Change is coming: A closer look at reconstructing South Sixth Street

South Sixth Street is going to see a facelift. Just how big of a change, however, is up to the people. A reconstruction project for the road is set for 2017. Two options are being proposed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT): A ...

Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls A reconstruction project for South Sixth Street in Brainerd is set for 2017. Two options are being proposed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT): A three-lane or a five-lane layout. A third option of a two-lane project is proposed by Charles Marohn of Strong Towns.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls A reconstruction project for South Sixth Street in Brainerd is set for 2017. Two options are being proposed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT): A three-lane or a five-lane layout. A third option of a two-lane project is proposed by Charles Marohn of Strong Towns.

South Sixth Street is going to see a facelift. Just how big of a change, however, is up to the people.

A reconstruction project for the road is set for 2017.

Two options are being proposed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT): A three-lane or a five-lane layout.

A third alternative was recently released by Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, an organization that promotes "financially strong and resilient" cities and neighborhoods. Marohn's plan incorporates a more basic alternative, with two lanes, street parking and a median.

The Brainerd City Council is now tasked with deciding what plan to go with.


Here's a closer look at those options:

--- 3-lane ---

Proposed by: MnDOT

Project scope: A 13-foot center turn lane; 12-foot driving lane; 13.8-foot pedestrian area on each side.


  • Less right of way impacts to adjacent property owners.
  • Provides an offset from thru lanes to curbs.
  • Wider travel lanes (12 feet).
  • Incorporates a boulevard between the sidewalk and back of curb.
  • No business relocation.
  • Straight, uniform sidewalk.
  • A better transition from curb line to existing driveways.
  • More pedestrian friendly.
  • Smaller construction cost and right of way cost.


  • Lower roadway capacity of up to 18,000 vehicles per day. The current volume is about 12,000 vehicles.

--- 5-lane ---

Proposed by: MnDOT


Project scope: A 12-foot center turn lane; 11-foot driving lanes; 9.3-foot pedestrian area on each side.


  • Higher roadway capacity of 33,500 vehicles per day.
  • Minimal change from current roadway configuration.


  • About 15 feet wider.
  • Reduced lane widths from 12 feet to 11.
  • Additional right of way acquisition.
  • Tree removal. About 32 trees with a five-foot widening and 77 trees with a 10-foot widening.
  • One potential business relocation. (MnDOT officials declined to name the business because they haven't approached the owner yet.)
  • Residential entrance rearrangement for about five locations.

For Front Street to Highway 210 (Both proposals): Two 11-foot driving lanes and an 11-foot turn lane on each side.
Shift roadway west to avoid impacts to historical water tower property and improve truck turning.

What the road looks like now:

5-lane: A 13-foot center turn lane; 12-foot driving lanes; 6.8-foot pedestrian area on each side.

Front Street-Highway 210: 12-foot driving lanes, 6.3-foot pedestrian area on each side.

--- 2-lane ---


Proposed by: Charles Marohn of Strong Towns

Project scope:

  • From County Road 117 to Wright Street: The frontage roads stay in place for non-motorized traffic. One driving lane each way, with no on-street parking.
  • Wright Street to Trinity Lutheran Church (Where urban development begins): On-street parking on north side next to a protected bike lane and pedestrian lane.
  • Trinity Lutheran Church to Willow Street: No on-street parking. A separated bike and pedestrian lane with raised curb and tree-lines boulevard between it and the southbound auto lane.
  • Willow Street to Oak Street (commercial again): On-street parking on both sides, as well as a protected bike lane and sidewalks.
  • Oak Street to Washington Street: Sidewalks and on-street parking. No separate bike lane, as bikes can share the same lane with automobiles.

It's a "road diet," Marohn said of his plan.
South Sixth Street has seen a steady decline of business and traffic, he said.

That's why city leaders have to decide if they'll "continue with an approach that will lead to decline" or "try to go back to what worked."

What worked, according to Marohn, is how Brainerd was originally built: with walking in mind.

Moving cars quickly through downtown can't be a priority as it has been in the past, he said.

A lot of businesses are barely hanging on downtown, Marohn said. The city must find a way to get folks to the heart of Brainerd.

"The problem to me is we have to take the 5,000 people in the immediate downtown and make it easy for them to got to downtown every day," he said.


That means making it easy to get across South Sixth without "forcing them to get into a car," he said. Because once they're in a car, they'll likely just head over to Baxter.

"If you can't cross South Sixth without a car, you put a cap on growth," he said.

Marohn says his plan will help increase property values along South Sixth. Here's how: Once people see a better, more accessible neighborhood, they'll move there. That will create a need for more businesses to move in. It's a ripple effect from there.

"It starts with something as simple as a road project," he said.

