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Consensus reached on 52/9 interchange

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It's not quite the overpass residents were calling for, but county commissioners and state lawmakers agreed that a newly revealed interchange plan for Highway 52 and County Road 9 is the way to go.

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation presented the plan Wednesday during a meeting hosted by Rep. John Kline at Urland Lutheran Church, located just down the road from the infamous intersection that has been the site of more than a dozen serious and fatal injuries in as many years.

"In our engineering terms, we call it a quadrant interchange," said Heather Lukes, a project manager with MnDOT. She explained that the plan has a number of key differences from the traditional diamond interchange sought by Goodhue County Board, namely turn and acceleration lanes instead of on- and off-ramps.

The design calls for a bridge over Highway 52 for through-traffic on County Road 9, while adding acceleration lanes to make it safer to merge onto the highway when turning right. It also would put an end to left-hand turns onto Highway 52, keeping drivers on County Road 9 from having to cross multiple lanes of traffic going in both directions -- the leading cause of crashes at the intersection.

Construction of a quadrant interchange also could be completed sooner and cost less than a diamond interchange, Lukes said.

"There's not a person here who doesn't understand that it is a dangerous intersection, and we need to do something about it," Kline told the group, which also included state Rep. Tim Kelly. "It's a question of how that gets done."

Showing an eagerness to reach consensus on the project, Kline asked the group three times throughout the roughly 45-minute meeting if anyone had any objections before moving forward with the process of securing funds.

Goodhue County Commissioner Jim Bryant said he would still like to see on- and off-ramps, but applauded MnDOT for coming up with an acceptable solution.

"We feel horrible about everything that has happened there, but what we're doing here today is trying to prevent the next (crash) from happening." Bryant said. "This is truly a step in the right direction."

One obstacle to the county's diamond interchange plan is that a hill just south of the intersection would first have to be graded, said Greg Paulson, MnDOT assistant district engineer. "With this (quadrant interchange) you can leave the hill in place, which is a cost savings."

The new plan also would make it more efficient to build a diamond interchange going forward, Paulson added.

"One thing that we really like about this design is that it works really well for right now as well as in the future," Lukes said. "When a more full-size interchange is needed, this footprint really allows you to do that. But right now, we're able to do this for less cost than a full interchange."

"This sets the intersection up for a diamond (interchange) somewhere down the road. This doesn't get in the way of that," Kline said. "And in the meantime, it looks to me like this fixes the horrific safety problems that we've had here."

Funding sources

County Engineer Greg Isakson suggested bidding the project with a diamond interchange included as an alternative in the design, but Paulson said including it could delay the project and hurt the chances of getting funding through the state's Corridor Investment Management Strategy, or CIMS, grant -- one of the main funding sources being looked at.

"Without the diamond interchange included as an alternative in the bid, it would reduce the cost and right-of-way impact of the project, and make it more likely to get a CIMS grant," Paulson said.

Goodhue County applied for a CIMS grant in May to fund a diamond interchange project at a cost of around $10 million. The county said Wednesday it would agree to sit down with MnDOT to revise the application to be for the quadrant interchange instead.

"We want to do it right, but we want to get going," said MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle. If the project is approved for a CIMS grant, Zelle said preliminary engineering could be completed this year, with construction getting underway next spring.

The county has agreed to be a funding partner for the interchange project, but Bryant said the taxpayers' role would be minimal compared to state and federal contributions.

"We'll do our part, but we're not a rich county," Commissioner Richard Samuelson added.

Growing frustration

Kline started planning for Wednesday's meeting a couple weeks ago, saying public frustration had reached an all-time high.

"It has been a dangerous intersection for some time, and there has been a lot of interest in it," Kline said. "We had the very tough accident there a few weeks ago and that sort of brought it back into everybody's focus."

A 74-year-old Northfield woman was killed as the result of a T-bone crash May 9 while attempting to pass through Highway 52 on County Road 9.

There were more than 80 crashes at the intersection since 2000, according to MnDOT data.

"I'm four months on the job and I've been hearing about Highway 52 and County Road 9 starting my first week -- and I've been hearing about it since," Zelle said. "In terms of the number of crashes, it is ... maybe the No. 2 worst intersection in the state of Minnesota."

Zelle said Highway 52 has evolved a lot over the past 90 years, and that it is time for it to continue that evolution. "We need to take the next step," he said.

MnDOT proposed an interim solution to the intersection in April, revealing plans at a public hearing to build a reduced conflict intersection, or RCI, also called a J-turn. But vocal opposition from county commissioners and local residents sent MnDOT back to the drawing board as the county moved ahead with plans for an interchange.

Although the RCI could have been installed this summer at a cost of less than $1 million, nearby farmers said the plan's tight curves and frequent lane changes would be difficult to navigate with farm equipment.

"It was probably not as robust a solution as you'd like, and frankly that we would like," Zelle said.

"We got that (RCI) plan almost complete and ready to go, but we got a lot of feedback from folks that they don't care for that solution," said Jeff Vlaminck, MnDOT district Engineer. "Even though we think it's a solution that could save lives, it may not be the best fit for this intersection."

Vlaminck said public reaction at the meeting in April prompted MnDOT to look at other options, ultimately leading to the quadrant interchange plan.

Additional planning

MnDOT further proposed Wednesday closing the median at Highway 52 and County Road 1 south, preventing drivers on County Road 1 from turning left to travel north on Highway 52.

The impact of closing the median on nearby homes and businesses has yet to be fully studied, but MnDOT will work with the county to address issues as they arise in the planning process, Lukes said.

"We think this is the solution, and we think we can do it," Kline said.

He added later: "There's nobody in this room who doesn't agree this is the right thing to do."

"I would say this (plan) takes care of 90 to 95 percent of our issues for probably the next 15 or 20 years," Isakson said.

In the meantime, MnDOT is looking into minor changes at Highway 52 and County Road 9, such as a larger yield sign in the median and making pavement markings bolder and wider, Lukes said.

MnDOT engineers will continue working with the county to revise the interchange plan over the coming weeks, including coming up with the project's price tag. Final decisions on CIMS grant distribution is expected by the end of the month.

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Michael Brun
Michael Brun is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program. He has worked for the Republican Eagle since March 2013, covering county government, health and local events. 
(651) 301-7875
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