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Roundabouts prominent in county’s future road plans

A 2017 study by the state showed roundabouts resulted in an 80% reduction in fatal and serious injury crashes compared to right-angle intersections with signals or signs and a 42% drop in all types of injury crashes at intersections with any kind of roundabout.

Vehicles navigate the roundabout at the intersection of East College Drive and South Fourth Street.
Vehicles navigate the roundabout at the intersection of East College Drive and South Fourth Street on Thursday, April 14, 2022, in Brainerd.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — While Crow Wing County Engineer Tim Bray sought to highlight the growing role of the local sales tax in the county’s road construction plans, some who attended the April 12 County Board meeting zeroed in on the inclusion of roundabouts.

The five-year $72.6 million highway improvement plan includes 152 miles of county roadway surface improvements and five future roundabouts, with one scheduled for construction this year at the intersection of Wise and Beaver Dam roads in Brainerd.

“We’re really investing a lot of time, effort and money into these safety improvements,” Bray said, noting people would begin feeling the impact of this year’s roundabout construction soon.

“ … That’s just the first one of several throughout the years, and we’ll probably be adding more in the coming years as well.”

A man speaks from a desk as county commissioners look on
County Engineer Tim Bray shares the 2022-26 highway improvement plan with commissioners during the April 12, 2022, County Board meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

After Bray concluded his presentation on the plan, former Crosslake Mayor Steve Roe approached the microphone and asked Bray if plans called for driver education on how to navigate roundabouts. Roe said his wife was recently involved in a crash in a multi-lane roundabout in St. Cloud, where a driver entering the roundabout ran into the side of her vehicle.

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Bray said a variety of educational materials exist and are accessible to those wishing to learn about driving in roundabouts. He noted on his way to the meeting that morning, he witnessed someone incorrectly using the roundabout at Northwest Fourth and Jackson streets.

“There is an education gap,” Bray said. “But the good thing about it is — I’m sorry that your wife was involved in that T-bone crash — but I can tell you that it happened at a low speed and hopefully, she’s OK and the rest are OK.

“A T-bone crash like that happening at a high speed intersection with stop signs that were ignored, or lights or signals that would be ignored, would have been catastrophic and would be very different results. And that is the benefit of these.”

Statistics from the Minnesota Department of Transportation support Bray’s safety assertions. A 2017 study by the state showed roundabouts resulted in an 80% reduction in fatal and serious injury crashes compared to right-angle intersections with signals or signs and a 42% drop in all types of injury crashes at intersections with any kind of roundabout.

A diagram explans how to use a multi-lane roundabout
This diagram from the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows how drivers should navigate a multi-lane roundabout.
Contributed

“There is a little inconvenience maybe for those that struggle to learn to drive them, but the safety benefits they provide by far outweigh that,” Bray said. “It’s almost impossible to be killed in one of these, and that cannot be said about other types of intersections that are currently out there.”

Resident Rick Felt said he was concerned about the purported increased cost of roundabouts compared to signals — which he said according to his research, was six to 10 times higher — and questioned the safety impacts, noting the difficulty of navigating a semitrailer through one.

A man speaks at a podium
Resident Rick Felt speaks to the Crow Wing County Board during the April 12, 2022, meeting.
Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch

“If this is really about safety and making certain aspects safer, we’re also commanded to be good stewards of the taxpayer’s money,” Felt said. “And I find it very egregious in some aspects to say that it’s OK to spend 10 times more money on one roundabout but yet neglect the other nine intersections that are just about equally as dangerous.”

Bray refuted Felt’s characterization of the costs of a roundabout, saying the average figure was much less than the 10 times Felt cited. Multiple sources again backed up Bray’s response, including various analyses by local governments and engineers.

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Although each case is different and roundabouts may sometimes require more right of way acquisition than a signalized intersection, a full accounting of all costs — including the hardware and electricity to power stoplights, future projects to widen a road where traffic may back up at a signal and the societal costs associated with crashes — show they’re comparable to other intersection controls.

“How much is a human life worth? And so we’re here to improve the safety of these intersections,” Bray said. “ … The benefits of the safety, of not getting people hurt, of the life-changing events at these is well worth the investment. And that’s really my only answer.”

Commissioner Paul Koering, who attended the meeting virtually, said he thinks the County Board and Bray are trying to protect lives by choosing safer alternatives.

“To make it sound like we’re not being good stewards of the taxpayer dollars is just a bunch of bologna as far as I’m concerned,” Koering said. “I’m trying to look out for people’s lives, at least when I vote on something.”

Other intersections planned for roundabouts in the future include those of county highways 11 and 3 south of Crosslake in 2023, County Highway 31 and Highway 210 in Crosby in 2023, County Highway 77 and Nokomis Avenue in Nisswa in 2023, and county highways 3 and 4 near Merrifield in 2024. Another roundabout is tentatively planned at county highways 3 and 66 in Crosslake in 2024.

Sales tax impact

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In 2021, revenue from the local option sales tax became the top source of funding for the highway department by a long shot — something Bray said he never would have predicted when the County Board first considered the tax in 2015.

At the time, county state aid funding appeared to be the most stable source while a sales tax was thought to be less predictable. But the pandemic turned that assumption on its head as a significant reduction in travel led to depressed gas tax collection. Yet, the Brainerd lakes area remained a regional shopping destination and visitors kept coming, as reflected in record sales tax collection each of the last two years.

County Administrator Tim Houle noted Crow Wing County’s experience with the half-cent tax differs from neighboring counties because of its tourism draw. He noted in Morrison County, as much as 75-80% of sales tax revenue comes from residents. In Crow Wing, by contrast, as much as 50% of the sales tax revenue is generated from visitors.

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“People come here from surrounding counties, people come here from the metro, people come here from all over the country, and they buy goods and services and they use the roads. And unless they fill up their tank here, they didn’t pay for the road,” Houle said. “ … So it is different for us than it is for many Greater Minnesota counties and it has been a good investment for us.”

Of the $72.6 million plan presented by Bray, $37.7 million will be covered by sales tax dollars, funding 79 miles of road improvements. This includes the resurfacing of County Highway 8 this year and both the northern and southern portions of the Ojibwa/Nashway roads reconstruction in 2023 and 2024.

Commissioners approved the five-year plan unanimously.

Navigating a roundabout

The Minnesota Department of Transportation shares information for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists on how to navigate a roundabout.

Drivers

  • Slow down when approaching a roundabout. For multi-lane roundabouts, as with any intersection, get into the appropriate lane.
  • Yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. It is the law.
  • Yield to vehicles already in the roundabout. Merge into the traffic flow when it is safe.
  • Continue through the roundabout until the exit is reached. Do not stop or pass in a roundabout.
  • Exit the roundabout immediately if an emergency vehicle approaches, and then pull over. Do not stop in the roundabout.
  • Yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk when exiting the roundabout.
  • Give large trucks extra space in a roundabout. Large trucks may straddle both lanes while driving through a multi-lane roundabout.

Pedestrians

  • Cross only at crosswalks , and always stay on the designated walkways.
  • Never cross to the central island.
  • Cross the roundabout one approach at a time. Use the median island as a halfway point where you can check for approaching traffic.

Bicyclists

  • Ride with traffic inside the roundabout or use the crosswalks appropriately.
  • Follow the same rules as vehicles when riding with traffic and yield when entering the roundabout. Since traffic is slower inside the roundabout, cyclists should be able to travel at or near the same speed as motorists, staying in line with the circulating traffic.

Source: Minnesota Department of Transportation.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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