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What to do about the junction of Willow and Hwy 59? -- Safety study underway: is roundabout the answer?

A MnDOT crew drives in legs of a stop sign that will go up at the intersection of Highway 59 and Willow Street, which will become a temporary four-way stop this week. The signs will have blinking warning lights and ?stop ahead? warning signs will be installed. (Brian Basham/DL Newspapers)

When the Long Lake area was annexed into Detroit Lakes and streets were reconstructed after installing infrastructure, the intersection of Willow Street and Long Lake Road ended up with improved alignment.

Rather than the slant across Highway 59 South, the two streets are now perpendicular to the highway and across from each other. That improvement doesn't seem to have solved the issue of traffic accidents in that area, though.

Because of the safety concerns, the Detroit Lakes City Council has asked the Minnesota Department of Transportation to look into the safety of the intersection to see what can be done to improve it.

"As a result, MnDOT is in the process of conducting a study of traffic conditions at the intersection to determine options for improving safety," City Administrator Bob Louiseau reported to the city council.

What goes into a safety study is both current and future conditions, explained MnDOT Traffic Engineer Tom Swenson. Based on the results of that study, MnDOT will then make a recommendation as to what should be put in place at the intersection.

For now, temporary stop signs will be installed in all four directions.

Alignment, hills, turn lanes, stop conditions, traffic counts, turning movement, level of service (delays), crash history and crash severity are several of the aspects taken into consideration for the safety study.

For the long-term, Swenson said basically the same items and costs are looked at -- the options are to do nothing, install a four-way stop, install signal lights, or construct a roundabout.

"After we've done that, we weigh everything, and we're considering the alternatives, and then determine a direction to go," he said.

Although roundabouts aren't as well known in this area, or even in this country, they are catching on. For example, approximately three miles west of Interstate 29 on 52nd Avenue South near Fargo is a new roundabout.

If an intersection is signal-ready, a roundabout is often more expensive to construct. But, they are safer than a traffic signal, can handle a greater traffic flow, and once installed, they have no electronics or other upkeep except that of a typical highway.

The case of Highway 59 South and Willow Street is very similar to what was identified at the County Road 6 intersection a little further down Highway 59, Swenson said.

That intersection is now controlled by traffic lights, complemented by free-flowing right turn lanes and left turn lanes.

That model could be copied if MnDOT determines that traffic signals are the way to go for the Willow Street intersection as well.

"At that location, we did run into some wetlands," he said of County Road 6 and Highway 59 site, "and because of the swamp excavation -- and we would probably have the same thing up at Willow -- something like that would bring the cost up probably closer to a roundabout. It's certainly a possibility, and we certainly don't want to discard it."

There are five cities in the 20-county area with a population over 5,000 -- Moorhead, Morris, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls and Alexandria -- where other intersections are being looked at as well. Continued growth causes more traffic and a need for improved safety measures.

Swenson pointed out that four-way stop signs are actually safer than any other means of controlling traffic. Motorists from each way must stop, therefore slowing all traffic.

The downside is the congestion they cause for that same reason -- everyone has to stop.

"Under the peak events we have here in Detroit Lakes, like WE Fest and the Fourth of July, I've talked to law enforcement and they may need to direct some traffic out there," he said. "Or instead of having traffic backing up on the side streets like we do now, you could have some backing up on the highway during those peak events."

He added that the influx of traffic during the summer in Detroit Lakes would cause "unacceptable" amounts of backed-up traffic with four-way stops, thus the need for signal lights.

Airport Road and Highway 10 West is a prime example of an intersection where traffic signals were installed, but there continues to be accidents on a regular basis anyway.

"A lot of times you hear from a community or individuals that 'we have to get a signal up to make it safer.' In some cases it does, but oftentimes you are still relying on people not making mistakes," Swenson said.

"If everybody followed the rules, signals would be safe, but as we all know, that doesn't happen all the time."

Major accidents and fender benders at the Airport Road and Highway 10 junction have been minimal until this year, which has seen an upward trend in accidents.

"That is actually kind of representative of what you can find at signals," Swenson said.

Once the plan of action is determined, costs for any improvements will be split between the city and MnDOT, "based upon the construction required within their respective right of ways," Louiseau said.

Swenson said the safety study should be ready for review this fall.