McFeely: Pelican Rapids businesses fight MnDOT over roundabouts
City, business leaders oppose changes to main street through lakes country town while state says it's a safety issue
PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — As Kevin Ballard sees it, the city of Pelican Rapids and the state of Minnesota have goals that are polar opposites. And that's led to a scrap over proposed changes to the main road though this Minnesota lakes country town.
"The more I've thought about it, the more it comes down to this," said Ballard, a member of the Pelican Rapids City Council and a local businessman. "They want to move people through town as fast as possible. We want to get people to town and have them take their time, maybe park their cars, get out and check out some of our businesses. That's the crux of the issue."
Up for debate are changes to state Highway 59 as it passes through Pelican Rapids. The Minnesota Department of Transportation is proposing putting in roundabouts at the two main intersections downtown, one where state Highway 108 meets 59 from the west and one two blocks to the south where 108 heads east toward Maplewood State Park. Both intersections are currently controlled by stoplights, which Ballard and other business owners say work just fine.
"I mean, there just isn't that much traffic in Pelican Rapids other than Fridays during the summer and maybe three weekends a year — Memorial Day, Fourth of July and WE Fest," Ballard said.
MnDOT also has a plan to widen the sidewalks on each side of the two-block, business-lined stretch of road in order to make it bicycle-friendly. That would narrow the width of the roadway to the point some believe it would be dangerous because emergency vehicles wouldn't be able to get through if there was traffic.
"I just don't know if the folks at MnDOT have thought through the practical aspects of this," Ballard said.
Everett Ballard, who co-owns Ballard Sanitation Inc. in Pelican Rapids with Kevin, is more succinct.
"They're trying to shove this down our throats," Everett said.
The conflict has led to lengthy meetings and spicy discussion in the Otter Tail County city of about 2,500. MnDOT officials who believed they had plans for a $15 million upgrade of a busy road between Detroit Lakes and Fergus Falls that were supported by local citizens now find themselves trying to assuage several city council members and upset business owners.
"The changes with the roundabouts are with an eye 20 to 25 years down the road. They will make things safer, including for pedestrians. That is a fact," said Shiloh Wahl, MnDOT's district engineer based in Detroit Lakes. "The changes to the sidewalks to provide room for bicycles, that was the desire of the city and the community when we met with them. There were several public meetings and open houses, and this is what the community wanted. Maybe not what some business owners wanted, but the community as a whole."
Because of pushback on the sidewalk plan, Wahl said MnDOT will present an option that would allow for a narrow bike lane on the street, between the traffic lane and parallel parking spaces along the curb.
"The bike lanes are not a deal-breaker for us. We can go with an on-street bike lane if that's what they want," Wahl said.
The other sticking point, though, is non-negotiable.
"There will be roundabouts," Wahl said.
Wahl said calls for keeping stoplights or adding left-turn lanes can't be heeded. Stoplights would maintain the status quo, meaning traffic backups, and left-turn lanes would eliminate too many parking spots along the main drag.
The solution is roundabouts, he said, which will improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety while maintaining parking spots.
"What we've found time and time again is that once the roundabouts are installed and given a chance, even the people most opposed to them say, 'Hey, these things do work. This is an improvement,'" Wahl said.
Ballard and some of his fellow councilmen and businessmen aren't buying it.
"Roundabouts are wrong. ... They are not right for us," councilman and business owner Steve Strand said at a recent meeting, according to the Pelican Rapids Press newspaper.
A recent letter to the editor in the paper compared MnDOT's handling of the street project to vaccine mandates. There are those who see this as the heavy hand of government imposing its unwanted will.
"Unfortunately, MnDOT is going to do what it's going to do," Kevin Ballard said. "It's either get on the train or get run over by it. Every time I wander around town and I see people and ask them what they think, I have yet to find anybody who supports the plan."
Opponents have gathered more than 100 signatures of business owners and other citizens who want to keep Highway 59 the same as it passes through downtown Pelican Rapids.
Pelican Rapids Mayor Brent Frazier is in favor of the project, which will help allay costs to replace city-owned infrastructure like water mains. Without the state redoing Highway 59, city residents would pick up all the costs for infrastructure repair that will be done concurrently with the road project.
"We're hoping this project moves forward," Frazier said. "We've had a very positive relationship with MnDOT the last five or six years. They've been willing to work with us as a community and stick to our wishes, if it fits their standards. We view it as a positive partnership."
Wahl said it's a state highway and MnDOT has a responsibility to provide safe and efficient travel for those using it.
"I've asked the guys from MnDOT, 'Even if the businesses and citizens of Pelican Rapids don't want roundabouts, you're still going to do it?'" Kevin Ballard said. "And they said, 'Yeah, we're going to put them in.'
"I just don't know if they look at the practicalities of their decisions. The engineers get to design the project and complete the project and then they go back to their offices and move on to the next thing. Meanwhile, the people who live here have to live with this for the rest of our lives. It doesn't make much sense to me."
Readers can reach columnist Mike McFeely at firstname.lastname@example.org