Forest Lake prepares for 97 bond request

Graphic courtesy of the city of Forest Lake
This diagram shows a plan for a proposed roundabout intersection to replace the signaled intersection at Goodview Avenue and State Highway 97 in Forest Lake. The current intersection’s odd angle has concerned many residents and local government leaders, who believe it lends itself to accidents like the one in the summer of 2016, when a Forest Lake Area High School student was hit and killed there.

Preparing for the 2018 Minnesota legislative session, the Forest Lake City Council expressed interest in the city putting together a bonding request for state funds to complete a variety of safety improvements on State Highway 97 in the city – namely, intersection improvements at the highway’s intersections with Goodview Avenue, Harrow Avenue and North Shore Drive, along with some access closures.

Currently, the improvements the city is considering requesting are estimated to cost about $16.8 million, though the request has not yet been finalized. Council members gave informal endorsements of the idea during the council’s Sept. 18 work session. Next year is a bonding year for the Legislature, and if funds for Forest Lake were approved during that process, the building projects could begin in 2019 or 2020.

The discussion on Highway 97 also included more in-depth analyses of the different desired improvements, as well as potential funding sources should the city’s bond plea not be included in a final bonding bill.

Goodview Avenue

The discussion on Goodview Avenue received a special amount of focus during the meeting, a common occurrence in discussions around the highway since a Forest Lake Area High School student was hit and killed by a vehicle while she was walking in the intersection in June of 2016 (the intersection is directly south of both FLAHS and Century Junior High School).

Currently, the design for the intersection that the city is zeroing in on would change the intersection from one controlled by traffic signals to a roundabout, which would slow down traffic and the intersection and remove the sharp angles that current north and south drivers are required to navigate when turning left. The project also includes a pedestrian bridge over the intersection so that students can avoid the intersection entirely should they choose (an underpass has also been suggested, but the school district has expressed hesitancy to this option due to the potential for unseen confrontations between students).

Without a bonding bill inclusion, state funding for all of the Highway 97 projects could be 6 years away or more, but City Administrator Aaron Parrish and City Engineer Ryan Goodman told the council that the Minnesota Department of Transportation had presented the city with a unique opportunity: a chance to utilize funds for a project to start in 2020 and be completed by 2021, with money that had been freed up from other MnDOT endeavors. Under this scenario, MnDOT would contribute $1.4 million in 2020 dollars to the road realignment and roundabout costs and the city would contribute $1.1 million (with the possibility that the city share could funded through other grants or non-levy funding sources). The city would still be on its own for the $2.4 million pedestrian bridge, however.

“MnDOT’s never going to fund a pedestrian bridge there,” Parrish said. “They’ve told us that straight up.”

Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilmen Michael Freer and Sam Husnik all expressed openness to working with MnDOT on an early roundabout project, with the option of holding off on the pedestrian bridge element of the project until later, when other funding sources are available.

“Something has to be done at that intersection, that’s for sure,” Husnik said, while Bain noted that any improvement at the intersection, even incremental, is a positive step.

Freer agreed.

“Safety, safety, safety,” he said. “Move forward with anything that’s going to do that.”

While Mayor Ben Winnick agreed that something should be done soon at the intersection, he had doubts that the roundabout, especially without the pedestrian bridge, was really he safest choice. He told the council he wanted to get additional traffic analysis before making a decision.

“I’d hate to build this and find out it doesn’t work,” he said.

Bain noted that the design of the intersection can still be modified if the city moves forward with MnDOT’s offer.

In the interim before any roadwork can begin, MnDOT has taken steps to install temporary safety features at the intersection, including pedestrian countdown timers and no crossing signs on the east side of the intersection to keep people away from the most dangerous side of the intersection and the northeast corner of the intersection, which Goodman referred to as “pork chop island.”

North Shore and Harrow

MnDOT would also like to install a left-hand turn lane on Highway 97 at the North Shore Trail intersection. Winnick wanted to know why there were no plans for a signalized intersection there, but Parrish explained that there’s not enough “balanced” traffic there – most of the traffic is either coming from the west or east, with little north-south traffic. This intersection was recently the site of two crashes in quick succession, one involving a school bus, on the second day of school.

“You’re going to get accident reduction with dedicated turn lanes,” Parrish said.

In the area surrounding the highway’s intersection with Harrow Avenue, MnDOT would like to install left turn lanes at the intersections with Harrow, Hilo Avenue and the parking lot for the Castlewood Golf Course. Some other, lesser used intersections in that area would also be closed down to limit a proliferation of access points to the highway. If the city wants to establish a roundabout or signalized intersection where Harrow and 97 meet, which many residents have told the city they are interested in, it would be a city led project that would require justification for such an intersection based on traffic and crash impacts. Freer wanted to make sure that any improvements in the area surrounding Harrow would not require eminent domain.

MnDOT is attempting to obtain funding for the North Shore and Harrow projects to complete them in the early 2020s. The Harrow-related improvements are estimated to cost $2.76 million in 2021 dollars, and the North Shore Trail project is estimated to cost $1.18 million in 2021 dollars. The city’s bond request would seek funding for those projects as well as for the Goodview intersection.