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Options to fix troubled intersection will be topic of meeting

WILLMAR -- On the heels of the fatal accident last week on Business Highway 71, the three government entities that "own" the dangerous intersection are taking short-term and long-term steps to make it safer.

During a quickly organized meeting Monday, representatives from the city of Willmar, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Kandiyohi County agreed that temporary signs will be placed north and south of the intersection to warn people to "look again."

Because special permission for the experimental signs is needed from the Federal Highway Administration, however, it could be a month before the signs will be erected.

The group also agreed to conduct a special community meeting May 13 to get public response to design options that could provide a long-term fix to the intersection.

"We need to have the public involved," said Kandiyohi County Administrator Larry Kleindl during the County Board meeting Tuesday. "It'll be an opportunity for you to give comments."

The meeting will be from 5 to 7 p.m. in the community room of the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services building.

In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Jon Henslin, traffic engineer for MnDOT's District 8 office in Willmar, said the informational meeting will show the pros and cons of the design options and help the public "follow our logic" for selecting a plan.

Located near the Health and Human Services building at the junction of County Road 24, Trunk Highway 294 and Business Highway 71, there has been a higher-than-average number of accidents there in recent years.

Most of the accidents happen when east- and westbound vehicles attempt to go through the median and cross through north- and southbound traffic that's going at least 55 mph.

The three entities hired a consultant to recommend construction options to modify the intersection.

In January a plan was recommended to partially close the median in a construction project scheduled for next year.

At a cost of $200,000, the plan could reduce accidents there by 80 to 90 percent, Henslin said.

Still, the public has been questioning that plan and expressing different ideas about what should be done.

Kleindl said there is no "simple solution" to make the intersection safer.

What may appear to be the perfect fix to the intersection could be disputed through highway data, Kleindl said.

"Studies will show there are reasons for doing or not doing things," he said.

"The public needs to come (to the meeting) so they can become informed about the options," Kleindl said.

In terms of "temporary relief" at the intersection, Kleindl said putting up barricades and immediately closing the median was also discussed as an option -- but dismissed.

They settled on using temporary signs the county has used at tricky intersections that say "look again" with a set of eyes painted inside the O's.

Henslin said there is an official manual of signs they are allowed to use and that type of sign is not included.

"We have to work our way through that wrinkle," he said. "We don't want to put up something that's outside of the statutes. There's no use getting into more trouble."

He's seeking approval for an experimental sign to be used. Because of that process, the signs "won't be up tomorrow," said Henslin. He's hoping they'll be erected within a month.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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