of the 85th percentile of the speeds being traveled.

"So if 85 percent of people feel comfortable with driving 65, we have to set the speed at 65," Eaton said. "If we just said we're going to go against all the statutes and set it down to 50, there are still people who will drive at 65 and you'll have people obeying the speed limit. That kind of differential causes so many accidents. That's what we don't want to have happen."

School zones also cannot be implemented along the highway near Horace May because no students walk to school.

"Unless you have that visual cue (of students walking), people will still not drive (slower)," said Michelle Rognerud-Adams, an assistant district traffic engineer for MnDOT.

For now, MnDOT plans to keep a watchful eye on the intersection and encourages drivers to be attentive when traveling near the school during hours of peak school activity.

"This isn't your typical arrangement, and it isn't the best arrangement in the world, but it's workable," Eaton said. "We'll keep trying to make it better."