LITTLE FALLS -- Highway 371 from Little Falls to Camp Ripley is one of the deadliest stretches of road in the state.
The fatality rate is three times higher than that of the statewide average for other Minnesota highways.
On Wednesday, Minnesota Department of Transportation engineers met with concerned Little Falls area residents to present preliminary plans to upgrade the dangerous roadway, slated for construction in 2005-2006.
The project is considered the third segment of a three-stage plan to reconstruct Highway 371 to a four-lane roadway between Little Falls and the south junction of the Brainerd bypass. The entire 19.2-mile corridor will be upgraded between 2003 to 2006 at a cost of approximately $42 million to $50 million.
MnDOT has hired a Twin Cities engineering consulting firm to help develop the project's Environmental Impact Statement, a process that will take two years to complete. The EIS will examine all environmental impacts and map out alternative routes for the new four-lane highway.
The project is complicated by the intertwined Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks that end near Camp Ripley. The camp uses the tracks about four to six times a year and has expressed a continued need for the rail link. MnDOT project manager Roger Risser said the possibility exists that the proposed Northstar commuter rail project could be extended from the Twin Cities to Brainerd and those tracks would be needed. So far, plans have been made to look into a commuter railway system from Minneapolis to Rice.
MnDOT engineers will be examining several alignment alternatives for the Little Falls to Camp Ripley roadway. The alternatives include:
-- Widening 371 to the west and keeping the road west of the railroad tracks.
-- Widening 371 to the east while also shifting the tracks to the east.
-- Realigning 371 to the east of the tracks.
Another alternative may be to reconstruct the tracks west of the Mississippi River. Fletcher Creek will also need to be realigned with a new channel under the roadway when 371 becomes a four-lane highway.
Several Little Falls residents were opposed to realigning 371 to the east since they felt it would disturb a tree farm and land used for various environmental projects as well as the bluffs area that includes homes and the sacred burial site of Chief Hole In The Day.
An east realignment could also mean the current four-lane segment north of Little Falls may be abandoned by MnDOT and turned over to the city, a move that could provide considerable cost savings since the bridge would not need to be rebuilt. That four-lane segment will be almost 30 years old once the road project is constructed in 2006 and would likely have to be rebuilt, said Risser. Some residents were concerned that if MnDOT abandoned that segment, money that was used to built it would be wasted. They were told the four-lane rtoad and bridge would last 50 years, said one audience member Wednesday. Others were concerned about traffic noise, truck accesses, agricultural impacts and the possibility of future recreational trails.
No decisions on which alternatives to use for the 371 reconstruction project will be made until after the EIS process is completed in two years. Additional public meetings will be held this summer or fall.
Project information will appear on the MnDOT District 3 Web site in the future at www.dot.state.mn.us/operations/d3. There is no data on the site yet.
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