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Crossing the big divide: Baxter City Council looks at pedestrian bridge options

Examples of grade separated crossings, such as bridges, include a switchback at the top right and a spiral ramp at lower right. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 7
Data includes pedestrian and bicyclists crossings along Highway 371 between Woida Road and Excelsior Road on Aug. 14 and Aug. 16. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 7
Baxter City Council members Connie Lyscio (left), Zach Tabatt, Mayor Darrel Olson, Todd Holman and Mark Cross prepare for a council session. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 7
Representatives from SRF Consulting and Toole Design wait in the back row before presenting during the Baxter City Council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 15. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch4 / 7
Shaun Murphy-Lopez, transportation planner with Toole Design based in Minneapolis, outlines a policy map for pedestrian and bicycle access for the Baxter City Council Tuesday, Jan. 15. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch5 / 7
Examples of grade separated crossings, such as bridges, include a switchback at the top right and a spiral ramp at lower right. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch6 / 7
Josh Doty, community development director, left, works the computer before the Baxter City Council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 15. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch7 / 7

BAXTER—Bridging the divide of Highway 371 to connect Baxter for pedestrian and bicyclist access came into clearer focus Tuesday, Jan. 15.

In the future, it could mean a pedestrian and bike bridge crossing four lanes of high-speed traffic to connect residents with shopping and recreation from Whipple Beach to the Paul Bunyan State Trail. The east/west link was the subject of presentations on a citywide transportation plan on foot and pedal power and a look at possible bridge locations.

The work is in the early stages with staff from Minneapolis-based SRF Consulting gathering data and working with a focus group. Consultants looked at residential areas, shopping, existing local and regional trails and connections, along with barriers. Not surprisingly, the focus group noted not feeling safe crossing Highway 371 at any point along its corridor stretching from Excelsior Road, to Clearwater Road to Woida Road. Crossing on the north side of Woida Road was noted as particularly scary.

Consultants also observed volumes of people on foot and on bikes at those three intersections over 13 hours on a mid-August Thursday and Saturday, finding more bikes than pedestrians but a limited number of both. Most of the bikers were crossing at Excelsior Road.

"If we create a safe crossing we expect those numbers to increase a lot," said Emily Gross, professional engineer and associate with SRF Consulting.

Gross said there is a lot of opportunity to improve crossings at the intersections and link existing gaps in the community, as well as look at a bridge.

The focus group, with 16 members attending from a mix of residents and business owners, noted a lack of sidewalks and needing to navigate parking lots. Many noted they wanted to be able to cross from residential areas to connect with the Paul Bunyan State Trail just east of Highway 371 and other regional connections that link would make possible.

A crossing would also link hotel guests and residents with grocery stores and shopping on both sides of the highway. The focus group's vision for Highway 371 was something safe for everyone, convenient and accessible, visually attractive, cost effective, and with regional connections.

Three general sites were presented for a pedestrian crossing.

• North of Woida Road—higher cost, more challenges and lower use.

• Between Woida and Excelsior—more room to build a ramp. A crossing could include frontage road, provides the best regional connections.

• Excelsior to the south—has space but may be in conflict with a future Minnesota Department of Transportation plan for a future intersection at highways 210 and 371.

Consultants were looking for direction from the council members on where to focus their attention for location and type of crossing.

"I think you are on the right trail," Mayor Darrel Olson said.

Olson noted there are times when hotel guests are trying to cross Highway 371 to reach a restaurant or retail and "you just want to holler at them, 'Don't try it.'"

Council member Todd Holman, a longtime trail advocate, said he was excited the plan was hitting the ground with a lot of progress made. Holman noted a priority area is linking to housing so people can access shops and get around without a car.

Council member Connie Lyscio said she was also happy to see the connections, adding there are people in Baxter who aren't able to take advantage of all the area has to offer. Lyscio asked where the funding would come from. Council member Mark Cross and the consultants replied there are grant funds available. Lyscio said anything that can help people be more active and travel safely to a destination is awesome.

"I like where it is going," Cross said, adding the crossing at Clearwater Road was a logical choice.

Holman said he liked the idea of the bridge also going over the frontage road, with Highway 371 being just half the terror for the cyclist. Council member Zach Tabatt agreed, saying it was hard to navigate those intersections in a vehicle let alone on foot or on a bike.

What a bridge could look like was also presented with people potentially accessing the bridge from a spiral ramp. Consultants will work with MnDOT to see where space would be available. Plans are at a conceptual basis and determining what's feasible but not at the engineering stage at this point. Next steps include another focus group session and additional presentations before the council.

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