Latest design concept calls for 4 foot ‘median’ lane in center of downtown, aimed at wider access for emergencies when needed

Pictured here is the most recent downtown Pelican Rapids design option presented to the Pelican Rapids City Council on Nov. 9.

New to the discussion is a four-foot wide, raised median down the center of the business district—between the two, 12 foot driving lanes. The median slope rise two inches higher than the driving lanes. This feature was added to alleviate concerns about fire trucks and emergency vehicles, which most frequently are north or south bound on Highway 59. The four feet is intended to provide enough width for motorists to pull to the side, and give emergency vehicles the ability to drive down a center lane.

This design preserves a 12 foot driving lane, a foot wider than MnDOT standards—which was a compromise to business concerns. 

However, the design narrows parking lanes to MnDOT standard nine feet. Business owners have lobbied for at least ten feet, to provide more space for opening car doors. 

This design eliminates six parking stalls on 59. Businesses would prefer to keep all existing parking stalls. 

Roundabouts are likely to be the future for downtown Pelican, as MnDOT is not likely to compromise and install new intersection signals. 

Many businesses contend that the eight foot sidewalks are wider than necessary—especially when combined with three feet of space in front of buildings, plus two foot curb space, and four feet for streetlights. That total of 17 feet along storefronts is unreasonably expansive, contend many businesses—who would prefer at least a foot be moved to parking lanes. 

Downtown Pelican Rapids’ “streetscape” has been back and forth from the drawing board, and the latest creation still doesn’t satisfy critics on the Pelican Rapids city council and some downtown businesses. 

A new design includes a four foot-wide median, running down the center of the downtown business district, in the center of two, 12 foot wide driving lanes. The parking lanes are narrowed from previous concepts, from 10 down to nine feet. The shared bike-pedestrian sidewalks are specified at 8 feet wide, plus an additional nine feet for curb buffer, lampposts and separation from storefronts. 

The seventeen feet of space from storefront to parking lane is just too much real estate for many merchants, who generally prefer wider parking and driving lanes—and narrower footage along storefronts. 

Frustration was evident from both the city council members and the MnDOT engineers, at the Nov. 9 Pelican city council meeting. 

MnDOT posed the median plan, in large part to alleviate concerns about emergency vehicles being able to pass on a busy summer afternoon. The four feet in the middle would enable fire trucks to pass down the center of the lanes, while vehicles should have enough space to pull over far enough for passage through the center. 

But MnDot’s focus on traffic movement and efficiency conflicts with Pelican interests, argued some council members.   

“MnDOT wants to get traffic through town…we want to get traffic to town,” said Councilman Kevin Ballard, one of the vocal critics of MnDOT’s plans during the near-two year planning process. “(The designs) serve your goals, not ours.”

But MnDOT engineers insisted that they are equally interested in the future of Pelican business. Further, they contend that studies show that business improves with better intersection and design—which can encourage motorist to stop at businesses, while moving through-traffic more efficiently. 

The extensive Highway 59-108 reconstruction project is slated for 2024-25. This is another concern for businesses, because two full seasons of disruption could pose a severe economic impact. However, MnDOT contends that the most substantial disruption will be 2024, when Highway 59 is reconstructed—along with city sewer-water replacement. The 2025 work will be 108, to the east and west. 

Surprisingly, there was hardly a mention of the roundabouts at the Nov.9 session. Roundabouts have been proposed for the two downtown intersections. MnDOT has publicly stated that the roundabouts are guarantee, despite local opposition. 

The discussion Nov. 9 focused almost entirely on driving, parking and shared use bike-pedestrian lanes downtown.

Several council members have contended that there is too much emphasis on bicycle lanes. Councilman Steve Strand questioned why MnDOT has sufficient vehicle traffic count info—but evidently little or no bicycle count information. 

Otter Tail County commissioner Wayne Johnson, who attended the meeting, reminded the council and the audience that by August of 2022, the Pelican to Maplewood recreational trail will likely be completed. “We hope that bike traffic will build substantially,” said Johnson. The trail is being promoted as a major tourism and recreation draw to Pelican Rapids, which is positioned to become the gateway to a trail spanning the lakes area from Pelican to Maplewood State Park to Perham.

Regional MnDot officials have sent several downtown Pelican proposals up the chain of command to the state level, and the four foot median in the center of the downtown district was approved. The median would be raised by two inches, which opponents contended would make snowplowing difficult.

MnDOT officials insist that they have been responsive to Pelican’s situation, and have offered compromises along the way. 

“We want Pelican businesses to thrive…We want a win-win,” said Shiloh Wahl, District MnDOT engineer, who acknowledged that the Pelican 59-108 reconstruction has been the “most difficult” he has encountered.

“Our goals are similar to yours, though they may not be the same,” said Wahl. 

“We’re trying to work with the city,” said Tom Pace, project engineer for MnDOT. “We want people to go through town safely.” 

The experiment last summer, when cones blocked off lanes to simulate a finished reconstruction, was successful in slowing traffic. “That was a positive aspect of the tests we did downtown,” said Pace. “People did drive slower through downtown.” 

In total, the median option, combined with roundabouts, would reduce six parking spots in the downtown area. 

Business owner Matt Strand has argued that eight foot sidewalks, combined with nine feet in buffer area along storefronts and the curbs is excessive in the downtown area. Many businesses have favored narrower footage on the businesses side of the curb, in favor of driving lanes of at least 12 feet, and parking lanes of 10. 

Strand has reviewed MnDOT data and accident statistics, and has questioned the designs when downtown accidents, and notably injuries, have not been statistically proven. Further, he said that MnDOT has not made some reports available to him, despite several requests, noted Strand.

“We as council members have to answer to the people who live and work here, we don’t answer to MnDOT,” said Councilman Ballard.