The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 4, 2013

Businesses praise roundabout plans

MnDOT offers to improve access, speed up project

By Dan Linehan
The Mankato Free Press

---- — A revised plan to preserve some access to businesses during the upcoming construction of two Highway 22 roundabouts in Mankato while completing the project more quickly won fans at a Thursday meeting.

Calling it the “revised hybrid option,” Minnesota Department of Transportation project manager Glen Coudron told business owners that the contractor would be working six- or seven-day weeks and 12- or 16-hour days.

Though plans are only 60 percent complete, these and other changes could cut perhaps three weeks off the project, which is slated to begin next June.

In September, MnDOT said it decided to build both roundabouts at the same time, which requires it to close two Highway 22 intersections, at Adams Street and Madison Avenue. Businesses, especially those east of Highway 22, such as Hy-Vee and Gander Mountain, complained that their only access would be from Madison Avenue at Haefner Drive. It’s a relatively small road, and not even on the detour.

In the last few weeks, officials have been working on options to preserve access, and they presented two options to the 40 or so business people who gathered at Snell Motors on Thursday. Both of them involve a temporary access road using Highway 22 just north of Adams Street.

The first option would cross Highway 22, connecting the parking lots at Gander Mountain and River Hills Mall but not with Highway 22 traffic. The second option would allow Highway 22 traffic, reduced to one lane in each direction, to enter or leave the Gander Mountain parking lot. There would be no connection with the west side of Highway 22, including River Hills Mall.

Officials came into the meeting preferring the first option, for several reasons.

The access road is meant only for traffic accessing local businesses, not as a general detour. But because it connects with Highway 22 traffic, it provides an attractive option to cut through the detour.

But business owners clearly favored the second option because it provides an access for customers driving from the north on Highway 22, including those who arrived from the nearby Highway 14 interchange.

Even the businesses west of Highway 22, such as Best Buy and the River Hills Mall, supported the second option.

Zach Meyer, Best Buy’s general manager, explained why. Yes, the first option pours traffic directly into the River Hills Mall ring road, just north of Best Buy. But that option can’t catch traffic from Highways 22 or 14. And even if they’re across Highway 22 from Best Buy, a potential customer can at least see the business and can probably figure out how to get there, Meyer said.

If you take the regular detour, you may not even see Best Buy, Hy-Vee or many of the businesses in the area.

“It’s a huge improvement,” said Dan Olson, store director at the Hilltop Hy-Vee. “I have to give a lot of credit to MnDOT.”

It wasn’t all back-slapping, though.

Todd Snell, president and CEO of Snell Motors, directed his disappointment at Blue Earth County, which is in the middle of a two-year project to reconstruct Highway 17, also called Madison Avenue.

He doesn’t believe the county has to close Highway 17 for another year, requiring his company to “endure another loss of Eagle Lake business.”

County Engineer Al Forsberg said he would explore ways to speed up the project next summer, but suggested it wasn’t prudent to delay it until 2015. Snell suggested that the county be “more creative” to get it done faster or create a temporary road.

“It’s not acceptable. Eagle Lake needs to open and it needs to stay open,” he said.

As another effort to improve access, MnDOT said it would move quickly to create the roundabout at Adams Street so it could open that intersection after eight to 10 weeks. The whole project is expected to take 13 weeks.

All of these changes to access and scheduling are expected to raise the project cost by between 5 percent and 10 percent.

A January estimate for the entire project, which includes concrete repair and traffic light improvements, was $7.46 million.

But MnDOT didn’t appear willing to compromise by pushing back the whole project until 2015, as the Blue Earth County Board has asked.

“We truly believe that getting this done in 2014 is the right thing to do,” Assistant District Engineer Chad Fowlds said.

Another open house has been slated for Oct. 15 at a time and location to be announced.