"It's a smaller street, less money is needed and there's a higher quality of life."

A deteriorating road

The aging roadway of South Sixth Street was built in 1957. The pavement is nearing the end of its life with a ride quality index (RQI) of 2.8. Projects are set up by MnDOT when the RQI drops below 3.0.

Further, the existing sidewalks do not meet accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).


Under the street, the sewer and water utilities are deteriorated, and have had several breaks in recent years.

In the project, MnDOT will reconstruct the roadway, sidewalks, curbs and gutters. There will be new pedestrian access, new traffic and pedestrian signal systems and new road signs.

Parallel to that, the city will upgrade its water and sewer systems.

It will cost about $7.5 million.

Some property owners might lose up to five feet of land, depending on what design plan officials go with.

Both the three and five lane options may require additional right of way to construct ADA compliant ramps at street crossings. They might require more right of way to match into existing driveways and sidewalks.

The five-lane option would require the most land acquisition, said James Hallgren, MnDOT project development engineer.

The plans are just preliminary until it's approved by officials. A five-foot strip on each side of the roads would likely happen from Norwood to Joseph streets.


The three-lane option would likely only affect intersections where upgraded ADA compliant pedestrian ramps would be put in. It would range from three to five feet of acquisition in those spots.

In either design option, between three to five feet on the east side of the street will be needed between Little Buffalo Creek to Willow Street. It would be mostly residential property, and possibly some commercial property, Hallgren said.

After the project is completed, pedestrians will be able to get from downtown to Buffalo Hills Park. That's thanks, in part, to an additional grant that will extend the pedestrian path from where it stops in the MnDOT project, to the park on the east side of the street.

What option to choose?

A three-lane plan is better for the city from the perspective of City Planner Mark Ostgarden.

"We don't need (five lanes) any more," he said.

"If we have three lanes, we can create a much better corridor for the community. It can add more value to properties," Ostgarden said.

But would it hurt the city to have five lanes? Ostgarden thinks so. Because it wouldn't increase the value of property along the road.

"It would be overbuilt," he said of the five-lane option, noting that it wouldn't create a gateway to downtown.

That's one of Marohn's thoughts with his plan: Get more people to downtown. Not through it.

A three-lane road is easier to design and construct, Hallgren said. It is also not as confined as a five-lane road and is more user friendly.

"We're OK with either alternative," he said. "Either would work."

While City Engineer Jeff Hulsether doesn't want to weigh in on what option he thinks is better for the city, he said there's a difference in travel and traffic flow times in the two options from MnDOT. That's something the council will have to weigh when considering each, he said.

Around 12,000 vehicles travel South Sixth Street every day, and it's been that way for the past 10-15 years, Hulsether said.

"I don't expect volumes to go up," he said.

Ostgarden said some vital aspects need to be included in any design: green space, boulevard trees and pedestrian accommodations.

"We have to accommodate all users, not just cars," he said.

Will Marohn's plan work?

Both city leaders and MnDOT officials are combing through Marohn's plan to see if they can incorporate some pieces.

Hallgren is still exploring options with city staff, so it's too early to estimate what could be included.

"We're open to the idea and need to look at it before saying if it will or won't work," he said.

Some changes could mean more cost to the city, he said.

At a special city council meeting next month, each of the potential roadway plans will be presented: Two from MnDOT and one that incorporates some of Marohn's ideas.

Marohn is out of town that week and can't present his plan, though he did sit down with city staff to go over it recently.

Some parts of Marohn's plan don't meet the minimum design standard, Hulsether said. They include lane widths and reaction differences.

In general, though, a two-lane layout might work depending on how it's put together, he said. But there will probably be increased travel times, he added.

What's next

The Brainerd City Council needs a majority vote on a design option, which they'll recommend to MnDOT. First, though, they want to hear what the residents want.

After Hallgren gets word of the council's vote, he'll develop the layout more in depth and come back to the council with a more formal presentation. That's when he'll ask for municipal approval of the layout. That's about six months down the road.

Whatever the answer, the problem is in the pavement, officials agree.

"South Sixth is a barrier between downtown and all areas west of downtown. It's a physical and psychological barrier," Ostgarden said. "If we can slow traffic down, make it less wide, and more appealing for pedestrians to cross, maybe some of that mental barrier can be removed. It can be good for downtown."

Marohn stressed the importance of making the right design decision.

"If we do Sixth Street wrong, it will lock in decline for another generation," he said. "We're not going to easily come back from a bad reconstruction on Sixth."


Voice your opinion on the project:

The Brainerd City Council will hold a special public input meeting to discuss making a recommendation, as well as hear from residents on what they'd like, at 6 p.m. March 23 at City Hall.

Take a closer look at the plans and graphics:

Charles Marohn:


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