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Sen. Matt Schmit questions a plan to install a reduced conflict intersection at Highway 52 and County 9. -- photo by Michael Brun/Republican Eagle

Citizens speak out against Highway 52 and Goodhue County 9 proposal

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CANNON FALLS -- Minnesota Department of Transportation officials faced vocal opposition Thursday while presenting a plan to reduce crashes at Highway 52 and County Road 9 south of Cannon Falls.

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A crowd of close to a hundred -- including state Sen. Matt Schmit and Goodhue County commissioners -- filled Urland Lutheran Church to hear MnDOT's proposal, which area residents reacted to with strong disapproval.

"It sounds to me like this whole thing is really not a safety issue at all," said Ken Volness, one of several residents who spoke during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting. He said that he felt MnDOT's plan is not the safest option, but rather the cheapest.

MnDOT proposes closing through traffic on County Road 9 and installing a reduced conflict intersection, or RCI, also called a J-turn.

The design would have drivers on County Road 9 turn right onto Highway 52, turn around using a U-turn lane and then backtrack before turning right to continue onto County Road 9.

The project, with an estimated cost of less than $1 million and a four-week construction time, could be completed this summer, according to the presentation.

"MnDOT believes that the proposed safety project has the potential to start saving lives this year, and will make Highway 52 and County Road 9 a safer intersection," said Heather Lukes, a project manager for MnDOT. "Preventing those serious and fatal accidents is very important to us."

Volness and other area residents called on MnDOT to instead construct an interchange with an overpass, a solution they said would be the safest and least complicated.

"Everybody agrees that an interchange is required here," resident Armond Kowalkoski said. "Why wait?"

But MnDOT said it would not be able to get funding for an interchange, which would cost $10 million to $12 million, and that the long design and construction process could mean lost lives in the interim.

"The proposed safety project presented today is something MnDOT would still implement even if funding for an interchange was available," Lukes said. "If we did have funding for an interchange, the soonest construction would likely occur is three years from now."

After one resident urged elected officials to take action on the issue, Schmit took the stage to express his vision for the Highway 52 corridor, saying he would like to see it become a freeway with interchanges and overpasses.

"I am equally frustrated as you," Schmit said to the audience. "We have to do this right. ... We can't settle for anything short of what this corridor deserves."

Later, an aid for U.S. Rep. John Kline told the crowd that the representative was aware of the issue and distributed copies of a letter Kline wrote to MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle.

"While I appreciate MnDOT taking steps to make temporary safety enhancements at this intersection, I am concerned about any unintended consequences of requiring drivers to make a U-turn at this already vulnerable intersection," Kline wrote.

Farmers raise concerns

One possible consequence is the RCI could make it more difficult for farmers to get tractors and combines across the intersection, which residents said were too big and slow to safely perform the U-turn maneuver.

"On the new plan, I'd have to take my tractor and gravity box, turn down (Highway 52) and somehow get into the left-hand lane," resident Bjorn Olson said.

Olson invited MnDOT officials to ride along with him sometime to see how challenging it would be, eliciting an applause from the audience.

A MnDOT flier passed out before the meeting suggests farmers choose a "non-peak time" to move farm equipment across the intersection, or to use alternate routes.

The intersection has become a problem because of the high amount of right-angle, or T-bone, crashes that occur there. Of the 84 recorded crashes on the intersection between 2000 and 2011, 49 of them were T-bones -- 11 of which caused serious or fatal injuries, MnDOT said.

Installing a RCI would reduce the potential "crossing conflict points" at the intersection from 24 down to just four, according to the presentation. Fatal and serious crashes were reduced by as much as 86 percent at other RCIs built around the state.

Goodhue County Board of Commissioners discussed the intersection at a meeting earlier in the month, and gave approval April 2 for county staff to apply for a state grant to get funding for an interchange project.

The county must apply by the end of the month, with selection expected to be made sometime in May or June.

Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel was among the Goodhue County officials present at Thursday's meeting. He said the RCI plan, although cheaper than an interchange, does not solve the problem. He urged MnDOT to partner with the county to build an overpass.

"There's a saying that I use from time to time when I see something like this, and that's sometimes it gets very expensive when you try to go cheap," said Rechtzigel, noting additional money has already been spent by MnDOT putting new signs at the intersection. "What you're doing here is trying to put a Band-Aid on the situation."

"We have a 20-mile stretch between Cannon Falls and Zumbrota without a safe crossing. Let's get it done," added Rechtzigel, eliciting another round of applause from the audience.

MnDOT said it wishes to continue hearing feedback from residents about the RCI plan. For more information or to leave a comment, contact public affairs coordinator Kristin Kammueller at 507-286-7684.

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