MANKATO — With an inch or less of wet snow in the forecast for today, even Mankato's most treacherous hills will be open for traffic.
But when bigger snowfalls come later this winter, drivers will be seeing a new approach for dissuading use of Monks Avenue, Stadium Road and Parkway Avenue when climbing out of or descending into the valley.
Railroad-style gates — complete with flashing red lights on the crossing arms and the threat of a ticket for driving around them — will be added at the tops and bottoms of the steepest stretches of each of those roads.
"This only involves what we consider the three most dangerous routes," said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.
The City Council was supportive of the idea Monday night after the city's Multimodal Transportation Committee endorsed the plan at a meeting last week.
"What we need to keep in mind, this doesn't happen all that often," said Councilwoman Tamra Rovney, who serves on the Multimodal Committee. "But it does provide safety to the residents and the people maintaining these roads."
The gates will swing down over just one lane of the road, so drivers won't be physically prevented from continuing up or down the hills. Hentges said circumventing the gates could bring a ticket if the driver is caught. And he said any drivers who get stuck on the hill or end up in a fender-bender can count on a squad car joining the tow truck when their vehicle is towed.
The addition of the gates isn't really a change in city policy, which for the past five years has been to close those hills during the most severe winter weather. It just makes the policy quicker to implement than the previous approach of sending crews to the hills to set up barricades manually.
The police supervisor on duty will have the authority to order the cross arms lowered if ice or heavy snow makes the three streets too slick for safety. The gates will also be used when a particularly heavy snowfall forces plows to be pulled off the roads until conditions improve.
Access will continue to be available for drivers between the valley and the hilltop on roads such as Madison Avenue, Division Street, Glenwood Avenue, Val Imm Drive and others. Main Street, which is notoriously steep, will also be kept open because it's the most direct route to Mankato's hospital.
Closing Monks, Stadium and Parkway in the worst winter weather reduces the number of crashes police must respond to and allows plow drivers to concentrate their snow and ice removal efforts on other roads.
"We've had a lot of accidents, pile-ups," Hentges said of the three roads.
Often, the problems start with drivers who think a downhill trip will be safe, only to end up spinning sideways and crashing into uphill cars struggling to find traction.
The gates, which carry a combined cost of about $30,000, will be installed in November.
Residents who need to go around the cross arms to get to their homes or apartments will be permitted to do so. And Hentges said he's seen a declining number of complaints over the past five years as people have gotten used to the idea that alternate routes might be required during winter storms — with one exception.
"A particular company that delivers pizza has complained regularly to me ...," he said.