MANKATO — Major changes are being considered for Highway 169 in St. Peter, Highway 60 in Lake Crystal, and Highway 169, Warren Street and Riverfront Drive in Mankato.
In normal times, state and local transportation officials would be diligently organizing open houses, complete with a roomful of posterboards covered in maps and design alternatives. And by every board would be an engineer ready and willing to answer questions.
They’d also be setting up comment tables at community celebrations, trying to get opinions from people between songs and snacks. And they’d be meeting with civic clubs to lay out the options being considered for road projects in their town.
In pandemic times, it’s not so easy.
“It’s kind of a bummer that we aren’t out there in physical ways this summer,” said Anne Wolff, public engagement coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Take the Highway 60 project in Lake Crystal. The four-lane highway is the major thoroughfare through the town of 2,500, and it’s slated for resurfacing in 2024 — which makes this the perfect time to figure out how to design safer and more efficient intersections, to consider pedestrian improvements, and to dress up the corridor if that’s what residents want.
Late last summer, MnDOT set up a table at a classic car event in Lake Crystal to explain the project and gather opinions from people who live there or regularly drive on Highway 60.
“So people are already gathering, we’re there, too, and engaging with the community,” Wolff said. “...We talked to a couple of hundred people.”
With mass gatherings now prohibited to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, those opportunities are gone.
In St. Peter, MnDOT is planning to make improvements to Highway 169’s intersections with Highway 22 and Highway 99 on the city’s south side. A variety of options, including roundabouts, are being considered.
A traditional open house in St. Peter was scheduled but had to be canceled at the last minute when the pandemic hit. An online version took its place, but it’s not easy to duplicate the interpersonal connection that springs up when MnDOT staff and residents are side-by-side looking at a map.
“It’s immediate, it’s conversational, it’s personal,” Wolff said of the open house approach. “You can read body language. One comment can lead to a longer discussion ... . It isn’t always quantity (of attendees), but quality of good conversations.”
Still, government officials are trying, and they really want people to know that they remain ready and willing to answer questions and collect opinions, even if it’s from a distance.
MnDOT has dedicated websites for each of its major projects, showing designs and sometimes offering video presentations on the work being planned. And there are numerous ways to provide comment and seek answers. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are being employed, as well as old-style approaches such as direct mail, surveys and even brochures left at local businesses.
In Mankato, staff has collected public input on Riverfront Drive, including whether to reduce the number of through-lanes to make more room for pedestrians and aesthetic enhancements through the Old Town business district. The idea has generated strong opinions on both sides of the issue. That was reflected on “Sound Off Mankato” — a website created for gathering public comment.
“Would you rather have a downtown that is quick to drive through, or one worth arriving at?” one man wrote.
“Keep the lanes and parking as is ...,” suggested a woman.
But those were two of just eight people who bothered to record their thoughts on the Sound Off page. Based on previous Old Town meetings, an open house might have attracted several dozen people.
“With the in-person open house, it really allows the opportunity for connection between residents and staff,” said Edell Fiedler, communication and engagement director for the city. “It’s more personal than online.”
An in-person event also demonstrates that the people commenting are interested and invested enough to travel to the open house and give up an hour or so of their time.
While those events are missed, Fiedler said the city was still able to get the attention and the input of many Mankatoans before the comment period closed on the project. Nearly 1,000 people visited the project website, which included a “flyover video” animating how the different designs would look and function. And 149 of the website visitors completed a survey.
The Warren Street Corridor Study drew 340 website visits and 70 surveys.
More opportunities for comment on the potential changes to Highway 169 are expected in the months ahead. That includes final design proposals for the intersections in St. Peter. And the Highway 169 Corridor Study in Mankato and North Mankato, including possible closures of intersections and the elimination of signals south of the interchange with Highway 14, is slated to have a trio of public engagement opportunities before it’s completed.
Wolff and Fiedler echo one another in their primary message to residents: Don’t hesitate to contact us with opinions on projects. Call on the telephone, send an email, use the comment options on the websites and social media.
“Their comments are important in influencing how decisions are made,” Fiedler said.
And, no, the engineers don’t prefer to make the decisions themselves without having to bother with the meddlesome opinions of the public, according to Wolff.
“This is where people work, play, travel every day,” she said of the highways connecting towns in the region. “That’s important to us. We’re designing the roadways for the communities.”