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City Council faces decision on Business 71/County Road 24/23rd Street Northeast intersection work

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council should decide if safety improvements will be made this year at the Business 71/County Road 24/23rd Street Northeast intersection.

That's the advice of city officials who were told this week that a proposed improvement design favored by the city lacks support from Kandiyohi County and the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Some severe crashes, one of them fatal, during the past couple of years focused the attention of officials and the public on improving the intersection's safety.

Willmar Public Works Director Mel Odens said MnDOT and Kandiyohi County feel very strongly about sticking with their preferred design known as alternative No. 3½ rather than endorse the city's preferred design, known as alternative No. 10.

Both designs resulted from discussion and refinement of designs suggested last year by a traffic consultant who was hired by the city, county and MnDOT to study intersection safety improvements.

The consultant's study showed most crashes at the intersection involved northbound Business 71 vehicles and eastbound vehicles entering 23rd Street. The study proposed one alternative that would reduce crashes by 80 percent to 90 percent.

The intersection does not have the greatest number of crashes, however. Willmar Police Department statistics from Jan. 1, 2008, to Dec. 30, 2009, rank the Business 71/County Road 24/23rd Street intersection fourth out of 18 intersections and high-traffic areas for the number of crashes.

First Street and Willmar Avenue was first with 63 crashes, followed by First Street and 19th Avenue with 39, and First Street from 19th Avenue to 28th Avenue with 19. Business 71 was tied with Seventh Street Northwest from Ella Avenue to the fairgrounds with 17 crashes.

Although Business 71 has fewer crashes, those crashes result in greater damage and injuries due to higher speed, according to Marilee Dorn, police department crime prevention officer, who compiled the statistics.

Last June, the City Council did not endorse 3½, but directed city staff to come up with an alternative design, to continue discussions with MnDOT state and the county, and to have the design reviewed by an outside consultant. The city came up with No. 10.

In August, the county and MnDOT said they wanted further evaluation. The city had Short Elliott Hendrickson of St. Paul evaluate 3½ and 10. The consultant said 10 appears to better address safety issues than does 3½, but 10 has some drawbacks.

Alternative 3½ provides indirect left turns to go either eastbound or westbound, and blocks eastbound and westbound traffic from crossing the Business 71 median. Eastbound access to 23rd Street would be provided via a U-turn to the south of the intersection.

Alternative 10 places a "pork chop" barrier at the intersection of 23rd Street and northbound Business 71. The barrier would block eastbound access to 23rd Street. Motorists would need to use other routes to get to 23rd Street.

"What the council needs to decide is the direction if something is going to get done out there this year,'' said Odens. He and City Administrator Michael Schmit discussed 3½ and 10 Tuesday morning with county and MnDOT representatives.

"I think all agree that something should be done out there. We all agree that alternatives 3½ and 10 address the issue,'' said Odens.

Jon Henslin, MnDOT district traffic engineer, said 3½ is better for improving safety. "We do think that's the better option,'' he said.

He said MnDOT remains willing to divide the $400,000 estimated construction cost three ways with the city and county.

Larry Kleindl, Kandiyohi County administrator, said the county does not endorse 10 but does not oppose it and will participate in the three-way cost sharing agreement. However, Kleindl said he's concerned about southbound motorists losing access to the Law Enforcement Center and County Health and Human Services Building.

Directional signs would be needed, but he said MnDOT has rules about sign placement.

"We've been trying to get signage for the Law Enforcement Center out by the bypass and we can't get signage so people know where the Law Enforcement Center's at,'' he said. "If there are future facilities out here, we'd want to make sure we had signage so people could find out where to go.''

The City Council will discuss the intersection Monday night.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150