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MnDOT: Feedback critical during Highway 61 project

MnDOT project designer Jeff Madill talks with Mark LeBlanc about the construction project on Highway 61 in Two Harbors. LeBlanc's business, the Li'l Dog Car and Pet Wash, sits at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 2 in Two Harbors, where some of the most significant changes will take place. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)

More than 20 business owners, elected officials and residents made their way through Two Harbors' snowy streets Tuesday, Feb. 20, to learn more about the Minnesota Department of Transportation's planned construction project through the city.

MnDOT project manager Derek Fredrickson described the 4-mile, $3.6 million project as a simple mill and overlay project that will also replace the three traffic signals between Seventh Street and Highway 2 in Two Harbors. The goal is to improve the flow of traffic through town, particularly during the high-volume times in the late summer and early fall.

"We do know there are some issues with the flow of traffic sometimes through Two Harbors," Frederickson said. "The intent of this project is not to completely alleviate that, but to do the best we can to improve traffic flow. It's a very narrow corridor ... there's not a whole lot that we could do without removing all the parking from the highway."

The new signals will replace the oldest signals in MnDOT's District 1, which includes all of northeastern Minnesota. The new signals will communicate with each other to ensure a better traffic flow.

When the project was first proposed in 2015, business owners were upset there would be less on-street parking on Highway 61. Through a series of meetings with the Two Harbors City Council, residents and business owners, MnDOT devised a plan that would increase the number of parking spots while also creating turn lanes to keep traffic flowing.

However, many of the spots will no longer be 12 feet wide and some will be as thin as 8 feet wide.

"The turn lanes won't be as long as what we would like to do," Frederickson said. "But that was through negotiations with the city to make sure that we had as little impact to parking as we could have."

In addition to changes to turn lanes, the project includes some storm sewer, sidewalk and rural culvert work. At the intersection of highways 61 and 2, MnDOT plans to create a "free right" turn going south on Highway 61.

The project will occur in three phases, with the rural work beginning in mid-May and continuing until October. Work in the urban section of the project begins in July, just after the annual Heritage Days festival, and hopefully finishing in October as well.

Business owners expressed concerns about construction in the downtown area during what is typically the highest traffic time in Two Harbors: from July until the fall colors peak in late September. Some even asked if the project phases could be flip-flopped, with work in downtown completed first and the rural phase second.

The problem, according to project engineer Brett Weybright, is the amount of time needed to fabricate the new signals. Signals are made-to-order and can take 18 weeks or more to be built and delivered from the time they had ordered. Having temporary signals throughout the summer and then going back and disrupting traffic to install the new signals presents its own set of problems.

"We understand in a town as touristy as Two Harbors, there will be issues," Frederickson said.

Two Harbors Mayor Chris Swanson asked if there would be signs directing motorists to downtown, when the main access points, like Waterfront Drive and Seventh Street, are blocked or inaccessible. Fredrickson said there would be digital signs placed in the area to help keep traffic flowing and provide directions.

Weybright said he plans to host weekly meetings throughout the construction so he can get public feedback as the project progresses.

Two Harbors Area Chamber of Commerce President Janelle Jones said she would ensure meeting times are posted on the Chamber website. She also stressed the need for the community to remain positive.

"It's really important for all of us to stay positive because the message we send is the message our customers will hear," she said. "It's a bummer, but it's going to be great when it's done. We have to remember what the end product is and everybody's business is going to do better once this project is done."

Frederickson also stressed the need for communication and public feedback. He encouraged business owners to let MnDOT know if there are certain days that will be more problematic for construction.

Frederickson can't guarantee the MnDOT will meet every request, but they will try to accommodate businesses as much as possible.

"This is your community," Frederickson said. "If you see something that is not working, at least bring it to our attention and we'll see what we can do."

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Silver Bay City Council and high school sports in Lake County. 

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