Not all thrilled about overpass

MARSHALL – The intersection of Saratoga Street and Minnesota Highway 23 is both busy and dangerous, Dave Bero and his neighbors agreed. People have known and talked about it for a long time. But Bero said he didn’t realize anything was being done about it until city equipment showed up behind his property.

“It was right after the snow was gone. They were out there taking soil borings, and they removed some trees,” Bero said.

The vehicle tracks and a few tree stumps are still visible along a city-owned shelterbelt on the west side of Saratoga Street, behind Dave and Jessie Bero’s home on East Thomas Avenue. If plans to build a pedestrian overpass crossing Highway 23 are approved, the shelterbelt will be cut down to make room.

That possibility has some neighboring residents concerned. The residents said this week that they’re unhappy about poor communication from the city on the overpass project, as well as the possibility of an eyesore in their neighborhood, and expensive traffic safety features that they fear won’t work.

“We want to make it safe for people to go across Highway 23,” Dave Bero said. But residents said they thought an overpass wasn’t the way.

The city has talked about safety improvements at the 23/Saratoga intersection for years, but details for a project to address them have only started to come together in the past year. Marshall received a $3.5 million grant last summer to help build a pedestrian overpass and reduced conflict intersection, and on Wednesday, city officials got their first look at concept sketches for the overpass. The matter is set to go before the Marshall City Council at its first May meeting.

Some homeowners from the neighborhood around David Drive and East Thomas Avenue, near the planned location for the overpass, said they were just as surprised as Bero to learn about the overpass project. They questioned why they weren’t given more notice.

They also had doubts that a reduced-conflict intersection would stop the collisions and near-misses at Saratoga and Highway 23. Bero and neighbor Dan Vogt wondered if traffic trying to merge into special U-turn lanes on the highway would make things worse.

“I’d question if it’s even the best place for it,” Vogt said of the overpass site. It seemed like more pedestrians try to cut across the highway further north of the Saratoga intersection, he said. “The only good thing about (the project) is it’s going to lower Saratoga Street.” Right now, the roadside ditches near the intersection are very steep.

“Why not have stop lights?” asked neighbor Mary Jo Eick. Traffic lights had to be cheaper to install than an overpass and traffic islands, she said.

Marshall Public Works Director Glenn Olson said Thursday that the difficulty with that proposal lies in Highway 23’s status as an interregional transportation corridor. The interregional corridor is meant to move people and traffic in the most efficient way possible, Olson said.

“That has conflicts sometimes,” with the need for traffic and pedestrian safety, he said. But it also affects factors like the speed limits and access points the Minnesota Department of Transportation may allow for the highway.

Olson said in the past, the city had requested MnDOT reduce the speed limit on Highway 23 in Marshall to 40 miles per hour. The request was denied. Traffic signals at the 23/Saratoga intersection were also not an option, Olson said.

Bero said he didn’t think signals or a lower speed limit were unreasonable for the Saratoga/23 intersection. Highway 23 goes through the cities of Granite Falls and Spicer with a lower speed limit, he said, “And it doesn’t really slow traffic down.”

Bero said an underpass would also be a better choice than an overpass in that location. He said it would be less visible and protected from the wind.

“We get really strong winds out here,” he said. “It’s going to be worse up in the air.”

In the time since the 23/Saratoga intersection was identified as a local safety priority in 2008, Olson said, several possibilities for safety improvements were considered.

“The original idea was for a full interchange at that location,” he said. However, getting the space for the interchange would have meant demolishing apartments and manufactured housing near the intersection. A different style of interchange would have conflicted with existing utility lines and a pond near the intersection, he said.

While it doesn’t completely address traffic safety issues at the intersection, “We believe the reduced conflict intersection was the best way to provide a safer crossing,” Olson said.

A pedestrian underpass, like the one built underneath Highway 23 near Marshall High School and Southwest Minnesota State University, wasn’t feasible either.

“We would want to make sure that an underpass is a safe crossing,” with visibility from one end to the other, and no opportunity for people to hide in it, Olson said. But, he said, designing and building such an underpass at the 23/Saratoga location would mean removing a large section of the highway surface, raising the grade of the roadway and relocating some buried utility lines.

Neighbors of the planned overpass site said they weren’t looking forward to having the structure in their back yards, figuratively speaking. The residents enjoy having views of the shelterbelt and neighboring pond.

“It’s a park-like atmosphere out there,” Bero said. “(An overpass) doesn’t fit in with the neighborhood.”

Bero said in the end, the overpass site – including the shelterbelt and pond – is on city-owned property. However, he and other residents in the neighborhood said they still weren’t in favor of the overpass project. Bero said he brought his concerns to both Olson and Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes, but he wondered how, short of filing a lawsuit, residents could formally object or stop the project.

The project is being publicly funded, he said.

“Shouldn’t there be some sort of appeal process?” he said.

On Wednesday, the Marshall city public improvement and transportation committee voted to recommend the concept design for the overpass and reduced conflict intersection to the city council. Olson said the city plans to hold a public information meeting as well.

If the project moves forward, individual notices about the overpass project may be mailed to property owners being assessed for improvements, Olson said. However, he said there would likely be very few properties that would be assessed.