Roundabouts are possible solution to improving downtown

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Planning Commission has referred to the City Council's Public Works/Safety Committee the concept of improving downtown access.

WILLMAR -- The Willmar Planning Commission has referred to the City Council's Public Works/Safety Committee the concept of improving downtown access.

The commission acted Wednesday night after a representative of the Willmar Design Center asked the city to commit funds to design and build better downtown access and include the access project in the five-year capital improvement plan.

Gary Geiger, chairman of the Design Center's Gateway, Transportation and Parking Committee, also asked the Planning Commission to add the access project to the comprehensive plan for the city's central business district.

The Design Center is proposing the city look into ways of opening both ends of the U.S. Highway 12 downtown bypass. Many contend the bypass has limited access to downtown during the past 30 years.

In July 1976, Willmar and the Minnesota Department of Transportation installed the bypass to reduce traffic congestion along downtown Litchfield Avenue.


Geiger said the bypass was very successful.

"Congestion is no longer a problem,'' he said. "Downtown business people realized there was a problem very soon after the opening of the bypass. In November of that year a petition, which included most of the downtown businesses, requested major changes to the bypass to allow greater access to downtown.''

Since 1976, efforts to find solutions have not met MnDOT safety or traffic concerns, said Geiger. However, roundabouts may be the answer, he said. In a letter to the city, MnDOT said roundabouts meet the department's specifications, according to Geiger.

He said roundabouts lead to fewer accidents because vehicles don't cross paths. Collisions are less serious because speed is reduced, and there are no left turns, he said.

"An interesting point is that roundabouts improve traffic flow because there are no stop lights or signs,'' Geiger said. "Even through people drive slow through a roundabout, more cars can go through the intersection in a day since no one has to stop.''

To illustrate the point, Geiger showed video clips on his laptop computer of vehicles and pedestrians using roundabouts.

Geiger noted nothing has been designed. "With this letter, however, the city could hire experts to design within the guidelines from MnDOT,'' he said.

Planning Commission member Roland Swenson, whose car dealership is located on U.S. Highway 12 East, said a roundabout "takes away a lot of left-hand turns'' and would provide smoother access to First Street.


After the commission voted to refer the concept to the council, Geiger told the Tribune he was happy the discussion was moving forward.

Bruce Peterson, city planning and development director, said five-year plans with proposals from city department heads are submitted annually to the Planning Commission.

The commission reviews and make recommends to the City Council about capital expenditures that are related to land use and development, said Peterson.

"So the Planning Commission could possibly make a future recommendation on including that project in a plan,'' Peterson told the Tribune. "I think it's a good first step to get the Planning Commission to understand what they're proposing and to get some level of buy-in.''

The Planning Commission's role is to act on the concept, Peterson said. "It will be up to the City Council make any design decisions, with the involvement of MnDOT.''

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