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Highway 34 in Park Rapids won't become an 'Autobahn'

Five lanes of asphalt now divide Park Rapids, tempting speeders and already prompting concerns from businesses about snow removal. (Sarah Smith/Enterprise)

PARK RAPIDS - The new superhighway that bisects Park Rapids won't become Hubbard County's "Autobahn."

That's the warning from Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers. As soon as the last traffic cones came off the construction lanes Friday, opening up a wide expanse of blacktop for the first time, drivers were already zipping through town at high speeds.

"They think it's just an extension of the highway," Eilers said. "People come in and stay at 35-40 (mph). It's wide open and you don't realize it changes."

The speed limit is 30 mph through the city. It rises gradually as drivers head toward the outskirts of town east and west.

Department of Transportation crews will install the speed limit signs throughout the week, and police will begin patrolling it soon, Eilers promised. Some signs are already posted, but not enough to warn drivers that the municipal speed limit differs from the highway limit.

"We'll start hitting it with radar and issue a few tickets and people will get the message," Eilers said. The department will also position an electronic signboard along certain stretches of the roadway warning drivers of their speeds. He said that usually gets drivers to slow down.

Just like the western stretch of the highway that opened last year, Eilers said drivers will need to be indoctrinated to the fact that wider lanes don't mean faster travel. Law enforcement officers from several departments conducted extensive speeding campaigns on the western edge of Park Rapids through the spring of 2008 to educate drivers.

"I've actually had some people tell me they want the speed limit lower down there and I tell them I can't change that," he said. "That's a state issue. They do their traffic surveys and then put their signs up."

The five-lane road has already prompted concerns other than speeding. Because many businesses on the south side of the roadway are much closer to the sidewalk and the street, snow removal could be problematic, one business owner said, declining to give his name.

Businesses could be buried by plows.

"They're gonna have a lot of snow up on their sidewalk," Eilers agreed. "The city does plow the sidewalks so they'll come through with their skid loaders and plow that right off," he said.

Karen Bedeau, public affairs coordinator for DOT, said the department was meeting Monday in Park Rapids to discuss those very concerns. Because Highway 34 is a state roadway, DOT is responsible for maintaining it.

Where the snow is piled "will depend on the kind of snow event we have," she said. "Two or three inches isn't going to be a problem. But something like we got last April..."

Park Rapids was inundated by more than 45 inches of snow in a short period of time during April 2008, causing mountains of snow piles to line the roadways.

Eilers said Main Avenue is plowed by pushing all the snow into the center of the road, where it's then blown or hauled away.

"The state usually pushes it off to the side," he said. "I don't foresee them doing what we do on Main."

Bedeau said DOT has five snow plow drivers stationed out of the Park Rapids office. "Each snow event we'll see what happens," she said.

For now Eilers is concentrating on aspiring Nascar racers. All that blacktop may prove irresistible to the lead-footed.

He acknowledged that at times, traffic has been flowing at 50 mph through the city. Drivers accustomed to traffic backlogs may mistakenly assume the race is on.

Another reason to keep speeds down is to protect bicyclists from speeding motorists. The new highway has bicycle lanes on each side.

"We'll try to be as visible as we can out there," Eilers said.