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Roundabout coming to Cloquet?

This image from the Minnesota Department of Transportation shows an overlay of the proposed roundabout at Minnesota Highway 33 at I-35 in Cloquet, an intersection that has been plagued by accidents, some of them deadly. MnDOT officials say a roundabout will slow traffic and eliminate deadly T-bone accidents. Special to the Pine Journal1 / 3
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A deadly intersection just off Interstate 35 in Cloquet will be changing dramatically next year, now that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has decided on a plan to fix the intersection. The solution? A roundabout.

After several years of study and debating a variety of ways to decrease accidents on Minnesota Highway 33 at I-35 in Cloquet, MnDOT officials announced the roundabout solution late last week. Some residents would prefer an overpass, while others question the need to do anything but drive better.

"An overpass costs four times the amount of a roundabout," said District 1 Traffic Engineer Jim Miles. "That still leaves the possibility of a T-bone collision, which would be impossible with a roundabout."

There have been several bad accidents at the complex intersection over the years — two fatalities between 2005 and 2015, plus five very serious accidents — and much controversy about how to fix the problem.

Most of the worst accidents happen when drivers traveling south on Highway 33 attempt to turn left to head north onto Interstate 35. That left turn sends them across oncoming traffic, often moving fast after exiting Interstate 35 to head north on Highway 33.

During a Highway 33 corridor study and Access Management Plan, MnDOT had a trooper sit and observe the intersection in 2015 to see how many people ran the stop sign. He handed out 45 tickets in eight hours.

The study took into consideration the traffic data, including traffic count, which has shown slow but steady growth.

The study group consisted of representatives from MnDOT, the city of Cloquet, Carlton County law enforcement, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC).

There were about 35 residents at the last Highway 33 corridor meeting in January 2016, which turned into a brainstorming session, according to a story in the Jan. 31, 2016 issue of the Pine Journal. At the meeting, SEH transportation planner Bob Rogers said the city and MnDOT had applied jointly for federal Highway Safety Improvement dollars to extend Frontage Road on the west side of Highway 33 to the south end of Gillette Road. He said other proposed improvements included a separate lane for drivers turning from southbound 33 to northbound I-35 and removing intersection access to and from Frontage Road. Residents on and near the Frontage Road were not happy with that idea.

City Engineer Caleb Peterson, said that plan was denied by the state as it would disrupt a trout stream, but a roundabout would actually lessen wait time for drivers coming from Frontage Road and eliminate the left-hand turn, which has caused T-bone accidents as recently as 2015.

"The major benefit of a roundabout is the movements will not be restricted," said Peterson. "People will be able to get onto the roundabout and make any movement that they make today."

"Roundabouts reduce accidents by 90 percent," said Mn DOT District 1 spokesperson Beth Petrowske.

When she was at a public meeting in Hibbing for their first roundabout recently, Petrowske said there were several hundred people who reacted negatively to the new change.

After addressing their questions and concerns she is noticing a change.

"We can see their attitude slowly changing," said Petrowske. She added that attitude is typical of each place they put in a roundabout for the first time. She noted that northern Minnesota is a little behind as other parts of Minnesota have had roundabouts since the 1990s.

The Pine Journal Facebook page is currently home to a vigorous debate on the issue, with residents voicing their thoughts on the idea of a roundabout on Highway 33. The majority are against it, but most people who have used them think it's a great solution to saving lives.

One of the main concerns of several commenters is the ability of large semi trucks fitting in the roundabout.

"A roundabout wouldn't be bad for normal traffic but what about all of the semis, double semis, trucks pulling campers and boats and also oversized loads carrying equipment for the mines and windmill farms? What's wrong with a simple 4-leaf clover," wrote Elaine Vargason.

According to Miles, the options for that area are very limited due to the wetlands and a roundabout is a financially better solution.

He said each roundabout is built a little differently to meet the individual needs of the community. The engineers test the roundabout with a large semi truck to verify it will accommodate the size.

Petrowske explained the roundabout in Cloquet will be a "mountable median" which means the center of the median will be sloped specifically for the tires of the semi trucks to ride up on. Roundabouts made for use by semi trucks are also a little larger than others.

Miles said the roundabout's ease of construction would allow it to be built as soon as 2018, while it would take years to plan for and build a major overpass at that site. Moreover, a roundabout will cost about $1.5 million while a bridge was estimated at more than $7 million.

Several people commented that there is not anything wrong with the area itself, but with the drivers not paying attention.

"That intersection isn't rocket science. I don't understand. I've traveled through this intersection for work five days a week for 10 years, more than that being a Cloquet resident," wrote Kelli Sayler on Facebook. "They shouldn't have to put time and $$ into a big project. People coming from that frontage road turning onto 33N towards Cloquet are NOT using that intersection properly. And pulling onto 33 going 20 mph in front of someone going 45-55 mph.... It's driver error, nothing else. The intersection is fine. No roundabouts, no overpasses. No need to spend money there!!"

Another commenter, Barb Wasmund Johnson disagreed.

"Roundabouts are great," Johnson wrote. "We've been traveling all over the nation for 20 years. Yes, when we first encountered them it was confusing, but now we think they are great. Minnesota is far behind many other states with progressive transportation."

Both Petrowske and Miles agree.

"We want it to be safe," Petrowske said. "People don't obey the law and there is a terrible consequence."

"We are in the business of preventing crashes," Miles said. He added that one vehicle is operator error, the other is an innocent victim, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"People make mistakes, let's not make those mistakes cost lives," said Ryan Paulson on the Pine Journal Facebook page. "I don't think there is a blind spot there, but for some reason people get confused so something has to be done. Ask yourself this, what if a 'bad driver' injured or killed your family there, or what if your family member made a mistake and their life was taken? We cannot put a price tag on that."

Joel Soukkala, manager of the County Seat Theater on Frontage Road which exits into the troubled intersection, said he often hears sirens for accidents.

"Anything is better than what we have," said Soukkala. "When it is built I will be standing in the middle going, 'Yay!'"

There will be a public meeting to inform the public and answer any questions about the proposed roundabout from 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, July 20, with a presentation beginning at 6 p.m. at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. For more information on the project, www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/i-35-cloquet/index.html or, to see a video for how a roundabout works visit this link: " target="_blank">www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/Hwy-169-Hwy-37-Roundabout/documents.html.

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FOR YOUR INFORMATION

There will be a public meeting to inform citizens and answer any questions about the proposed roundabout on Highway 33 in Cloquet from 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, July 20, at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. A formal presentation will begin at 6 p.m. For more information on the project, go online to www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/i-35-cloquet or, to watch a video explaining how a roundabout works, visit this link: " target="_blank">www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/Hwy-169-Hwy-37-Roundabout/documents.html.

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A" target="_blank">www.dot.state.mn.us/d1/projects/Hwy-169-Hwy-37-Roundabout/documents.html.

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