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Roundabout debate goes in circles

A drawing of the proposed roundabout for the intersection at Highway 33 and Interstate 35 shows details of the specifications. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 2
Steve Schmidt (left) and Morrie Luke, Minnesota Department of Transportation assistant district traffic engineer, discuss the proposed roundabout and other possible options for the Highway 33 corridor at Thursday's informational meeting. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

The crowd was small but vocal at Thursday's public meeting for the proposed roundabout on the Minnesota Highway 33 corridor at Interstate 35. Several people came early to look at the maps and drawings of the proposed roundabout and ask engineers questions before the formal presentation at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Project manager Brian Larson showed a slide presentation covering different options for the troubled intersection of Highway 33 and I-35 that had been discussed and discarded for a variety of reasons.

Towards the end he explained why the roundabout was the chosen solution. Larson said the roundabout had been proven to be efficient and can make the biggest difference for both the safety issues and traffic flow when designed properly. He explained a traffic count study was done during a Labor Day weekend to try to hit a higher count.

"This provided traffic information for a typical work day along with peak recreational traffic over a holiday weekend," said Larson. "The roundabout simulation that was developed for the project used the forecasted year 2040 peak recreational traffic."

Members of the audience were silent as they listened until he showed a simulation video specific to Cloquet demonstrating traffic flow in the proposed roundabout.

"Everyone here is looking for solutions," said an audience member.

Residents voiced several concerns: drivers coming off I-35 currently do not slow down when they exit, snow plowing logistics, traffic backing up onto I-35, concerns the roundabout is too small for semi-trucks and large RVs pulling trailers, as well as the volume of traffic on summer weekends from "weekend warriors" from the Twin Cities area going to and from their cabins.

Larson said plow drivers like to plow roundabouts because they do not have to go back and forth several times as they do in intersections. They plow the roundabout and are done.

Several people repeated similar concerns several times to the engineers and project manager. One woman vehemently opposed all roundabouts while others in the audience said roundabouts can work, but not at the Highway 33 corridor due to the previously mentioned issues.

"They are idiots! They come off the freeway doing 70 miles per hour and they don't slow down," said an audience member. "They are not slowing down before the bridge."

Larson repeated the roundabout had been designed specifically for the Highway 33 corridor to accommodate the weekend traffic flow as well as large vehicles. He added that, with the right signs, drivers will have enough notice to slow down before they arrive at the roundabout.

"If there are accidents they will be property damage, fender benders," said Larson. "There will be advanced signage warning that a roundabout is ahead. There will be a "stop when flashing" sign."

Ben Groeschl of Carlton asked what the purpose of the MnDOT Highway 33 project was that had been done in 2014 and why the intersection safety problem wasn't taken care of as a part of that project if they were just going to spend more money and change it next year. Larson responded that changing the entrance from I-35 to Highway 33 and adding the flashing speed sign was an attempt to fix the problem with a small change as there was not any money available for a larger project at the time. The project was primarily to replace the pavement.

"Since then, MnDOT and Cloquet applied for and received special funding that is specifically targeted for addressing safety problems," said Larson. "This funding will allow us to address the intersection safety problem in 2018. As Ben correctly implied, funding work in this manner is not desirable but happens due to funding availability."

Groeschl walked to the front of FDLTCC auditorium and used the video to show the engineers what he thought could be another option.

He stated that semi-truck-driver friends of his are not found of roundabouts.

"I know a trucker that put his truck on its side two weeks after a roundabout was built," said Groeschl. He recommended the engineers make the entire roundabout two lanes.

Several people mentioned the curve of the entrance ramp to Highway 33 from I-35 being an issue because drivers cannot see the roundabout until they come over the hill, plus icy conditions in the winter could cause vehicles to slide into the roundabout.

"If they haven't braked before the bridge, they won't have another chance before the intersection if the road is icy," said a concerned audience member. "There is no second chances if they are over the bridge."

"That's poor driving because they will have passed advanced signage," said Larson. "If you are still going that fast driving in icy conditions that is behavior... we can't design something perfect for that type of behavior."

Groeschl suggested putting in rumble strips and taller signs to catch drivers' attention as they exit to Highway 33.

MnDOT Assistant District 1 Traffic Engineer Morrie Luke explained there is a federal law regulating the height of all road signs. Groeschl's rumble strip idea was entertained by the engineers.

"We will look at concerns," said Larson. He added that they could possibly add smaller rumble strips and consider a type of textured asphalt to help with traction during icy conditions.

After several years of study and debating a variety of ways to decrease accidents on Highway 33 at I-35 in Cloquet, MnDOT officials announced the roundabout as the solution earlier this month.

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.

MnDOT officials said the next steps for the proposed roundabout are to complete the environmental document, the road design plans and obtain permits for the project so that bids can be opened in December 2017.

Construction is slated to begin late spring of 2018 and be done in the fall of 2018.

Highway 33 traffic and I-35 traffic will be able to continue without a detour, however, the frontage road may need to be closed/detoured at a point during the construction.

Estimated cost of the project is between $2-2.3 million.

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