Tom Wolf can't think about County Road 8 without remembering what happened when he was out campaigning for the office he now holds.

"I'd stopped at somebody's property and was talking to the guy in his driveway when a driver runs into the ditch!" the chairman of the Scott County board recalls.

"Someone had encroached on his lane from the opposite direction, and he lands in a ditch right in front of me. It was easy to pull it out, but even so, I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh!' People get on that road and it's a back-country township type road, and they think they can go as fast as they like. But it's kind of dangerous."

The county is holding an open house next week as part of preliminary steps to upgrade a rustic, pretty, winding-around-the-lakes sort of road into a "principal arterial" -- engineer-speak for a major thoroughfare. And that has eyebrows rising among residents who enjoy the serenity of the countryside.

"We want to keep it rural out here," said Tari Maxfield, who lives on some acreage near the road south of Prior Lake. "Why would you build a big road? They seem to have these grand ideas, and they cost so much. What are they doing?"

Officials claim they aren't doing anything that's totally pre-ordained, but rather consulting all the interested parties over what the future of the roadway should be. They acknowledge that money for road projects has been throttled back in recent years, not increased, with emphasis on projects that reduce crashes and deaths.

County Road 8 is a two-laner that now extends in effect from Interstate 35W -- the last bit of it is actually Dakota County Road 70 -- to where it leaves off at Ridges of Sand Creek golf course, in the vicinity of Jordan and Belle Plaine. Eventually the county wants 8 to connect the two major north-south freeways or near-freeways, namely 35W and Hwy. 169.

The lack of good east-west connections in both Scott and Dakota counties is among the greatest frustrations both counties face. There is no such thing as a clean shot east to west, unimpeded by long waits at stoplights -- sometimes dozens of them.

County Road 8 has one of the weirdest configurations: It comes to a halt at Doherty's Tavern in Prior Lake, then there's a right turn for a short distance, followed by a left back onto the roadway. Eliminating that quirk is one option to be considered.

The official invitation to attend the open house notes that parts of 8, primarily in the eastern half, need "major improvements, with pavement over 40 years old and a crumbling sub-surface. The roadway has narrow shoulders, sharp horizontal and vertical curves with limited visibility, and no turn lanes at a number of intersections." 

The public reception may well depend on whether upgrades are perceived more as corrective measures or part of a longer-range scheme to restart growth and development.

Wolf believes the upgrade "for the most part will be supported. Safety is a big concern on that road." But much remains to be determined, he said.

"We're asking, 'is it feasible, is there money, is it needed?' Whatever happens might be taken in chunks: We might do a mile or 2 miles and keep working on down that way. But nothing may happen right away; money's the biggest thing."

Talk of the roadway as a "principal arterial" would seem to imply a major upgrade into a four-lane road. If that feels like part of a wider vision to accelerate development of the countryside, groups such as the county's newly reformed Farm Advisory Board will be concerned.

To be sure, the implosion in development probably "'has not hit bottom even now," said Jennifer Jensen, who heads that group. In that sense the pressure's off. But planners sometimes see those lulls as times to work vigorously on longer-range dreams. If that's the case, she said, citizen activists need to pay close attention.

Wolf said he doubts that any widening is imminent. "I don't think there's nearly enough traffic to do that now."

Still, steps could be taken to acquire land for that sort of upgrade, and to clear the way for later high-speed regional travel as opposed to mere local movement.

The official timetable calls for the study to begin this fall, with these steps to come:

• Winter 2012: Develop alternatives;

• Spring 2012: An open house to look over those alternatives, followed by recommendations;

• Summer 2012: An open house to comment on the recommendations, then present findings to local officials and wrap it all up.

At the very least, Wolf said, tweaks need to be made. "Shoulders are narrow, the ditch goes down 10 or 15 feet in places, and it's really not the best at this point."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285