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Intersection talks to continue

Tom Steinman, who lives west of the Business 71/County Road 24/23rd Street Northeast intersection, discusses with the Willmar City Council on Monday the results of his neighborhood survey that showed most respondents said the intersection was dangerous and that they favored a lower speed limit on Business 71. Tribune photo by David Little

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council did not endorse a proposed design favored by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners and the Minnesota Department of Transportation to reduce crashes at the Business 71/County Road 24/23rd Street Northeast intersection Monday night.

Instead, the council agreed to have city staff discuss with the county and MnDOT a suggestion by Willmar resident Donald Haug. He suggested 23rd Street Northeast be closed at Business 71. The closure would force traffic from the nearby Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services Building and the Law Enforcement Center to take Civic Center Drive back into town, rather than crossing the four-lane Business 71, he said.

Jon Henslin, design and traffic engineer with MnDOT's District 8 office in Willmar, said most of the crashes at the intersection occurred when eastbound traffic crossing from County Road 24 collided with northbound traffic on Business 71.

Haug and half a dozen other residents spoke against the design known as Alternative 3½, which was preferred by the county and MnDOT, but which has yet to be endorsed by the city. The alternative resulted from meetings among city, county and MnDOT staff who researched three options that arose from a consultant's study.

At that time, staff members agreed 3½ was the best option for reducing crashes and increasing safety at an affordable cost. The design would allow for indirect left turns for northbound and southbound Business 71 traffic, but would prohibit east-west traffic from crossing the four-lane.

The design provides visibility to left-turning motorists through their windshield of oncoming traffic rather than out their side window, which may be obscured by the vehicle's side post.

The design was discussed last week by the council's Public Works/Safety Committee but reached no recommendation.

During the committee meeting, Public Works Director Mel Odens suggested a better solution, and asked the city, county and MnDOT to reconsider Alternative 7, which was a grade separation. The separation would allow east-west traffic to safely cross Business 71 and still allow limited access by ramps to Business 71.

Alternative 3½ was selected, however, because it could be completed quickly, reduce crashes and was the least-cost option. City staff stated that 3½ was considered an immediate improvement and not a long-term solution.

At the council meeting, Mayor Les Heitke moved the Public Works/Safety Committee report up the agenda and allowed members of the nearly two dozen citizens from the Fairway Drive area attending the meeting to speak.

Tom Steinman of Fairway Drive spoke against the design, saying it did not solve the crash problem. He reported speaking to highway and traffic experts and said the intersection was inadequately designed.

Also, he presented the results of 75 neighborhood surveys. He said 62 residents said they did not agree that the intersection is safe. He said 57 favored reducing the speed limit on Business 71; 66 opposed prohibiting traffic from crossing Business 71; 56 favored traffic signals; and 33 said they have had a close call or near miss.

Heitke said the intersection could be affected by increased businesses and more employees at the MinnWest Technology campus, growth to the north, and possible development of a regional courthouse located near the intersection.

Council member Bruce DeBlieck opposed the design and said a grade separation would be a 20-year solution.

Resident John Sullivan, who lives in southeast Willmar, favored a roundabout and quoted studies showing the design reduces crashes.

Council member Jim Dokken said he favors reducing the speed limit and a grade separation.

Committee chairman Doug Reese asked if city staff had discussed closing 23rd Street.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said he thought Haug's suggestion deserved study.

Rather than make a motion to endorse the design, Reese instead moved to file the committee minutes and to study ideas raised by citizens.

Heitke said other options might be more expensive, "but I think it's better to do it right than do it now and do it again in a few more years.''