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Area residents seek input on alternative methods to solve crash issues at Willmar intersection

The Business 71/23rd Street Northeast intersection in north Willmar

Area residents had a chance Wednesday evening to ask questions about the options studied and the alternative proposed for reducing an above-average number of vehicle crashes at the intersection of North Business 71, Highway 294, County Road 24 and 23rd Street Northeast.

Approximately 60 people, including city, county and state transportation staff, listened to a consultant explain why a design called Alternative No. 3 would cut crashes 80-90 percent by eliminating right-angle crashes caused by eastbound and westbound drivers on minor roads (Highway 294 and 23rd Street) crossing the major road (Business 71).

People crossing east and west are making poor choices in selecting the gap in the northbound and southbound traffic, said Howard Preston of CH2M Hill Inc. of St. Paul, the consultant hired in 2006 by the city of Willmar, Kandiyohi County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to study intersection safety improvements.

Preston said he did not know why drivers make poor choices, but said his goal was to improve safety, reduce right-angle crashes, move traffic and minimize diversions to other roadways. Preston said the intersection has a crash frequency of six per year, which was unusual, compared to two crashes per year based on a history of hundreds of other intersections across the state.

He said 61 percent of the crashes are right angle crashes and most happen in the northbound lane of Business 71.

Preston described a fairly exhaustive process used to identify the best strategy. He came up with nine possible designs and selected three that had the highest probability of reducing crashes.

Of the three, No. 3 was favored by city, county and MnDOT staff. Jon Henslin, design and traffic engineer with MnDOT's District 8 office in Willmar, said his agency is ready to go on the project, but official support and funding are required from the Willmar City Council and Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

The council and county board wanted the proposal explained to the public before the elected officials take action, said Henslin.

Under No. 3, east-west traffic would be prohibited from crossing Business 71. For northbound traffic intending to go west to the golf course, a new turning lane would be built in the median that would angle off Business 71, allowing traffic to cross just the two southbound lanes of traffic.

A similar left-turning lane would be built in the median for southbound traffic intending to go east and cross just two lanes of northbound traffic. Drivers would likely take 23rd Street and Civic Center Drive to return downtown.

The cost is estimated at $170,000. The alternative allows the opportunity to add U-turns in the median.

The 90-minute session at the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building gave people a chance to look at the options.

Preston was asked if traffic signals, flashing signs or signs warning of a dangerous intersection ahead had been considered. Preston said traffic signals and signs are not proven effective in reducing crashes.

Preston was asked if increased speed limit enforcement would help. He said the State Patrol has said it does not have enough personnel.

Another audience member asked if the crest of the hill on Business 71 caused sight problems. Henslin said sight was not a factor because most crashes occur in the northbound lane.

Later, Henslin told the Tribune the meeting was well attended and that the questions were good.

"I hope the county and the city will consider it again and come up with the dollars,'' he said.

Steve Vossen, who lives on Fairway Drive west of the intersection, said No. 3 was short-sighted and won't accommodate future community needs. He said a roundabout -- a $1.5 million alternative -- seemed to be more feasible in moving traffic and allowing for growth.

Patti Daniels, who lives near Ridgewater College, said No. 3 seems like it will work, but she'd rather have stop signs.

Fairway Drive resident Tom Steinman favored reducing the speed limit and cutting the crest of the roadway. He said No. 3 precludes him from directly crossing Business 71. "I'm going to have to detour around a bit to get east of Willmar on Highway 12,'' he said.