By Dan Linehan
---- — Starting next year, getting onto Highway 169 from St. Peter’s north end is going to be different.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans major improvements to two of the highway’s intersections and closing or restricting turning movements at four other nearby crossings.
The effect of the changes, MnDOT hopes, will be to reduce the unusually high crash rates in the area.
The project will also coincide with the construction of the city’s first roundabout, at St. Julien Street and Old Minnesota Avenue, near a McDonald’s restaurant and Holiday gas station.
An open house was held Monday evening in St. Peter to let interested residents and business owners learn more about the project.
The most noticeable upgrades to Highway 169 will be at St. Julien Street and Highway 22, where MnDOT will install so-called “restricted crossing U-turn” intersections. This will prevent drivers from taking left turns onto Highway 169 or going straight across. Instead, drivers will take a right, drive about 700 feet and then make a U-turn.
The exits from Highway 169 onto local streets are unaffected.
The benefit of this type of intersection is that it removes the most dangerous crossings, which require drivers to find gaps across four lanes of traffic.
“It makes you deal with the conflicts separately,” said Zachary Tess, a project manager at MnDOT.
These two intersections are being targeted because they are more dangerous than others of their type. From 2002 through 2011, there were 37 crashes at Highway 169’s intersection with Highway 22 and 41 crashes at St. Julien Street.
A federal study showed that the restricted crossing intersections showed a 42 percent reduction in injury-causing crashes and a 70 percent reduction in fatal crashes.
In a larger sense, this project was triggered by the flooding of 2010, which closed roads statewide and prompted MnDOT to set aside $50 million to help roads stay open during floods.
Highway 169 received funding to be raised one foot above the 100-year floodplain, including a rise of 2 feet to 4 feet between Union Street and Highway 22. So MnDOT figured that it could improve the intersections at the same time. And the city realized it could make its own planned upgrades, perhaps using the same contractor as MnDOT.
The new U-turn intersections, though safer, will likely be more time-consuming, as well. This could have the effect of pushing traffic to nearby intersections. So MnDOT is closing the access at Ritt Street and converting two accesses — at Dranttel Street and Old Minnesota Avenue — into so-called “right-in, right-out” intersections. This involves the closing of the median, resulting in the elimination of left turns and through crossings.
Finally, the access at Union Street, near the Lager dealership, would be changed to a “three-fourths” intersection. Traffic could still enter the road from Highway 169, but it would prevent left turns onto the highway.
The city portion of the project, which wasn’t up for approval Monday, involves the construction of a roundabout at Old Minnesota Avenue and St. Julien Street. Computer modeling showed the roundabout will be the superior choice to accommodate increased traffic in the area by 2030, spurred by projected development in the area.
The city will also install a sidewalk on Old Minnesota Avenue between Union and St. Julien streets. It will be only on one side initially, but will likely extend to both sides as development occurs.
Most attendees at the open house appeared to support the project.
Larry Kropinski, who owns the McDonald’s restaurant, said the city is continuing to work with his business to maintain access. He also said he believes the roundabout will work out well.
Kip Lager, owner of the Lagers of St. Peter car dealership, opposed the project at a public hearing during the City Council meeting after the open house. He criticized a traffic projection for Old Minnesota Avenue that shows the road will see nearly a fivefold increase in vehicle traffic by 2030.
The projected increase was part of MnDOT's rationale to restrict access from nearby Union Street onto Highway 169.
Lager said the change could hurt his business and ultimately reduce the number of employees at the dealership.
“I believe you are making a poor decision … to change the intersection of Highway 169 and Union Street before it is necessary,” he said.
The St. Peter City Council voted unanimously Monday night to give its consent to the project, which is scheduled to last from May to November.