The Akeley City Council looked at options May 13 for a road project at the intersection of State Hwys. 34 and 64.
TJ Melcher of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) in Bemidji said, although the Hwy. 34 road reconstruction project in Akeley isn’t slated to begin until 2023, he would like the council to decide between the options of an alternate intersection or a mini roundabout at the intersection by June.
In Melcher’s Zoom presentation to the council, he said MnDOT’s goal is to make the intersection safer.
In previous public meetings with MnDOT, the consensus of Akeley residents was that a stop light at that intersection was preferred over a roundabout. Melcher said a traffic signal is not a safe option.
“Traffic signals can actually make an intersection more dangerous,” he said. “You can see crashes go up. We have to start with a goal of making the intersection safer, getting people to slow down. You have to change the environment. That’s what MnDOT is looking to do in this corridor, and why engineers make the decisions they do.”
Melcher said there is another alternative at the intersection that MnDOT would be comfortable with if the city does not want a mini-roundabout.
“It comes down to two choices that the council will need to take action on,” he said.
Melcher explained the goal is to reduce speeds by making design changes to slow traffic coming through town, making the area safer for both drivers and pedestrians.
“People drive to the speed they perceive to be comfortable, not what the sign says,” he said.
The first choice he presented is a mini-roundabout.
“Roundabouts have a 90 percent reduction in crashes,” he said. “They usually eliminate severe crashes because people naturally slow down.”
He said this mini-roundabout is designed for semi trucks, with a center paved portion to accommodate them. “Cars can’t drive on it, but it allows semis to make those turns, and a mini-roundabout would fit in the limited space available,” he said. “I realize the difficulty of bringing in a roundabout just because people don’t have as much experience with them here. People can say they don’t like them all they want, but they flat out work.”
Council member Dan Riggs said he sees a problem with the roundabout handling traffic on a weekend, especially semis making left turns.
Adjusting the intersection
The second option is a realignment of the intersection. “We realized the roundabout didn’t have a lot of support, so we developed an alternative,” he said. “We’d be pushing the intersection a little bit to the north and squaring it up a little bit, making some adjustments to improve the turning radius for semi trucks at that intersection.”
He said some businesses on the north side of Hwy. 34 would lose their on-street parking spaces as a result.
“That’s necessary in order to get that intersection to square up and allow for the turning movement of the big trucks,” he said.
“I definitely wouldn’t be for that,” Mayor Brian Hitchcock said. “We don’t have too many businesses in town, and to eliminate that parking would be horrible for them.”
Project Manager Laura Hadrava said she will find out how many parking spaces would be eliminated. Side street parking is available a half block away and further down the street.
“The benefit of this plan is that people would have a type of intersection they’re more used to,” Melcher said. “It comes down to what would you guys rather see. The project is anticipated for 2023. As we start to move forward, there’s a ton more development that needs to be done. We are getting to the point where these decisions have to be made and hope the council can decide which option they want in June.
Why fix what’s working?
Police Chief Jimmy Hansen said there have not been any major accidents at the intersection of Hwy. 34 and Hwy. 64 in the 10 years he has been working for the city.
“I’ve never seen where speed is an issue at that intersection,” he said. “People already slow down because of the curve. The speed is out on the edges of town. I think we’ve had less than four or five accidents at that intersection in 10 years and no fatalities that I know of. Why can’t we leave the intersection as is? It has worked great so far. There have been no concerns or issues. To me it doesn’t make sense to spend money on that corner.”
Melcher said it because the current design is considered unsafe. “Just because bad things haven’t happened doesn’t mean that they won’t,” he said.
“If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” Hansen said. “You can go back more than 10 years and do a study on it. I don’t think that’s been a dangerous intersection.”
Melcher said if a dangerous crash were to happen it would be too late to make changes. “Say a semi trailer pops up on the sidewalk and hurts or kills someone,” he said. “The department engineers would be remiss to knowingly allow that to happen when we have the opportunity to correct it before something happens.”
Melcher concluded his presentation by saying now the city has two viable options to consider. “There are pros and cons to these decisions,” he said. “You need to evaluate those. Do you want to choose the roundabout option to preserve those parking spaces? Ideally we’d like to hear which option the council prefers by the June council meeting. There is still a lot of work that has to go into this project and that takes time.”
The council tabled making a decision until their June 10 meeting.