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Future of Ojibwa and Nashway roads gets public feedback

A motorist travels under a canopy of trees Monday on Ojibwa Road north of Brainerd. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls1 / 3
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Some residents worry a scenic drive around Round Lake will be lost if a reconstruction project moves forward in the future.

Crow Wing County Highway Engineer Tim Bray said the deteriorating road needs to be updated to address safety and pedestrian traffic.

At issue is a 30-year-old roadbed that has residents and Crow Wing County staff with opposing views.

Both agree the pavement is deteriorating. Reconstructing the road isn't on the county's list of planned projects for the next five years. But conversations about a future project raised the heat on the subject.

For 113 people who added their names to a letter presenting the viewpoint of preserving the roads' scenic nature, reconstruction isn't their option. They note the road's beauty, towering white and Norway pines and its safety record, saying there has never been a fatality nor a pedestrian involved in a crash. In the last six years, they reported eight crashes and most of those involving deer.

Bray said the level of staunch opposition to updating the road led his predecessors to avoid the challenge. A simple overlay is ill-advised, Bray said, and something he will not support.

Residents who signed a letter of opposition stated widening, flattening and straightening the road will only encourage drivers to pay less attention and drive faster than the 35 mph posted limit.

Bray said opposition was expected but, "it was not anticipated that planning level information gathered so far would be used in an effort to scuttle the entire process before any in-depth analysis could occur. An active campaign is underway to circumvent the planning process and force the county to complete an ill-advised simple resurfacing treatment (overlay)."

Kurt Martin, Ojibwa Road resident, said after seeing other county road projects where residents voiced their opposition apparently too late to make a difference galvanized residents to make their voices heard early in the planning this time.

Bray said he not only has to look to what the residents along the roadways want but is also responsible to the traveling public. Bray said nothing is locked in and there is flexibility in design but only to a point. He said he refuses to throw out every safety benefit and said he is using minimum standards.

"It is true that I have been on record stating that only addressing the pavement condition would be irresponsible," Bray stated. "This type of treatment is shortsighted and a poor investment of the tax dollars in which I have been entrusted. Knowingly allowing a simple overlay without addressing known design deficiencies, including pedestrian accommodations, is indeed irresponsible, if not negligent."

"I'm willing to compromise so far," Bray said, noting the 50 foot right-of-way. "I want to be proactive before somebody gets hurt on a road that has blind spots, sharp curves. I think in my business that should be exactly what I should be doing."

Last year, the highway department started what Bray describes as a "robust public involvement process."

To that end, there were seven focus group meetings, two stakeholder meetings and two public open house gatherings on the subject.

Today, the road has 11-foot lanes and no paved shoulder. Traffic counts indicate 1,500 vehicles per day travel on the south side of Ojibwa Road (County Road 115) wrapping around Round Lake and Nashway Road (County Road 127). The potential project area covers about 5 miles.

Martin, who also is a task force member, sent out the letter residents added their names to in opposition and now said the number has grown from 113 to about 160.

The Dispatch received calls and emails from resident both opposed to and in support of the proposed improvement project.

Residents who signed the letter worried the very character of the lake area, what continues to foster and draw people, is what the county would change with a road reconstruction with a potentially expansive tree clear area of 100 feet if the road needs to be centered and to make room for utilities.

"The canopy of tree limbs over the road are a feast to the eyes," the residents' letter stated. "It is truly a gem of the lakes area that exemplifies that 'up north' feel that many come to visit each year and those of us that reside here treasure."

Bray said while that potential exists he doesn't see where they'd clear 100 feet. Using a preservation route standard, Bray said there is the ability to reduce clear zones, such as utilizing more expensive curb and gutter in a combination with a rural design with ditching.

How the conversation started

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede, who represents the area, said a couple of years ago about eight residents who were tired nothing was ever done on the road approached him for an informal conversation. That led to the formation of a task force with representation from Nisswa, Lake Edward Township and Round and North Long Lake associations and residents.

Thiede said for a certain segment of the population an overlay is the only option but that is not something Bray will recommend as a viable. Thiede said he thinks there are a lot of other people who are taking a reasoned approach and exploring all options.

Frankly, Thiede said, if the people say they want nothing done, nothing will be done. He said Bray's position for a road standard he feels comfortable with as an engineer is a reasonable position.

This is an issue being talked about because residents on the road didn't think it had the attention it needed in the last 30 years, Thiede said.

If the road doesn't meet safety features for state or federal standards, funding for road improvements would be in question. Unlike cities, the county's standard process is not to assess costs to the landowners.

For years, Bray reported, residents and those who use the road complained about the pavement, safety and drainage.

"The delay to even attempt a project to correct these deficiencies has primarily been due to the high degree of controversy that a properly designed highway project would create," Bray stated. "At the heart of the debate is the potential for private property and vegetation impacts along the scenic corridor."

Vegetation impacts can typically be restated as tree loss.

Martin, along with Thiede, is a candidate for the same county commissioner's seat in this fall's election. This road issue is one of the factors in Martin's decision to run for office. Martin said he couldn't get a clear statement from Thiede on where he stood on the issue.

Martin said the road is scenic in summer and winter with the tree canopy. For his own property, Martin said the road, if centered, would actually move farther from his house and from the lake but then could mean the more expansive tree clearing area on the other side.

Martin said the residents would like to have minor drainage corrections and an overlay or mill and overlay on the road's existing bed. Martin said adding the previous road lasted about 30 years, an extensive time for pavement. Martin said Bray has steadfastly refused to consider the mill and overlay.

Bray acknowledged he said addressing the pavement condition only would be irresponsible. "Constraining the improvements to only replacing the pavement ignores the current safety challenges and elevated potential for crashes involving residents and other users," Bray stated. "Disregarding these needs will perpetuate the road's poor design for many years and will continue to put the public at risk."

One of the alternatives Bray supports is two 11-foot-wide driving lanes and 4-foot paved shoulders.

"This configuration represents a total pavement width increase of 8 feet," Bray stated. "It is the minimum that I am willing to accept given the current and projected roadway conditions. It also represents the minimum design thresholds required to maintain eligibility for funding from sources other than county property taxes."

In the residents' letter, the property owners, who stated they make up nearly all pedestrian traffic, said Bray's plan is more hazardous than the current roadway with a pedestrian lane 1 foot narrower than the average city sidewalk right next to the traffic lane.

"In addition, the road would be re-constructed employing a forgiving design which by intent allows for driver error, but actually fosters higher speeds and driver inattention," the residents' letter stated. "These higher speeds and driver inattention would be occurring within inches of the pedestrian walkway. It is the opinion of other experts and the property owners that a pedestrian being struck will be inevitable. Moreover, studies have shown that with the speeds associated with forgiving design highways, the likelihood of pedestrian fatalities increases dramatically. ... The real irony is the very scenic beauty that brings the pedestrians to the roadway; the county engineer will destroy with his plan."

Thiede said he wasn't ready to say Bray's alternative is what's needed and not just one type of roadway may be what is needed throughout. Thiede said he wanted to get as many ideas as possible. Thiede is supportive of Bray's process to get public input in what he described as a reasoned process. No money has been allocated for the road work at this time. Ultimately there will be a decision, Thiede said, and the county is exposed to liability if the board goes against the engineer's recommendation.

For more information on the project, go online to was created to foster further interaction.

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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