SANBORN, Minn. -- For as long as most people can remember, a stoplight has marked the prairie intersection just outside of town known as Sanborn Corners.
It’s where you turn to go to the Watermelon Days festival, or fill up at the local gas station or buy an ice cream treat at the Dairy Queen. It’s the only stoplight for miles on a vast carpet of flat farmland.
But this month, the old stoplight will come down, believed unnecessary by the state. Soon, this one-stoplight town will become a no-stoplight town.
“It’s the fate of all these small towns,” said longtime resident Ralph Pabst, wistful that the light is going the way of the former local grocery, drugstore, meat locker and bakery. “It’ll kind of be strange when [it’s] gone, I guess.”
A series of traffic signals in southern Minnesota have disappeared in recent years, casualties of low volumes of vehicles, modern state standards and aging infrastructure that is expensive to replace. Gone are the sole stoplights in the towns of Arlington, Gaylord and Winthrop. Signals have also been removed in Worthington, Sleepy Eye and other towns.
It can be a difficult change for local residents. Some are happy about never having to sit through long red lights again, but others don’t want to see their stoplights go. They worry about car crashes and pedestrians crossing the street. They lament the loss of what it signified.
“Admittedly, not everybody is always thrilled about it,” said Brett Paasch, district traffic engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Though engineers in other states have been culling stoplights from intersections in big cities and small towns, several around the country say that, in many places, removing a stoplight is next to impossible politically.
“People feel like they are losing something, or an intersection will be ‘less safe’ without the signal,” said Robert Ziemba, a signal design engineer in North Carolina, where officials have tried to remove several stoplights. In small towns, especially, he said: “They become status symbols that people easily get attached to and don’t want to let go.”
Expensive to replace
At Sanborn Corners, a notice that the signal will go dark on Sept. 19 was taped to the convenience store’s glass door, which swings open when locals come in for coffee and truckers stop in for snacks. The notice made the front page of the neighboring town’s newspaper, the Lamberton News.
MnDOT officials said the current stop lights were erected on poles and mast arms 26 years ago there, at the intersection of U.S. Hwys. 71 and 14, though they believe cables suspended a stoplight overhead before that. The signals are now reaching the end of their useful life, said Nicklaus Ollrich, an assistant district traffic engineer for MnDOT. They have been breaking down more often, and it takes more than an hour for workers to travel to fix them.
As part of a road construction project scheduled in 2022, state engineers studied traffic patterns to see whether it would be worth the estimated $250,000 to replace the lights. It wouldn’t, they found.
Though traffic actually increased slightly at the intersection over the past few decades, the volume is far below modern standards warranting a stoplight, Ollrich said.
Engineers don’t know why a stoplight was installed there so many years ago, Ollrich said, but “over time, we learn more about when it’s appropriate to put in a traffic signal.”
Instead, four-way stop signs outlined with flashing solar LED lights will be installed at Sanborn Corners at about $1,500 each.
After they take the stoplights down this month, officials will monitor the intersection for at least 90 days before making their decision permanent. They’ll set up video cameras to see how cars react and get reports from local law enforcement to make sure there are no “adverse impacts” to removing the light.
If history is any indication, the stoplight probably won’t come back. So far, none of the seven signals removed in MnDOT’s District 7 has been reinstalled.
One ended up on display.
In the basement of the Winthrop Community Historical Society museum, a stoplight from the town’s sole signalized intersection sits on the floor, a hulking 4-foot-tall piece of town history.
To see it, visitors pass through a maze of other bygones: rotary phones, photographs of the Winthrop movie theater, a display honoring WCCO Radio’s Roger Erickson, who grew up on a farm outside of town.
“This happens to be, we felt ... the last stoplight that probably ever would be in Winthrop,” explained Diane Fredin, the Historical Society’s treasurer. “So we took it in.”
People in town opposed MnDOT’s plans to yank it out in 2014 and allow traffic to flow through on state Hwy. 19, required to stop only when someone near the crosswalks triggered flashing lights.
Local opposition was strong down the road in Gaylord, too, when a similar light was taken out, said Mayor Don Boeder.
“It was like taking your first child away in the beginning with some of these people. They were very attached to their stoplight,” he said. Besides fears about safety, “you feel like it’s somewhat of an identity to your town, too, you know. ... They felt like we lost something, that we were going backwards in time.”
But the intersection has seen only a few fender benders since then, Boeder said, and people have accepted the change to their streetscape.
“Like anything else,” he said, “time heals.”
Sense of loss
So far, nobody has asked to put the Sanborn lights in a museum, MnDOT officials said, though it is the last stoplight on U.S. Hwy. 14 from there to the South Dakota border — an hour farther west.
For the average Sanborn driver, four-way stop signs might be a welcome change, speeding things up without sitting at a red light without a crossing car in sight.
“Sometimes it seems like you sit there forever,” said Cleve Simonson, a local farmer. “We’re all in a big hurry, you know.”
Much of the traffic increase has come from trucks, locals said, and truck drivers will hate coming to a stop because of the extra time and fuel it takes to get the heavy rigs rolling again. But it will also prevent them from hitting the gas on yellow and running through red lights, as some locals said they see too often.
At Gramstad Lumber in town, Jill Gramstad said a lot of customers aren’t happy to hear the corner light is leaving. Many are worried about bad accidents at high speeds if inattentive drivers miss the signs completely.
Some locals have been looking on the bright side, though: If every vehicle has to stop, maybe more will turn in to visit local businesses.
Dairy Queen clerk Sue Imker, who drives from neighboring Lamberton to serve up twist cones and other creamy treats, said she understands how some in Sanborn might feel melancholy about seeing the stoplight go.
“They lost their school. They lost their churches. They lost their grocery store. Now they’re losing their stoplight,” she said. “It’ll be weird. It’s just always been there.”