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County talks bonding for future highway projects

Becker County Highway Engineer Brad Wentz points to a map of the county's five-year road improvement plan at a public meeting held Tuesday afternoon at the courthouse. Photo by - Nathan Bowe

Becker County may consider issuing bonds to pay for highway projects.

Board Chairman Larry Knutson said Clay County is going that route, and it could make sense for Becker County as well, for several reasons:

• Interest rates are low and that makes it inexpensive to borrow money. The county has a very low debt load and a good credit rating.

• It's expensive to reclaim roads, and the county will save a lot of money by overlaying them before they deteriorate to the point of having to be rebuilt.

• And construction costs tend to go up -- so it's less expensive to do the work sooner.

The county has been struggling to keep up with needed road projects, and has been putting extra money into highway projects the last few years.

That extra money could be used to make bond payments, Knutson told commissioners and others at a public hearing on the county's five-year road plan Tuesday evening at the courthouse.

"I think that's a great idea," said Becker County Highway Engineer Brad Wentz.

"We do have quite a few needs in the county," said Commissioner Barry Nelson. "There are so many needs and it's not going to get better."

Commissioner John Okeson noted that the last time the county bonded for highway projects was in the late 1960s and early 1970s "when we did a lot of reconstruction projects," he said.

The discussion came at the end of the meeting, which laid out road construction plans for the next five years.

On the construction agenda for next year: A group of overlay projects in the southwestern part of the county.

They include County Road 6 (from County Road 15 to County Road 1) and County Road 1 from Highway 10 southward.

Also, a section of County Road 5 north from the Otter Tail County line and projects on County Roads 138 and 147. Paving and grading North Tower Road is also included.

In 2014, Washington Avenue in downtown Detroit Lakes is scheduled to be redone, in similar fashion to the North Washington Avenue project.

There are also four reclamation projects set in the Frazee area, on county roads 150, 118, 134 and 29. Two of the less traveled paved roads (118 and 150) will revert to gravel.

Also in 2014, a stretch of County Road 14 (between County Road 7 and County Road 13) in northwestern Becker County is scheduled to be reclaimed and paved. A project is also set for a stretch of County Road 44 in northeastern Becker County.

In 2015, mill and overlay work is scheduled for a group of roads in southeastern Becker County, including parts of 33, 43, 45, 36 and 47.

The highway department likes to group road construction projects together when possible to make them more attractive to contractors, who can do the work more cheaply that way.

In 2016 there are four reclamation and paving projects set, for stretches of county roads 18, 16 and 14 in northwestern Becker County and County Road 134 in the southwest corner.

In 2017, several roads northeast of Detroit Lakes are set for overlays, including parts of county roads 25, 32, and 26 and also 131 near Floyd Lake. There are possible annexation plans for the County Road 131 area, so that project has been put in the 2017 plan to avoid having to tear up the road again if city sewer and water go in.

A roundabout is being considered by MnDOT for the Highway 59-County Road 22 intersection. (County Road 22 leads to the Detroit Country Club and Shoreham.)

The roundabout would cost an estimated $1.8 million and the county would be responsible for about $800,000 of that, Wentz said.

He noted that there is not enough funding for everything in the 2017 plan. "Something will have to come out," he said.

"How about a roundabout?" asked Commissioner Nelson.

"I am opposed to a roundabout there and will not support paying that as a commissioner," he added.

Roundabouts need to be designed to handle extra-long or oversized loads -- perhaps with a gated road through the middle, he said. Otherwise they become an obstacle to truck traffic and economic development.

"I would not have supported the Willow Street roundabout either," he said.

Wentz said roundabouts are a great safety feature and can be designed to handle oversized trucks.

All five commissioners attended the meeting, and Wentz fielded a few questions from about a half-dozen people.

One man asked about requests to pave County Road 48 northeast of Osage.

Traffic counts have never quite reached the level to justify paving that stretch, Wentz said. "We really try to look at the traffic volume," he said. "We like to see 200 cars a day or more to be paved."

A MnDOT count on County Road 48 had 120 cars on one end and 175 on the other end.

The county's count was a little lower, since it found some extra driving had been going on over the counting devices.

Another question concerned County Road 139, which will be turned back to Burlington Township, as was always intended after County Road 54 was improved and paved, Wentz said.

The turn-back is a two-year process, but can be done sooner if the township accepts payment from the county in lieu of maintenance work.