MANKATO — The Blue Earth County Board on Tuesday implored state transportation officials to slow down and speed up when it comes to construction of two roundabouts on Highway 22 at Madison Avenue and Adams Street.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has been planning for more than a year to add the roundabouts at two of Mankato's busiest intersections during the 2014 construction season. The only questions remaining were the specifics of the construction scheduling and strategies for maintaining traffic flow and access to businesses.
But at Tuesday's County Board meeting, commissioners unanimously decided to ask MnDOT to delay the project until 2015 and use the extra time to develop plans for building a temporary road to allow traffic to easily flow to River Hills Mall and the Hilltop Hy-Vee shopping area. Waiting a year would also allow the county to complete its expansion of County Road 17 (old Highway 14) to four lanes for another half mile to the east, giving traffic a better detour option in 2015.
"To me, that's just good planning," said Commissioner Kip Bruender of Eagle Lake, who suggested the delay.
Other board members quickly agreed. Previously, the board had been focused on pushing MnDOT to make changes in how it would handle construction and traffic flow next summer. Those suggestions, which were included along with the request to delay the work a year, involved building a temporary road to replace Adams when it is closed and providing financial incentives to contractors to build the roundabouts in fewer than 16 weeks (even if it requires 16-hour days and weekend/holiday shifts).
Mankato city officials appear to also favor a temporary east-west road north of Adams and incentives to get the work done faster, according to County Engineer Al Forsberg, who expects the City Council to take up the issue at its next meeting Monday night. The specific resolution might not be identical, but the sentiment will, he predicted.
"We're both saying the same thing," Forsberg said.
Commissioner Vance Stuehrenberg wondered if the county should put its money where its mouth was, asking if the county could back out of the joint state-county-city project should MnDOT ignore the board's concerns.
"We're not legally committed to the project (yet)," Forsberg said.
"So we really have some power," Stuehrenberg said.
"Yes," Forsberg answered. "About $700,000 (worth). Our share."
The dramatic change in the project's status in the past eight days demonstrates the clout of the businesses in Mankato's east-side retail hub. On Sept. 16, MnDOT announced its plans to shut down both intersections starting in May and complete the project in 16 weeks — the cheapest, fastest and most disruptive to traffic of four options the agency had considered.
That approach was favored by a majority of business owners who had responded to a survey about the options, which also included construction scheduling that would have been somewhat less cumbersome for drivers but would have pushed the project completion date into November or December. Other business owners reacted so negatively to the Sept. 16 announcement that within hours MnDOT agreed to listen to more business input before making a final decision.
And by Tuesday afternoon, the project's management team was back at the drawing board.
"They're literally drawing on the board," said Rebecca Arndt, spokeswoman for MnDOT's Mankato-based District 7.
The drawings were exploring the possible location of a temporary road north of Adams Street to provide access into the River Hills ring road and into the Gander Mountain parking lot, which would provide access to Hy-Vee, Goodwill, Gordman's, Office Max, Applebee's, Five Guys, Jersey Mike's and other nearby businesses. The mall has several entrances in addition to Adams Street, but the businesses in the northeast quadrant would be more isolated — reliant on the two-lane Haefner Drive (which runs east of Snell Motors and behind the Adams Street McDonald's).
Arndt said MnDOT recognizes and respects the County Board's need to reflect the interests of the businesses in the affected area.
"We're concerned about that also," she said.
Tuesday's MnDOT meeting addressed business access and strategies for compressing the construction schedule, along with discussing the potential temporary road.
"We're looking at new options," Arndt said.
MnDOT isn't ruling out delaying the project to 2015, but that request might be the most problematic for the agency. Funding is in place to build the roundabouts in 2014, which will cost an estimated $2.8 million each. And shifting a major project from next year to the following year would require a future project to be abruptly moved up to 2014. Otherwise, district engineers, inspectors and technicians would have too little to do next summer and more than they could handle in 2015.
"It would be difficult," Arndt said of bumping the project back a year. "We want to move forward and keep it in (2014)."
But MnDOT also wants to keep its partnership from crumbling.
"Blue Earth County is a partner in this, and we don't want to move forward without one of our partners on board," she said.
Another meeting with business owners is planned for next week, most likely on Oct. 3.