Two major intersections near Forest Lake Area High School will be redesigned and rebuilt next year in an effort to reduce traffic congestion and provide safer pedestrian access to the school, under a plan recently endorsed by the City Council.
The $8.7 million project calls for a pair of roundabouts to replace two lighted intersections along Hwy. 61, which connects twice with Hwy. 97 within a half-mile stretch near the high school. The city of Forest Lake will contribute $600,000 to the work.
"We're doing this to improve the traffic flow in the area, reduce delays and congestion and provide better pedestrian accessibility," said Denise Workcuff, a spokeswoman for MnDOT, adding that the roundabouts will allow motorists "to get through the intersections easier and actually quicker."
City officials signed off on the project after repeatedly expressing concerns about crashes and the safety of students and other pedestrians at the intersections.
Those concerns have become more pronounced in recent years as more traffic has been funneled through the area with the reconstruction of Broadway Avenue, a major thoroughfare to the north, the opening nearby of Forest Lake's City Center, which houses most city and public safety departments, and the continued residential growth.
"We're seeing a lot of development out in that area of the metro and we see that happening even more in the next 20 years," Workcuff said.
Of particular concern is the south intersection, where 30 crashes reportedly occurred between 2012 and 2014, MnDOT said.
The unusual configuration of the two highways is largely to blame for the congestion.
Motorists traveling east or west on Hwy. 97 must briefly drive along Hwy. 61's north- or southbound lanes before continuing along Hwy. 97. Under the redesign, those motorists will no longer have to cross Hwy. 61 traffic lanes, which should improve traffic flow, MnDOT said.
Buses moved off Hwy. 61
The redesign work also calls for reducing congestion near the school by building a driveway alongside Hwy. 61 for buses taking students to school.
Construction of a pedestrian bridge over Hwy. 61 near the north roundabout and improvements to pedestrian crossings are also part of the plan.
Mayor Stev Stegner said the project's primary benefit is providing student pedestrians safer ways to cross the highways, particularly after school when many walk to downtown Forest Lake.
"The other real advantage is that the school buses won't end up being stacked on Hwy. 61," Stegner said. "Getting the school buses off of Hwy. 61 will definitely help the congestion and the potential for accidents once they start stacking up on 61."
Pre-construction work is expected to begin this fall with little to no effect on traffic, Workcuff said. The bulk of the work will take place in the summer of 2016, resulting in lane closures and forcing drivers to seek alternate routes.
Hwy. 97 bridge needs work
In other action involving traffic issues, City Council members also approved a resolution in February supporting reconstruction of the heavily-used Hwy. 97 bridge over Interstate 35.
The resolution supports bills before the Legislature that seek $25 million from state bonding proceeds to replace what it terms "an outdated two-lane bridge over I-35, which has long suffered from deferred maintenance and is insufficient to meet even the region's existing needs, let alone future needs."
"The city of Forest Lake would love to see a better bridge in that area," Stegner said, adding that morning rush-hour traffic is often backed up nearly a mile east of the interchange.
Stegner said congestion is expected to ''only get worse" based on Metropolitan Council projections that show Forest Lake doubling in population over the next 10 to 15 years.
"It would be a challenge if they decided to rebuild the bridge the same size," he said.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is email@example.com.