PEQUOT LAKES - As early as December, the Pequot Lakes City Council could decide which route an expanded Highway 371 would take through the city.
Whichever route is chosen - along the current highway or a bypass east of the city - the city council's decision will likely be a controversial one.
About 100 people attended an educational forum on the Highway 371 expansion project, sponsored by Brainerd Lakes Chamber, Thursday night at Pequot Lakes High School.
While no comments were taken from the crowd, people had the chance to submit written questions. Concerns included project costs, property taxes with a bypass, access and safety. One person asked why residents couldn't vote to decide a route. Mayor Cathy Malecha said state statute didn't allow such a question on a ballot.
"Otherwise it would have been put on a referendum," Malecha said. "That was one of the first things we wanted to do."
Motorists traveled Thursday along Highway 371 in Pequot Lakes. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Tim Bray, Minnesota Department of Transportation project manager, gave a brief presentation on a project that has been five years in the works.
"This is the last part before the council's vote," Bray said.
In 2004, the Pequot Lakes City Council passed a resolution supporting a four-lane Highway 371 along its current path in downtown Pequot Lakes. Bray noted this alignment was adopted as the preferred route by MnDOT.
However, in 2006, the city council decided a four-mile bypass east of downtown should be studied. An Alternate Route Study Group, consisting of city council and planning commission members, took testimony at several meetings this year and determined there were no outstanding issues that would inhibit construction of a bypass.
Not everyone agrees. A unsigned flier passed out at Thursday's forum decried how businesses and private land would be affected by a bypass.
"It's a bad plan, unsafe, costly and looping around town is a longer trip," the flier stated.
Chris Etzler, transportation coordinator with Region 5 Development Commission, noted a study that indicated 25 percent of the bypass would be available for commercial use and would be a benefit for the city overall. Businesses along current Highway 371 would decrease in value.
Although the council has passed resolutions for both alternatives, Bray noted they are only conceptual at this point because the council has not passed a binding resolution, meaning their decision cannot be changed by future councils.
"This has been the most challenging project so far for me. I understand the challenges and some of the problem areas we have out there," Bray said. "I think a lot of folks in this crowd just want a decision."
Originally slated for construction in 2010, the Highway 371 four-lane expansion project from Nisswa to Pine River has a tentative construction start date of 2015 or 2016. The impetus behind the project, according to MnDOT, is safety and mobility improvements. The estimated cost of the entire project is $90 million.
Pequot Lakes residents are not alone in their concerns about the project.
In Nisswa, negotiations between MnDOT and the city have revolved around the final location and design of Crow Wing County Road 18 and other access points. Discussions of the final design layout of the Crow Wing County Roads 29/107 intersection are ongoing pertaining to environmental impacts and project costs.
In an associated project in Jenkins, plans for a temporary signal at Crow Wing County Road 16 are moving into the final design phase. The installation of this traffic signal system is currently planned for the spring or summer of 2008, MnDOT reported. Public input related to the reconstruction of Highway 371, which will run through the city, is ongoing concerning access points to the new industrial park and service road.
In Pine River, relocation of the historic Pine River Depot will be required before the reconstruction of Highway 371 through Pine River. MnDOT is working on securing the property needed for the relocation and has hired an architectural firm to develop plans for the move and exterior restoration of this structure.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.