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Pausing safety project on State Highways 23/9 while welcomed by some, causes issues for others

MnDOT'S decision to pause the state Highways 23 and 9 intersection in New London this week is being celebrated by those against the project. However, the delay could have consequences, such as delaying much needed improvements and causing the county to relook at its own project.

Highway 23 intersection at New London
A tanker truck drives through the intersection of Minnesota Highways 23 and 9 in New London on Thursday. A safety improvement project at the intersection, that would have seen the construction of a J-turn, has been paused by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MnDOT said it is reevaluating the project after hearing concerns from the public. Shelby Lindrud / West Central Tribune

NEW LONDON — When the news came last Tuesday, it was definitely unexpected. The Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8, in a press release, announced it was going to reevaluate the proposed safety improvement project at the intersection of State Highways 23 and 9 in New London, following years of community misgivings.

"We've made the decision to step back to have more discussion with the community and other stakeholders to assure all perspectives of the project are considered," said District 8 engineer Jon Huseby in the release.

Some of those concerns had come directly from the New London City Council , which had also been hearing from residents about the proposed project. Even so, MnDOT's decision caught people off guard.

"I was surprised they decided to hold it up," said New London Mayor John Bergman. "A lot of money has been spent, a lot of time has been spent putting this thing together."

If the project had continued to move forward as planned, a J-turn was set to be constructed at the intersection next year. Back in March 2020, during an open house on the project , MnDOT explained the J-turn was considered the safest and most cost-effective option for the intersection. A safety study completed in 2017 found a J-turn would decrease crashes and their severity, as well as be quicker to build and cheaper than other options.

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121121.N.WCT.Highway23SafetyReaction.design
The layout of the purposed J-turn at the intersection of State Highways 23 and 9 in New London. The project has now been paused by the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8. Contributed / MnDOT District 8

However, from the beginning members of the public had concerns ranging from the design, highway speed and how emergency vehicles and truck traffic would be able to navigate the updated intersection. Bergman said residents from in and around New London approached the city council recently with a petition they had created to ask MnDOT to stop the project and looked for the council to pass a resolution to support this goal. The online petition has gathered 1,070 signatures.

"We are disappointed and bewildered how MnDOT thinks they are going to be making our community safer with the proposed plan," the petition reads.

While the council decided it wasn't proper to pass a resolution against a state agency, Bergman said, the council did send a letter of support, asking for MnDOT to consider reevaluating the project and continue meeting with stakeholders with concerns.

"We agree with these people," Bergman said. "Maybe it should be looked at again, it should be reviewed, to make sure they are doing the right thing. There is a lot of resistance to it."

As of Tuesday, MnDOT listened.

"What we are hearing is, is the J-turn the right solution for economic vitality for the area, is it the right solution for drivability for the community?" said Ryan Barney, MnDOT project manager for the improvements.

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Barney said MnDOT will now reevaluate the project and its priorities. How long the evaluation will take will depend on how well the process goes, including gathering more input from the public and local partners and taking another look at the safety assessment. Safety will remain the main driving force for the project.

"Hopefully, we'll get going soon after the new year," Barney said. "It is going to take months."

MnDOT isn't saying what other options could be available for the intersection. Huseby in the press release said a J-turn could still be the final decision.

“I want to be transparent about the fact that a J-turn design is still a viable option for the intersection and will be evaluated along with other safety improvement options. MnDOT must balance the needs of many. Freight and other through traffic on Highway 23 are also important stakeholders and their input will be sought as part of the process,” Huseby said.

Still moving forward next year are the dedicated left-turn lanes at the Country Stop, construction of a mid-block pedestrian crossing in front of the New London Spicer School and mid-block pedestrian crossing near 3 rd Avenue Southeast on Highway 9 , and the replacement of portions of the retaining wall along the Mill Pond.

"We're thinking we can still get those in," Barney said. "We are certainly going to try to get those in this summer."

Kandiyohi County has also had to put the brakes on their proposed work at the intersection, which included a pedestrian underpass and the realignment of Kandiyohi County Road 40 . If MnDOT changes the design of the project, or goes in a completely different direction, it would require the county to reevaluate and redesign its project. Waiting to do a project also usually means it costs more.

"We will for sure do a one-year pause, while they reevaluate. Our construction in 2022 will not happen," said Mel Odens, Kandiyohi County Public Works director and county engineer. "The bigger part for us, based on the decision, we need to re-evaluate the cost on our system because of this delay."

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One of the main repercussions of the state's project delay is any major safety improvements at the intersection won't take place until at least 2024, if not later. Bergman said everyone agrees something needs to be done at that intersection, but now whatever that may be is years out. However, Bergman is pleased MnDOT listened to the community, calling it democracy in action.

"I applaud them for doing it," Bergman said. "Everybody learned something by them doing that. Number one, DOT is sensitive to people's concerns."

121121.N.WCT.Highway23SafetyReaction.design
The layout of the purposed J-turn at the intersection of State Highways 23 and 9 in New London. The project has now been paused by the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8. Contributed / MnDOT District 8

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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