Down the (wider) road: Planning for the future after the bypass
Construction on a long-discussed highway expansion project is set to begin in July 2017, after nearly two decades of research, planning, re-planning and, at times, controversy.
In June, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officially committed $58 million to the four-lane expansion and bypass construction of State Highway 371 between Nisswa and Pine River, marking a significant step in the history of the project.
The 16-mile stretch of highway set for improvement runs through the communities of Pequot Lakes and Jenkins and was identified in a 1999 MnDOT study as a "medium priority" corridor because of its connectivity with regional trade centers. The project, which will add two lanes and a median along with shifting the highway from its original route to one east of Pequot Lakes, is intended to alleviate traffic volume and safety concerns.
"The road is a busy road, and at some point, we're going to reach the capacity of that roadway," said MnDOT project manager James Hallgren. "A two-lane facility is no longer going to meet the demands of as many travelers that want to use it."
According to Hallgren, an average of 12,000-15,000 vehicles per day travel on the south end of the corridor near Nisswa and around 10,000 per day use the highway north of Pequot Lakes. In a 2010 Supplemental Final Environmental Impact Statement (SFEIS) prepared by the agency, MnDOT forecasted that by 2030, if no changes were made to the current roadway, an estimated 45 percent of annual vehicle hours of travel would represent delay time. The approved expansion will decrease overall travel time by 35 percent and time spent in traffic delays by 80 percent, according to the findings.
The safety of the two-lane highway is also a factor. The report concludes that construction of the divided roadway is expected to reduce the frequency of all crashes by 8 percent and those resulting in incapacitating injury or fatality by 40 percent in 2030.
Anyone who's driven on this stretch on a given summer weekend has likely experienced the traffic-related frustration associated with its overstretched capacity, but what does the future hold for the communities affected by the planned expansion and bypass?
This question has been posed by hundreds of towns and cities throughout the United States as seemingly inevitable changes to roadways present new challenges to community identity and economic development. The city of Pequot Lakes is no exception as it looks ahead to uncharted territory for its businesses and residents.
The bypass to the east of downtown Pequot Lakes was not always part of MnDOT's plan. In 2005, the agency announced its preferred expansion, in agreement with a resolution adopted by the city council, along the current route of the highway, which runs through the heart of Pequot Lakes. After further consideration of the costs the city would incur as part of this expansion, along with concerns with the potential damaging effect a larger highway might have on the city's character, the city council adopted a new resolution in June 2006 supporting a bypass.
The comprehensive plan for the future of Pequot Lakes, updated in February 2013, addresses the concerns the city had with the initial approved route. "With an expansion of the existing alignment, there was no way for Pequot Lakes to avoid becoming the next drive-thru community in a stretch of similar development to the south," the plan states.
An independent study of the bypass commissioned in 2007 by the city council compiled testimony from stakeholders, agencies and city staff to determine the alternate route's efficacy. After reviewing possible issues related to engineering, design, economic impact, planning and more, the group's conclusion was that "there were no outstanding issues that would inhibit construction of an alternate alignment."
MnDOT pursued a supplement to its original EIS, concluding in 2010 that the project go ahead with the bypass included.
Speaking to concerns of many business owners about the loss of traffic on the main thoroughfare, the city's report noted that "while there is certain to be impacts to individual businesses before, during and after the construction of an alternate route, compelling evidence exists that the overall impact to businesses and the city's tax base would be positive."
Evidence collected from dozens of case studies of communities facing construction of a highway bypass supports this notion. According to a survey of research compiled in 1996 by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, overall sales dropped in eight of 71 bypassed communities, and land value along the "old route" through a city increased in 47 of 50 cases studied.
The study showed that traffic-serving businesses, such as gas stations, tended to be disproportionately affected: in 18 of 61 cases, sales declined for these businesses. Just one of these was located in a community where overall sales declined as well, so in most instances, these effects tended to be isolated.
Just south of Pequot Lakes, in Nisswa, the community experienced its own re-routing in 1950. Highway 371 once ran where Main Street and Hazelwood Drive are now before plans called for it to shift west of town.
Dick Carlson, president of the Nisswa Area Historical Society, said that the businesses affected in town were mostly gas stations. Most other businesses in the city, he said, were destination businesses, such as hardware stores, clothing stores or sporting goods shops.
"(Those) are not something you stop at just because you went by on the highway," he said.
What was left for Nisswa was a walkable town center accessible for both residents and visitors, exactly what MnDOT identified as an effect of moving the expanded highway to east of downtown Pequot Lakes.
"Pedestrian mobility and local circulation would be improved by moving the peak traffic volumes out of the downtown district," the SFEIS states. "A Pequot Lakes bypass would avoid potential direct impacts (e.g. right-of-way, access restrictions) and indirect impacts (e.g. noise, visual) to community resources."
In other words, by maintaining the original two-lane road, where traffic volumes are expected to drop by 33-40 percent of current levels by 2030, Pequot Lakes is likely to become even less divided between its east and west sides and crossing the street will be safer and more approachable.
The city has shown its intent to remain invested in the downtown commercial area and to prevent a shift of economic activity to the future interchange east on County Road 11.
In 2009, the city established a "Grow Zone" in downtown, which is set up to streamline permitting and reduce regulations to encourage growth. Later in 2009, the city council approved a resolution to maintain low-density zoning along the bypass route, noting the utilities infrastructure required to support commercial growth there would be an expensive proposition for the city in addition to "expanding uncertainty" in the economic climate.
"The vision of an economically strong downtown Pequot Lakes surrounded by equally strong and vibrant neighborhoods requires a clear and consistent approach to land use," the resolution reads.
In 2013, the city council voted to equalize property taxes between residents of the original city limits and those living in the former Sibley Township, who pay about half of the taxes as their counterparts in the original city per the merger agreement. By 2016, all residents of Pequot Lakes will pay the same property tax rate. At the time of the decision, council member Scott Pederson said this move helped ensure lower rates for all in the future, which might help spur additional development.
Past examples, statistics and projections aside, the success of a bypassed community appears to be more dependent upon steps a community takes to prepare itself than on the existence of a bypass itself.
"Some communities thrive where other communities struggle," Hallgren said. "I think it's more of a community issue than the actual bypass."
Financial consultant Jon Commers of Donjek, a financial strategy firm, wrote in the city's bypass study, "Literature produced by state departments of transportation and academic institutions agree on a fundamentally important point: The impact of alternative routes outside of existing downtown areas depends largely on the underlying economic conditions in the community."
At the time of the study, 22 percent of the estimated market value along the Highway 371 corridor in Pequot Lakes represented tourism-based businesses, while 42 percent of value was local commercial uses, which are aimed at a mostly local clientele. The composition of Pequot Lakes' tax base, Commers wrote, is similar to those that appeared less vulnerable to negative effects from a bypass.
"In fact, reduced traffic in many cases represented a stimulus to commercial activity in the central business district," he noted.
If - or how - Pequot Lakes will change once the bypass is constructed is difficult to pinpoint with certainty. If one thing is certain, however, it is that the expansion of the highway will contribute to the ever-changing face of the Brainerd lakes area.