This graphic depicts the existing alignment of Highway 59 through downtown Pelican Rapids. After the Oct. 7 session with MnDOT and Pelican city officials, and area business representatives, MnDOT stated that the downtown configuration may be revised.

Lanes may be revised, but roundabouts appear likely

By Louis Hoglund

It will be back to the drawing board for the Pelican Highway 108-59 project. Or, at least for the most sensitive one block: The downtown business district. 

After more than two hours of discussion Oct. 7, including input from a determined group of business owners and others, MnDOT officials agreed to take another look at the driving-parking lane layout of the business district.

Roundabouts, however, appear to be the future for Pelican Rapids, as there was little evidence that state highway officials will compromise. 

By the Oct. 26 council meeting, MnDOT engineers plan to return with revisions—aimed primarily at the downtown business district. 

Toward the end of the wide-ranging discussion, Councilman Curt Markgraf perhaps best summed up the shifting of gears. If MnDOT is locked in on roundabouts, then the “street width is paramount.”

“Wherever we travel, we will see roundabouts…we get used to them,” said Markgraf. But the driving width, particularly in the one block downtown district, is critical—for providing enough moving space for emergency vehicles and wide load hauling. 

The generally preferred plan, locally, would retain approximately the present driving width, with a striped bicycle lane parallelling the motor lane. The MnDOT plan would narrow parking and driving lanes to the point it could bottleneck movement for firetrucks. 

Essentially, the MnDOT plan narrows curb to curb width to a point where emergency vehicles could be “trapped” in the middle of downtown, depending on congestion. The highest risk would be Fridays from May to September, when motorists stream in to the lakes area.

Perhaps one of the key revelations came from Pelican Fire Chief Trevor Steeves. With compressed driving width—and full parking stalls on both sides, motorists can hardly pull over far enough to allow fire truck and emergency vehicle passage. 

Businessman Everett Ballard, a consistent critic of the plan, agreed that “you have to take into account safety…there is only so much space downtown.” 

Downtown features of the plan, particularly lane width, could be “negotiable” acknowledged Shiloh Wahl, District MnDOT engineer—after the lengthy discussion. 

The thrust of the business owners plan is a bicycle lane parallel to the driving lanes. These lanes establish a passage for bicycles, while still preserving width for wide load transport and fire trucks, when needed. More than 100 signed a petition with concerns over MnDOT’s plans, representing a wide majority of business interests in and beyond the downtown area. 

While there appears to be the prospect of compromise in driving, parking and biking lanes downtown—the controversial roundabouts at the key intersections are still a source of conflict. 

A lead spokesperson for the businesses faction, Matt Strand, Ace Hardware, favors the wider lanes downtown. He also has challenged MnDOT’s contention that roundabouts are safer, and improve mobility and traffic flow. Strand has contended that pedestrian safety and property damage collisions would not change measurably with roundabouts. Further, he cited MnDOT’s own statistics in arguing that pedestrian safety could actually decline with roundabouts. 

Still, roundabouts are the trend for state and federal transportation officials. Recently, nearly 20 signal intersections were replaced with roundabouts in the city of Mankato alone. 

Many are adamant in their opposition to roundabouts. 

“I can’t support a plan with roundabouts in downtown,” said Councilman Kevin Ballard. He added, “you’re forcing them on us whether the community wants them or not.”

“This will change Pelican forever,” said Ballard, who said he has not heard a single person in favor of roundabouts. 

“Roundabouts are wrong…They are not right for us,” said Councilman Steve Strand. 

“I respectfully disagree,” said MnDOT  engineer Shiloh Wahl. “Roundabouts are the right thing for intersections. We’ve seen it time and time again. This is no longer an experiment…that’s why we recommend roundabouts.”

Mayor Brent Frazier countered that, based on the transportation experts, roundabouts are generally safer. With traffic flows through Pelican projected to steadily increase over the next 20 years, the roundabouts are designed for “the future; not for us today, but for our grandkids.” 

Parking is the other key issue. MnDOT has made concessions by reducing the number of stalls the project would impact. Eliminated stalls are down to six on Highway 59, compared to 14 on initial plans.

Matt Strand reminded city and MnDOT officials that limited parking was listed as one of the top issues for business in a 2016 business survey. Any loss of parking stalls in or near downtown is a detriment to business, contends Strand—who projected that the project could cost 14 percent of downtown parking. 

Local opponent Kathy Arntson said that the present layout is adequate, except for “a couple hours a week, about 12 weeks of the year,” referring to Friday afternoon congestion due to traffic to the lakes. 

MnDOT officials counter that “they don’t want to shove something down your throat.” But they contend that there is no way to address the mobility question without roundabouts—or eliminating almost half of downtown parking by installing left turn lanes. 

“We want what is best for Pelican. We want a win-win situation…it is a partnership,” said Wahl. “Not everybody is going to agree, but it needs to be a good project for many, many years.” 

 On a final note, MnDOT’s Wahl stressed that sweeping improvements to streetscapes are good for business. 

“We’ve seen it over and over again—improvement projects like this spur commerce,” said Wahl. 

As for Pelican businesses, they’re not buying that assumption. 

At least, not yet. 

Following are some excerpts of the discussion of the Highways 59-108 discussion at Pelican Rapids City Hall Oct. 7

• “Good faith compromise” is how business spokesperson Matt Strand described a downtown lane proposal that would preserve wider lanes to accomodate parking, bicycle traffic and emergency vehicles. 

• Snow removal will be an issue, not only with roundabouts but sidewalk landscaping, benches and other features. “Roundabouts are terrible to clear out,” said Councilman Curt Markgraf, who has experience with snow removal rigs. 

• MnDOT officials agreed that the city may need to revise snow removal practices. Further, the city’s standard, cooperative maintenance agreement may need to be revised, in the event of roundabouts. 

• Peter Scott, Pelican Rapids Farmers Elevator, spoke generally for the agriculture community. The co-op’s spraying units are 10 to 11 feet wide. With an emergency north of Pelican—hypothetically on a summer Friday afternoon, with the city business district congested—there could be no adequate space for both to pass, with narrowed downtown lanes. “If those vehicles met—we can’t back up and they can’t back up,” said Scott. 

• The Pelican fire department covers a “huge service area,” said Councilman Curt Markgraf—with many of the fire calls north on Highway 59. “The odds of a downtown bottleneck are pretty high in Pelican…It’s tight as it is to get anywhere quick, and this could make it impossible,” said Markgraf. 

• Defending roundabouts, MnDOT engineer Tom Pace said “the only way to solve the mobility and safety issues is with roundabouts.” A left turn lane would resolve some of the mobility issues, but it would wipe out almost half of the downtown parking. Right turn lanes are also an issue, though less pronounced, and roundabouts would improve right turns, he stated.

• Councilman Steve Foster agreed that the roundabouts “solve the problem of left-hand turn lanes,” with the least impact on parking. 

• There have been a number of comments over the past two years that bicyclists are not as prone to shop and patronize businesses, but downtown business owner Andrew Johnson disputed that claim. He contends the bicycle traffic generated with the Pelican to Maplewood recreational trail will boost retail traffic and sales. 

• Though the one-block business district is the most scrutinized segment of the Highway 59-108 project, the total picture spans 25 blocks in all directions. The broader plan will include pedestrian lanes, curb, gutter and other features—plus safer installations near the schools.