A three-lane reconstruction of South Sixth Street has the necessary capacity for the next 30 to 50 years while costing $2 million less than the five-lane alternative, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) project manager Jim Hallgren said Thursday night.
A Brainerd City Council workshop on the 2017 reconstruction project drew a small but vocal crowd to the Brainerd Lakes Chamber office with concerns about the impact a reduction in lanes would have on the business community along the corridor. At Monday's regular council meeting, city council members delayed their decision on which reconstruction plan to approve in favor of hosting the workshop.
There are two proposals put forward by MnDOT: a three-lane option and a five-lane one. A public hearing three weeks ago left no clear preference among those attending to express an opinion. Some favor three lanes, noting decreased traffic counts on South Sixth Street, also known as Business 371, since the Highway 371 bypass was constructed in 2000. Others say the roadway should remain five lanes wide, arguing a reduction in lanes would discourage business growth and hinder traffic flow.
Hallgren said further study of the alternatives indicates a three-lane road has the ability to handle up to 20,000 vehicles each day with minimal impact on right of way and an insignificant increase in traffic wait times at signalized intersections. An average of 12,000 vehicles per day currently travel along the corridor. To meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Hallgren said the amount of right of way that would need to be acquired with a five-lane road would be costly.
Council President Gary Scheeler asked Hallgren about a four-lane reconstruction, which he said would allow for six additional feet on either side while keeping the acquisition of property minimal.
Hallgren said MnDOT's central office was "really not seeing any advantage of going with an unbalanced lane assignment" like the four-lane option Scheeler proposed.
"I think with that alternative, you're just going to add to confusion," Hallgren said.
Scheeler asked whether the five-lane alternative was ever really an option, given the information Hallgren presented, and said he felt the council was misled on their choices. Hallgren said MnDOT considered it viable to look at what it would take to keep the same number of lanes as today, but as they've learned more about the costs it's become less desirable.
"If the council would have went five lanes, what was your plan then?" Scheeler asked.
"I would ask that the city increase their contribution to the project if they wanted to go five lanes," Hallgren responded. "As a steward of the taxpayer money, I cannot justify $2 million in additional cost where the need is not evident."
Hallgren said it would be his preference to consider the addition of right turn lanes to the three-lane plan, and Chamber President Matt Killian said those lanes would be "critical" from his organization's perspective.
Council member Sue Hilgart asked whether the lane width would be adequate with the three-lane option, particularly given concerns from some in the business community about whether large trucks could effectively use the road.
Hallgren said MnDOT is proposing the maximum standard of 12-foot driving lanes, which would actually widen the lanes compared to the current width. The three-lane option would maintain two left-turn lanes from South Sixth Street to Highway 210, along with a northbound through lane and a right-turn lane. Plans call for some additional right-of-way to be purchased at this intersection to accommodate the wide angle turning of semi-trailers.
Ed Menk, owner of E. L. Menk Jewelers in downtown Brainerd, asked why the road couldn't be reconstructed as is.
Hallgren said whenever any kind of improvement is made to a roadway, it must comply with ADA standards. Since city sewer and water needs are a "driving force" of the project, Hallgren said, reconstruction is necessary compared to a pavement overlay. An overlay itself would also require an update to ADA standards.
Beyond this, Minnesota state statute requires a "complete streets" approach, which according to MnDOT's website is "an approach to road planning and design that considers and balances the needs of all transportation users." This includes pedestrians and bicyclists.
Mark Ostgarden, Brainerd city planner, said beyond some of the specific engineering details, he had three other "compelling reasons" for a three-lane roadway: improvements in aesthetics, the slowing down of traffic to help downtown and a positive impact on property values.
"Business 371 is not a vibrant corridor anymore," Ostgarden said. "There are vacant properties from the south end to the north end. ... I would argue that from a planning perspective, that corridor is going to have a very difficult time becoming a commercial strip corridor of development. I think that the best future of that corridor is to try to revitalize it for residential purposes."
Scheeler said he felt like MnDOT spent a lot more money on road projects elsewhere in the state, including the Highway 10 project in Rice.
"It seems like this one here is the one where you're going to take this money you save here and put it in Crosby or Duluth or somewhere else," Scheeler said. "I'm not looking at what it's going to save you, I'm just trying to save our city."
Mayor James Wallin said he was concerned the reduced lanes would cause people to find alternative routes, forcing more traffic onto side streets.
"Whatever we do right now is going to affect our community forever, more than my lifetime," Wallin said.
Scheeler said if traffic increased on side streets such as Oak Street, it would be local taxpayers stuck with the bill for improving those streets.
"I want you to pay the $2 million, not us," Scheeler said.
Hallgren said he did not think the three-lane option would lead to the diversion of traffic.
"The capacity will be here with the three-lane concept," Hallgren said.
Scheeler asked why MnDOT ever builds five-lane roads, given everything Hallgren presented about the needs met by three-lane designs.
"That's the conclusion that we're coming to at this point," Hallgren said. "We're under more and more pressure to go on a road diet instead of developing a sea of pavement that is problematic."
The city council is set to vote on the road design at its April 20 meeting.