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A road runs through it: Sacred Heart hopes to keep it a wide one

SACRED HEART -- Big trucks hauling everything from sugar beets, corn and soybeans to manufactured homes built in Montevideo rumble through Sacred Heart on U.S. Highway 212 all hours of the day.

Tom Cherveny / TribuneA truck rumbles west on U.S. Highway 212 in Sacred Heart Tuesday as a patron leaves Kathy's Place.
Tom Cherveny / Tribune A truck rumbles west on U.S. Highway 212 in Sacred Heart Tuesday as a patron leaves Kathy's Place.

SACRED HEART - Big trucks hauling everything from sugar beets, corn and soybeans to manufactured homes built in Montevideo rumble through Sacred Heart on U.S. Highway 212 all hours of the day.

They share the roadway with the patrons of Kathy's Place, who park their pickup trucks, SUVs and cars alongside the highway. "They are on the older side," said Kathy Riley of patrons at her restaurant.

Yet the highway traffic bothers them not. With 18-foot parking lanes on both sides of the highway along a three-block stretch in the heart of town, there's plenty of room for her patrons to park, open their vehicle's doors and safely make their way to the cafe, explained Riley.

Change is coming, and it has Riley, as well as other business owners and city officials worried. A project to completely rebuild the highway with concrete in 2021 includes plans to narrow the roadway in that three-block section by reducing the parking lanes to 10 feet, while keeping the existing 12-foot driving lanes.

"It's going to hurt our businesses," said Andrew Stauffer, a member of the Sacred Heart City Council. He said the wide lanes make it easy for truck drivers and others driving through town to stop at Kathy's Place or Kelly's convenience and gasoline store and spend money.

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And they do. Kelly Ross, owner of Kelly's, said her store and the cafe both serve many truck drivers and other passing motorists who take advantage of the wide parking available. "When the road narrows up, I don't see trucks stopping," Ross said.

She said her business also relies on the wide lanes for trucks bringing supplies to the store. A grain storage warehouse, kitty korner from her business, relies on the space as well, Stauffer and fellow council member Randy Johnson said.

They've hosted representatives of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's District 8 office in Willmar at council meetings to discuss their concerns. The main point: "Just give us back what we already have. Don't set us back," Stauffer said.

Johnson, a truck driver, said he also questions the safety of reducing the highway width. Part of the rationale for narrowing the roadway is to slow traffic. But traffic has already slowed by the time it reaches the three-block stretch, Johnson said. With the proposed changes, trucks turning to the local elevator or other destinations must do so with less room.

He and Stauffer also pointed out that the highway is designated for over-wide loads, and it sees lots of them, everything from manufactured homes to wind turbine blades.

The possible shrinking of the parking lanes isn't their only concern as council members.

MnDOT will be assessing the city roughly 10 percent of the costs for construction in town. The city's bill is currently estimated at $200,000. That's the price for the narrowed parking lanes. If MnDOT were to allow the city to keep the 18-foot lanes, the city's estimated cost is in the range of $400,000 to $500,000, said the two council members.

It's money the city of 548 residents is hard pressed to find. The city has undertaken $19.345 million in infrastructure projects in recent years, mainly to meet state mandates. Grants cover $10.833 million or 56 percent of the total costs. That leaves taxpayers with $8.512 million or 44 percent of the total to pay, according to City Administrator Colette Santjer.

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"Our financial guy basically told us the credit card is maxed out," Johnson said. The city ranks in the top 10 percent of the state in terms of municipal taxes, according to Stauffer.

He and Johnson said the city supports MnDOT's plans to rebuild the roadway. The 2021 project calls for improving the roadway from the Hawk Creek bridge to the west end of the city of Renville at a total estimated cost of $19.3 million. It calls for a complete rebuild in Sacred Heart, where it's believed the original roadbed built by Work Progress Administration workers still underlies the road.

The project will require a detour through the construction season, and that will definitely impact businesses in Sacred Heart as well. Stauffer said MnDOT is looking at routing traffic north to state Highway 7 for the detour. Renville County Road 11, a paved east-west route north of Highway 212, cannot be used for trucks due to weight restrictions on a bridge, he said.

Riley said she anticipates a "huge impact" from the detour at her cafe, as it sees lots of business in the traveling season from motorists. It's the same for Ross at the convenience and gasoline store. "That's gonna hurt," she said of the detour.

The two council members said the city is working with local legislators, State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, in hopes of convincing MnDOT to keep the wider lanes.

Stauffer said MnDOT should consider the unique characteristics of each community when it designs projects. "It should not be just cookie cutter, this is the way it is everywhere," he said.

Small towns are struggling, Stauffer said. "I don't think that is the best way for St. Paul to be supporting rural development or rural communities."

MnDOT hopes to resolve issues

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WILLMAR - The Minnesota Department of Transportation has met with officials and citizens in Sacred Heart, and is looking into potential options in hopes of coming to a resolution over the upcoming U.S. Highway 212 project, according to Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt, public affairs for MnDOT's District 8 office in Willmar.

In response to questions from the West Central Tribune, Lighthizer-Schmidt reported by email that MnDOT selected what are the "maximum standard widths" of 12-foot driving lanes and 10-foot shoulders for the project. The widths are now in place on Highway 212 in Dawson, Renville and Danube.

"Making a highway wider has its downsides," she stated. It causes people to drive faster and makes it more difficult for pedestrians to cross, creates more maintenance needs, more plowing, reduces space for snow storage and increases construction costs.

There are several reasons for width standards, according to Lighthizer-Schmidt. A design that's too narrow or too wide can negatively affect trucks or pedestrians.

She stated that standard widths are intended to provide a certain amount of consistency to drivers and fairness to all of the different communities throughout Minnesota. The proposed 12-foot driving lanes and 10-foot shoulders are common on the state highway system as well as Highway 212.

MnDOT has a policy to assess communities for construction costs. Lighthizer-Schmidt described it as robust, and added that in the simplest terms, only requires cities to "pay for costs for design beyond what MnDOT has determined as necessary for the highway and for designs beyond applicable standards." It assures that MnDOT treats all communities consistently, she added.

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