Citing safety, the Crow Wing County Board agreed to send a letter to the Minnesota Department of Transportion in support of a diamond interchange at the future intersection of Highway 371 and County Road 11 in Pequot Lakes.
Tim Bray, county highway engineer, requested the board do so on Tuesday, April 23.
“It’s the right thing for Crow Wing County to have the safest intersection you can possibly have,” Bray said by phone last Thursday, April 25. “I just feel strongly that we shouldn’t wait for it (intersection) to perform poorly and then ask for an interchange later.”
Current plans that would expand Highway 371 to four lanes from Nisswa to Jenkins in 2018 call for an at-grade intersection at County Road 11 with a stoplight. The new intersection will be east of the current Highway 371-Main Street stoplight because the expanded highway will bypass downtown.
A diamond interchange — where vehicles exit and enter the highway via ramps and an overpass takes them across the highway on the minor road (County Road 11) — was proposed at one time, but it carries a higher price tag than an intersection with a traffic light.
An intersection with a traffic light is an estimated $1 million; a diamond interchange would cost an estimated $8 million, with the county and MnDOT each paying for half.
“There are no funds there, but given the safety concerns with the bypass, I think it’s an important consideration,” Paul Thiede, county commissioner from Pequot Lakes, said by phone last week. “It is a safety issue. It’s not a question of doing something fancy just for the purpose of doing something fancy.
“The point I made (at the county board meeting) is I think it’s inevitable you’re going to have a school bus accident at an at-grade intersection,” Thiede said.
He said Eagle View Elementary School will be on one side of the expanded highway, and Pequot Lakes middle and high schools will be on the other side.
Both Thiede and Bray said it would be best to construct a diamond interchange now rather than to try to compete for it later. If MnDOT waits, it would be less likely to happen.
Jim Hallgren, Highway 371 project manager with MnDOT, said by phone last week that MnDOT staff needs to discuss the request and then carry on those discussions with county staff.
“It is quite a large investment so we need to make these considerations carefully and have these discussions with the appropriate people,” Hallgren said.
Nancy Adams, Pequot Lakes mayor, said a diamond interchange would be the right action to take at this time. She agreed that safety is an issue.
Adams added that a goal is to make it safe, attractive and easy to get into downtown Pequot Lakes from the expanded highway. The planning and zoning commission is planning now for the community gateway on County Road 11, and will do the same for the north and south entrances to Pequot Lakes from Highway 371.
Bray acknowledged that transportation funding is tight. He praised MnDOT for keeping the Highway 371 expansion project relevant and alive at the state level.
“It’s survived past many other projects,” he said, noting in his letter to MnDOT that without such efforts the Highway 371 project would have most certainly been terminated along with more than a billion dollars worth of other projects statewide.
“I understand that I am asking MnDOT to consider spending another approximately $4 million in a very tight funding environment. I feel, however, that it would be irresponsible of me to fail to advocate strongly for a project component having such large safety implications for the residents and guests of Crow Wing County,” Bray wrote.
He wrote that throughout the state there are similar at-grade intersections with traffic lights that are performing poorly.
“... I am opposed to knowingly replicating them,” Bray wrote.
He said he’s confident MnDOT will try to keep the 2018 timeline for the Highway 371 project.
“Now’s the right time to start asking for those items,” he said.