Highway 68 under the lens as well

MARSHALL – Traffic and safety issues on area highways has long been a topic of concern and debate for area residents. While it seems like Minnesota Highway 23 often gets a lot of the attention, residents and commuters who travel along Minnesota Highway 68 are also speaking out this week.

The first of two community meetings about Highway 68 took place Monday afternoon in Marshall. A small group of area residents attended to share their concerns about the highway running from Marshall to the South Dakota border.

The meetings are part of a collaborative study by the Highway 68 Corridor Coalition, the University of Minnesota Extension, and the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota in Morris.

“We’re trying to focus the lens a little bit,” and see what residents’ most pressing concerns were, said Neil Linscheid of the Extension.

Safety issues were a major concern on Highway 68, area residents said. The road is a major route for commuters heading to and from Marshall, as well as for trucking and agriculture. Mike Henle and Deb Boulton, two residents with homes along the highway, described the morning and evening “rush hours,” with lots of vehicles traveling north and south.

“It’s just a string of cars,” Henle said.

Cal Brink, director of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce, said commuters have become a big segment of the area population.

About 50 percent of all jobs in Marshall are held by people who live outside of Marshall, he said – and Highway 68 serves a lot of people who commute to town.

Making matters worse, they said, the road has a very narrow shoulder or no shoulder. There’s no room to pull over, and the tight quarters can make passing risky, too.

Boulton said she’s seen vehicles attempt to pass multiple cars at once, which can be dangerous. Residents said vehicles turning onto or off of the highway at intersections are also in a risky position.

“We clearly have a safety problem because there are no shoulders,” said David Sturrock, chairman of the Marshall Area Transportation Group. Fifty or 60 years ago, that was less of a problem, because the highway wasn’t a heavily-traveled commuter route, Sturrock said. “Of all the roads going into Marshall, 68 has it the worst.”

Residents’ safety concerns matched up well with statistics Michael Lindgren of the Center for Small towns had prepared using MnDOT data. In the past 10 years, there have been 146 accidents on Highway 68. More than a third of those accidents caused injuries. Up to 1,850 cars a day travel on Highway 68 between Canby and Minneota, and up to 4,000 cars a day travel between Minneota and Marshall.

Linscheid and Lindgren also asked about public transit needs in the Highway 68 Corridor. Cathleen Amick, director of transportation at Community Transit in Marshall, said the corridor was an underutilized route for public transit. However, she said there would be some challenges in developing it more. Three different public transit services, from Lyon County, Lincoln County, and the Prairie Five group, serve residents in the Highway 68 corridor. Making more use of bus service on Highway 68 would likely involve coordination amongst the three transit services.

The other big challenges would be getting enough riders to make the service worthwhile, and figuring out pickup and dropoff locations that would work for commuters trying to get to their work shifts.

Residents said some positive developments along Highway 68 have included the construction of acceleration lanes and turn lanes near Marshall and Lyon County Road 33. More passing, acceleration and turn lanes could be a big improvement for safety, they said.

One challenge to addressing those concerns is working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s plans for Highway 68, Brink said. In the past couple of years, the highway has been resurfaced between Marshall and Porter, so it doesn’t seem likely that MnDOT will widen the roadway in the near future. However, Brink noted that area residents could still give feedback that might affect plans for the highway. For example, he said, if aging bridges and culverts are replaced with wider ones, some of the groundwork might be laid for a wider Highway 68.

Area residents also gave Linscheid and Lindgren ideas on how to reach more people in the Highway 68 corridor. Suggestions included using direct mail or mailing lists, and approaching local governments and businesses.

Area residents who want to add their feedback about Highway 68 can attend a second community meeting at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Lindgren said. The meeting will be in the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce meeting room, located at the Chamber office on Main Street.