The Pelican Rapids City Council narrowly voted a “blessing” of the controversial Highways 59 and 108 reconstruction project. 

Roundabouts at the two downtown intersections, narrower driving lanes, and a four foot median through the center of the business district will be the “new look” for at the center of the city after the 2024-25 project is completed. 

The vote margin was 3-2. 

The decision followed an hour of discussion November 30; and more than two years of public forums, council meetings, and a handful of compromises along the way. 

 As it now stands, the council and Minnesota Department of Transportation will move forward, somewhat harmoniously, on a project that will change the landscape of the community. 

The one block downtown district was the source of most of the debate, which heated up over the past six months. 

With the council’s vote, the city is essentially locked in on a project that will transform not only the downtown, but create multi-use pedestrian-bicycle lanes for nearly all of 59 and 108 within the city. 

Below the surface, about $6 million in city improvements to sewer and water lines will be completed at city and taxpayer cost. 

Decision was divided council vote 

Making the motion to partner with MnDOT was Councilman Steve Foster. He recently traveled to St. James to inspect the downtown renovations there—including two roundabouts. After speaking with city officials and walking the downtown, Foster concluded that the roundabouts would be appropriate for Pelican Rapids. 

Seconding the motion was Councilman Steve Strand. 

Voting “no” to the motion were councilmen Curt Markgraf and Kevin  Ballard, who has been the most consistent critic of the roundabouts and driving lane widths for downtown. 

Voting “yes” were Foster, Mayor Brent Frazier and Strand. 

“I’d like to go into partnership with MnDOT and get this project done,” said Foster in making the motion. 

Strand acknowledged need for sewer-water upgrade 

Though a skeptic through most of the discussion of the roundabouts and downtown district, Strand said he understands the safety benefits of slowing traffic through the community, which is a focal point of the MnDOT designs. Also, said Strand, “we need to fix the pipes.” 

Underground sewer and water lines in the downtown area are aging, some cast iron and nearly a century old. The highway reconstruction enables the city to access the lines, at considerably less expense by coordinating with MnDOT.

 MnDOT had targeted 59 and 108 for improvements in 2028, but pushed the project forward in large part because city officials were anxious to repair the aging water-sewer lines. There have been several costly breaks due to winter freezing. 

The Pelican council was facing the difficult prospect of revisiting the same process, and similar roundabout designs, if it stalled the current project another four years—at yet higher costs, most likely. 

Compromises by MnDOT helped create “cautious acceptance” of project

A couple of key compromises from MnDOT helped make the project somewhat more palatable. The narrower lanes, loss of parking and the roundabouts were met with opposition from many in the area—but in particular from business owners. 

The two driving lanes are at 12 feet, which is wider than MnDOT’s standards. Parking lanes are nine—also wider than MnDOT’s 8 foot standard. The four foot median in the center of the downtown district, raised two inches, allows emergency vehicles to pass through downtown dead center, straddling the median with motorists pulled over. 

The two inch height is a compromise, as most similar projects have been four to six inches. 

The combination of the roundabouts, the median and the crosswalk features will pose snow removal complications. In his discussions with St. James officials, on their downtown project, Councilman Foster acknowledged that snow removal has been an issue in St. James. 

But generally, Foster was impressed with the traffic flow and the safety features at the roundabouts. “I took photos at the roundabouts, and everybody stopped—nobody ran over me,” laughed Foster. The contrast-colored concrete at the roundabouts, crosswalks and other fixtures provide “visual guidance” for both motorists and pedestrians. 

Parking loss, at about six stalls on Highway 59, and as many as 20 east and west along 108, continues to be an issue. Everett Ballard, one of the staunch critics of the 59-108 plan, noted that Bell Bank is investing “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in its renovation of the former Wells Fargo bank site. Yet Bell will face less street parking at the new bank location, at the intersection of 59 and 108 east.

County official, Pelican businessman voice support 

Everett Ballard, at the podium during the Nov. 30 discussion on the Highway 59-108 project.

Several at the meeting spoke favorably of the project. 

Otter Tail County Commissioner Wayne Johnson said the reconstruction is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” 

“I encourage you to adopt the plan and move forward,” said Johnson. By “kicking the can” down the road for four years, taxpayer costs will be higher. “Four years from now, those dollars may not event be available,” said Johnson. Critical, he added, is the fact that cast iron water-sewer pipe is past the end of its useful life—whereas the replacement PVC pipes have a 400 year lifespan. 

Businessman Don Perrin expressed concern about parking loss, but his Pelican Drug also sustained major water damage due to a break of the aging water lines three years ago. He asked the council not to delay, but “work with MnDOT on this project.” To address downtown parking, Perrin suggested the city consider acquiring vacant main street storefront buildings, and create additional small parking lots. 

Pictured here is downtown Pelican Rapids design option that is a likely blueprint for the 2024-25 Highway 108-59 reconstruction. 

The four-foot wide, two-inch-raised median down the center of the business district—between the two, 12 foot driving lanes was an option introduced by MnDOT in December. The median slope rises 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 width is intended to provide enough space 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 had urged 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, instead of intersections, will be installed at both ends of the business district. 

Eight foot sidewalks, three feet of space in front of buildings, plus two foot curb space, and four feet for streetlights, totals 17 feet along storefronts. Some business owners felt this was unreasonably expansive, who prefered wider parking and driving lanes.