WALKER -- Highway 371 through Cass and Crow Wing counties should carry traffic at an average speed of 55 miles per hour.
Development in these counties and related additional accesses onto the highway are cutting that travel speed and, therefore, time, meaning it could thwart economic development rather than help it.
This is the message Minnesota Department of Transportation officials from St. Cloud and Bemidji brought to a public hearing Thursday night in Walker.
Terry Humbert, St. Cloud-based District 3 engineer, and Craig Colseth, Bemidji-based District 2 engineer, said MnDOT's goal is to move people through this area without safety hazards, because visitors think of travel as time, not miles.
Visitors come and boost the economy in this vacation area, they said. When there are more stops and starts and more slow speed areas, they will think of their trip as taking longer and will be less inclined to come.
While Ace Hardware, located in a new building last year north of Walker, wants direct access onto Highway 371, others attending Thursday's meeting noted hazardous travel areas south of Walker, caused by too many accesses in a 55-mph zone.
One woman said a survey of 180 residents between Walker and the Y junction of Highways 200 and 371 by Northern Lights Casino drew 100 responses.
Those residents cited fast speed as their top concern, curves in the road next, passing in no passing zones next and the high risk for making left turns as the greatest hazards in this stretch of road.
She described one five-vehicle accident at her driveway.
Greg Ravenhorst, who owns a business and home in this area, said he limits hours in the summer when he permits semi-trailer trucks to enter his business, because of the high risk in heavy traffic for making left turns.
He also said he has waited as long as three minutes to make a left turn into his driveway. Some of his business trucks have lost right rear view mirrors to vehicles passing too close on the right shoulder as the trucks waited to turn left.
Skip Duchesneau of Walker said a portion of that 55-mph section of highway between Walker and the Y junction actually is inside Walker city limits. He suggested lowering speeds.
Humbert said MnDOT sets speeds generally by speeds motorists travel through an area. When people see open spaces, they tend to drive faster.
This is the case in the area Duchesneau cited, he said.
Humbert said he hopes MnDOT's cooperative planning with the Cass-Crow Wing Highway 371 corridor land development planning effort now under way will address these issues before more of the corridor is developed.
He encouraged planning land development to cluster new construction around single accesses onto the highway. MnDOT will see it as more cost effective to provide left turn lanes and signal controls at a clustered access, he said.
He said the lineal development along a highway such as what has taken place through Baxter is the least desirable for through traffic movement.
Bob Goggleye represented the Leech Lake Reservation to describe the convention center, hotel, larger gaming operation and child care facilities the reservation hopes to build with a $30 million loan at or adjacent to Northern Lights in the next year.
It is in a task force planning stage now, with a possible completion date for 2001, Goggleye said. A construction manager could be hired by the end of this month, he said.
Current MnDOT projections for traffic at that Highway 371 and 200 junction that call for traffic to increase from 8,000 vehicles a day in 1998 to $13,700 a day by 2020 do not consider the casino development next year, Humbert said.
Goggleye said traffic concerns there will be as much a part of the reservation's planning process as sewer and water services. He encouraged MnDOT to work with the reservation on this planning.
Humbert said that while projections for 2020 traffic through that area, not counting casino development, would qualify the junction for a double lane highway, terrain and wetlands south of Walker will make that improvement extremely expensive if not impossible.
Rural Hackensack resident Fred Martin, who has lived in the area many years, suggested MnDOT give more attention to bypassing Walker by moving the highway south of the Y junction and Walker.
The old highway before Highway 371 was improved in the 1930s did go farther south of Walker, Martin said.
Hackensack City Council member Larry Ciha asked whether a semaphore was being considered at the Y junction. Colseth said MnDOT has seen semaphores only change the type of accident occurring rather than preventing them.
He said there may, in fact, be more rear end accidents after a signal is installed than there were right angle accidents without a semaphore.
Each situation has to be studied carefully, he said.
Martin objected to the growing number of billboards in Cass County. "No one has addressed this since Ladybird Johnson," Martin said.
When Humbert referred this issue to local zoning officials, Cass County Environmental Services Director Paul Fairbanks said there have not been additional billboards added in Cass beyond a mile of each city since zoning laws were extended countywide in 1997.
Fairbanks encouraged those filling the Cass County Courthouse meeting room Thursday to watch area newspapers for notices about committees to be formed to work on Highway 371 corridor planning this year.
"What happens on the highway has a major impact on land use," Fairbanks said.
The Cass County Board approved last Tuesday hiring a planning group to coordinate the Highway 371 corridor plan. Fairbanks will seek Crow Wing County Board approval next Tuesday.
If that approval is given, Fairbanks said, the Highway 371 corridor plan will begin immediately, with citizen input encouraged throughout the process.
The goal is to implement that plan by the end of this year, he said.
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