After a long couple of months, Washington Avenue is open to traffic again, including two new mini-roundabouts at Willow Avenue and North Shore Drive.

The $3.4 million South Washington Avenue Project ran into steep headwinds in the form of some brutal October weather, which slowed down the work by several weeks and added about $50,000 to the overall project cost, said Detroit Lakes City Engineer Jon Pratt.

“Tuesday evening we got it opened up to traffic,” Pratt said. “The project is substantially complete, but some work will carry over to next year.”

After several weeks of bitter October weather, and facing a “horrific” 10-day forecast, Pratt said, the decision was made to focus on getting the streets passable for the winter. That meant putting in some temporary pavement and other shortcuts and putting off completing the project until spring.

“We’re probably looking at a two to three week closure in early spring,” to finish up, Pratt said.

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That includes replacing the temporary pavement and finishing up streetscaping and landscaping, especially around the North Shore Drive mini roundabout. That area will see colored and textured concrete on crosswalks, the central island, and a pedestrian plaza at the southeast corner of the intersection -- as well as boulevard and median landscaping and decorative lighting. The intersection, after all, is meant to serve as a grand entryway to the City Beach area.

The city had hoped to largely complete the South Washington Avenue Project by the end of October, but below-freezing temperatures ended that plan: Workers had to lay down, take off, and move around loads of the big insulated blankets needed for fresh concrete at those temperatures, a time-consuming task. And mixing the concrete was more difficult, requiring hot water for the mix, for example. Plus workers just needed to take time to warm up, he said.

“The contractors kept their heads down and plowed ahead,” Pratt said. “It would have been easy to say ‘we’re out of here, we can’t work in this,’ but they stuck with it.”

Contingency funds will cover the extra cold-weather costs, and the project is still well within budget, Pratt said.

Don't get rambunctious on the roundabouts

As part of the project, a mini-roundabout has replaced traffic lights at Willow Street, and another mini-roundabout has replaced a stop sign at the North Shore Drive T-intersection.

The mini-roundabouts seem to be popular, Pratt said. “I’ve heard nothing but positive comments about them,” he added. “I’ve actually polled people on them -- do they like them? Do they not like them? If there are issues, we want to get them identified and work on them,” because the city is considering incorporating roundabouts in future projects, he said.

“The construction company has had people roll their windows down and say ‘I love it,’ when going through the roundabouts, he said.

But the mini-roundabouts can be a challenge until drivers get used to them, he said. “Old habits die hard -- you do need to yield when you enter them,” Pratt said.

And because the circumference is much smaller than the full-size roundabouts on Highway 59, people need to slow down, Pratt said. “Really slow down, and yield to that traffic that comes around the circle . . . they are maybe a little challenging compared to the larger ones. You don’t know when that car is coming. You need to make that determination before entering.”

Still, the new roundabouts do improve traffic flow, he said. Motorists don’t have to wait for the traffic light during slow times, and traffic isn’t backing way up on Willow Street and blocking approaches during busy times, like after school, Pratt said.

The mini roundabouts can be a puzzle for truck drivers, one of whom hit one of the ornate new streetlights when the Willow Street roundabout first opened.

“A large southbound semi took a right hand turn and totally smoked a brand new streetlight,” Pratt said. The driver was inexperienced and didn’t realize that mini roundabouts are designed to allow large trucks to pass right over both the center island and the approach berms, Pratt said. “The most challenging part is educating drivers of large trucks,” he added.

The mini roundabout at Willow Street not only helps with traffic flow, it is $250,000 to $300,000 cheaper than a new set of traffic control lights would have been, Pratt noted.

Roundabouts are also safer than intersections controlled by signal lights. If accidents do occur, they tend to be fender-benders and not more dangerous crashes. “Safety is one of the biggest benefits of roundabouts,” he said.

But motorists have to learn to slow way down, look for traffic, and yield properly before entering. To reinforce that message, the city has placed big electric signs, or “dynamic message boards,” on Willow Street for motorists heading into the mini-roundabout.

The South Washington Avenue Project involves rebuilding the avenue from Willow Street south past North Shore Drive, and includes the Willow Street intersection, the alley just west of Washington Avenue, and a short section of Forest Street between Washington and Lake Avenue.

The resulting avenue is a 44-foot wide roadway, with 12-foot traffic lanes and 10-foot parking lanes. Like the rest of downtown Washington Avenue, there are 6-foot sidewalks, with colored and stamped concrete used for the 3-foot area behind the curb.