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Intersection safety design gets backing from Council committee

A collision diagram of the Belle Plaine intersection is similar to the collision diagram of the Willmar intersection: most of the crashes occur in the northbound lane and involve collisions between northbound and eastbound traffic. Submitted photo

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council will be asked Monday to support the Business 71/County Road 24/23rd Street Northeast intersection safety design it rejected April 5.

The council's Public Works/Safety Committee voted this week to recommend council members support the design known as No. 3½ with the understanding that the city, Kandiyohi County and Minnesota Department of Transportation would share equally in the construction cost currently estimated at $363,210 and that MnDOT would be responsible for project coordination including design, bidding and letting, and construction management. Officials have stated that the county and MnDOT will share in the costs.

The recommendation is a turnaround for the committee, which had last month discussed intersection safety options but sent the issue to the council without recommendation.

The Business 71 intersection ranks fourth in number of crashes but result in more serious injury and damage due to higher speeds.

Last week, the council voted 5-3 to not support the No. 3½ option favored by MnDOT and the county. A majority of council members said they thought the design, which includes a U-turn, would move crashes elsewhere along the Business 71 corridor.

New information provided by MnDOT, however, persuaded one council member who had voted against 3½ to say he now supports it.

MnDOT's information showed that crashes were dramatically reduced after the indirect left-turn design proposed for Willmar was built at a similar intersection of U.S. Highway 169, a four-lane highway, and a two-lane county road at Belle Plaine, located southwest of the Twin Cities.

A collision diagram of the Belle Plaine intersection is similar to the collision diagram of the Willmar intersection: most of the crashes occur in the northbound lane and involve collisions between northbound and eastbound traffic.

Willmar's design provides indirect left turns in the median for southbound traffic to go east on 23rd Street and northbound traffic to go west on County Road 24. The design blocks eastbound and westbound traffic from crossing the intersection. Eastbound traffic would have access to 23rd Street by driving 1,400 feet south to a U-turn, heading north on 71 and then turning right onto 23rd.

The Belle Plaine design also uses indirect left turns, but not a U-turn. That's because Highway 169 has an interchange and a crossover located 1.1-1.2 miles in either direction from the intersection, according to MnDOT.

Jon Huseby, MnDOT district engineer, told the committee he is familiar with the Belle Plaine intersection because he formerly commuted from the Mankato area to the metro area on Highway 169. Huseby said he had reservations about the indirect left turns, but said he is now sold on them.

The number of crashes at Belle Plaine fell from 23 in one year from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2007, to two multiple car crashes from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009, according to MnDOT information.

Willmar's design will include a "weave'' area in the northbound lane where traffic using the U-turn can merge onto northbound Business 71 and traffic heading north to County Road 24 can exit onto the left turn lane.

Committee Chairman Doug Reese and committee member Ron Christianson supported 3½ at the council meeting and supported the design at the committee meeting.

"If we do not do this, it will be another delay,'' said Reese.

Christianson offered the motion of support. Bruce DeBlieck, who voted against the design at the council meeting, said the information clarified the situation and seconded the motion.

Rick Fagerlie who voted against at the council meeting, still has reservations but didn't vote against at the committee meeting. In an interview, Fagerlie said he's still concerned about the U-turn for people who are going south and want to go north.

Fagerlie hopes there won't be any serious accidents with the new design. He favors signals at the intersection, but traffic engineers say signals don't solve collisions. He thinks more traffic will head for the signalized intersection at Business 71 and Civic Center Drive.

"If they say lights aren't safe, does that mean there will be more crashes there now because people are going to go through the yellow lights and red lights? It's a tough situation here,'' he said.

"You can have all the experts you want look at it and do all the data. But it comes to real life and what the driving habits of people are, and the thing is they aren't paying attention,'' he said. "That intersection was built according to plans and specs by all these professional engineers and it's supposed to work, but they forgot that people don't pay attention.''

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