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Latest crash now puts the redesign of intersection at forefront

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WILLMAR -- Wednesday's fatal accident near the Health and Human Services building has renewed a sense of urgency to redesign the accident-plagued intersection.

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Jon Henslin, Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8 traffic engineer in Willmar, said he intends to hold a meeting with the city and county soon to finalize a plan for MnDOT engineers to complete this year so that construction can begin in 2010.

"What a tragedy when it's a loss of life," Henslin said.

Local government entities have "put so much time" into trying to figure out why the intersection is so dangerous and how to change it.

Hearing about the accident Wednesday "was a real blow," said Henslin, who expressed sympathy for the families involved.

"It's a tragic situation first of all," said Mel Odens, Willmar city engineer.

Having it happen at "an intersection that's troubling to figure out" increases the frustration.

The area has been the site of a higher-than-average number of accidents for several years and has puzzled engineers about why accidents keep occurring there.

Traffic studies have been conducted, and last year flashing lights were added to the stop and yield signs to increase driver awareness.

In January a consultant provided nine alternatives to redesign the intersection.

A $200,000 design that would close the eastbound and westbound median and prohibit traffic from crossing four lanes of high-speed traffic was tentatively agreed to by the three government entities that own segments of the intersection -- the city of Willmar, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Kandiyohi County.

Emergency vehicles would be allowed to cross over the four lanes of traffic, but personal vehicles would not.

The plan would allow only right turns to be made from County Road 24 and from 23rd Street, which is also known as Trunk Highway 294.

The plan also calls for creating a new turn lane that would let northbound traffic on Business 71 exit left onto County Road 24, which goes toward the golf course. A similar turning lane would allow southbound traffic to exit Business 71 to the Health and Human Services building along 23rd Street/Trunk Highway 294.

The consultant said that design could lower accidents by 80 to 90 percent at the intersection, Henslin said.

Because of the construction projects on County Roads 41 and 24 planned for this year that will reduce travel options in and out of Willmar, it was decided to delay the intersection project until 2010.

Local officials also said they wanted additional time to mull over the design options to make sure the best alternative was chosen.

The fatal accident Wednesday increases the "sense of urgency" to get a plan selected now so that MnDOT engineers can finalize drawings by January. The project would be built in 2010, Henslin said.

"Hopefully the city and county will join us now and we can meet those schedules for 2010," said Henslin. "I hope we can get it done in that time frame."

Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl said local entities want to find a solution that will make the intersection safer.

In the meantime the city and county have asked MnDOT to conduct a speed study to determine if lowering the 55 mph speed limit on that stretch of highway could reduce accidents at the intersection.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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