The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 21, 2013

Roundabout concerns, affections voiced

Open house provided information about Highway 22 plans

By Mark Fischenich

MANKATO — Construction is still a year away, but the prospect of roundabouts at two of Mankato¹s busiest intersections drew a crowd to an informational meeting at the regional headquarters of the Minnesota Department of Transportation Tuesday.

Two steps into the conference room, it was clear that there¹s some intensity of feeling among some area residents about the idea of multi-lane roundabouts at Highway 22 and Madison Avenue and at Highway 22 and Adams Street.

³"So people are going to be used to these even before (the new ones) open," said MnDOT engineer Scott Thompson, running through the numerous roundabouts in place or to be added soon to the area road system.

"If you guys think it¹s great, fine," a Mankato man responded. "But I hope the city¹s going to pay for the accidents that are going to happen."

Thompson countered that roundabouts will slow traffic speeds at the

intersections, eliminate T-bone crashes and most other serious accidents, and end the need for long stops waiting for red lights to turn green.

The Mankato man wasn¹t persuaded.

'Oh, I hate 'em,' he said of roundabouts.

He would give only his first name, Jeff, because he works in construction and his employer would potentially be looking to construct the project next summer.

"I think they¹re a dumb idea," Jeff said. "They¹re not meant for semis. If you have an accident in a roundabout, it shuts down the whole intersection ..."

Jeff came to the meeting partly to get his strong opinion off his chest,

partly out of hope that he could persuade MnDOT, the city and the county to abandon the joint project. But he also has strong opinions about engineers and wasn¹t optimistic about the potential of persuading them.

"To most engineers, 'common sense' is a swear word," he said.

Most others at the meeting, though, were there not to oppose the roundabouts but to ask questions and express concerns about traffic disruption during construction.

And at least one couple were outright fans of the idea.

"We like roundabouts" said Del Finch when asked why he and his wife, Joellen, came to the meeting. "I'd like to see one at Victory and Madison. That¹s where they need a roundabout."

The couple could be excused for having romantic attitudes about roundabouts, having first driven on one 51 years ago during a visit to Paris. Their affection, though, has more to do with traffic flow.

 "It¹s smooth," Joellen Finch said. "You don¹t have to sit around and wait (for a light to change) when there¹s nobody around."

She said people will need some retraining. Their daughter in Oklahoma has a roundabout near her home, one that replaced a four-way stop a year or two ago, and people occasionally still come to a complete stop when they reach the roundabout.

But Del Finch, 80, said people will get the hang of roundabouts quickly and predicts most will share his favorable opinion before long.

"Old people shouldn¹t be afraid to learn how to navigate," he said.

As the Finches shared their thoughts and Jeff offered the opposite view

nearby, a dozen other conversations continued around the room ‹ centered on the four roundabout maps, a roundabout floor model, and a table top roundabout with toy cars. Engineers staffed most of the stations, and Hoffman Construction President James Hoffman - the construction advisor for the project - manned another.

Beyond the general newness of roundabouts in the region, the project brings the potential for serious disruption to the busiest streets in town during construction. Madison is Mankato¹s foremost retail avenue. Adams serves the River Hills Mall and the Hy-Vee-anchored shopping area east of there. Highway 22 is the primary road feeding the wider east-side retail and commercial hub of the city.

MnDOT, partnering with the city and county, is still sorting out how traffic will be restricted and diverted during construction. Hoffman said it will come down to balancing the desire to reduce disruption with the desire to get the project done ASAP.

"If you want to minimize the impacts, it generally takes more time for

construction," Hoffman said.

Bryant Ficek said completely shutting down streets for a time hasn¹t been ruled out with the exception of Highway 22 ‹ that will remain open, with lane restrictions, throughout construction.

"All options are on the table," Ficek said.

The project will definitely be completed during the 2014 construction

season, according to MnDOT officials. And Hoffman said the discussions will include every option to speed up the process,   including working 24-hours a day, to see if project could be fast-tracked ‹ possibly with a goal of being done by early August when traffic spikes.

"Aug. 1 is really important here for back-to-school and Vikings training

camp," he said.

Along with finalizing construction designs and planning the traffic

management, a comprehensive communication strategy is being developed to keep business owners, shoppers, workers and other travelers informed about developments. And another informational meeting is planned for later in the summer after more details have been worked out.

Preliminary cost estimates have each roundabout costing $2.6 million.