Craig Curley’s son works with him at Superior Mechanical, but he isn’t allowed to take the nearby U.S. Highway 14 when headed home.
“I have two children that are of driving age, and I don’t let them cross it,” said the majority owner and general manager of the business that is north of the highway near the 60th Avenue intersection.
Curley said he’s lost count of how many collisions have occurred at the intersection with 60th Avenue, commonly known as County Road 104, although it was recently changed to County Road 44.
A five-year count in 2019 put the number at 44, and last month former Olmsted County commissioner James Daley became the most recent person to die as the result of a crash at the intersection.
“We’ve always known something is going to have to change there,” said Mike Schmitz, general manager of the nearby Leashes and Leads. “It’s a treacherous intersection at certain times of the day.”
Like Curley, Schmitz said he’s aware some people alter to avoid the intersection. Using 19th Street and nearby West Circle Drive adds less than 5 minutes to the drive.
Still, he said closing the intersection would likely be problematic, since 19th Street doesn’t have a shoulder and West Circle Drive is congested during peak hours.
It’s one of the risks Olmsted County Commissioner Jim Bier, who lives on 60th Avenue, was pointing to last week when he objected to the idea of closing the median at 60th Street and adding what is commonly known as a J-turn.
Mark Schoenfelder, the transportation district engineer for Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Region 6, said the option -- officially known as a reduced-conflict intersection -- could be an interim step as funding continues to be sought for creating an estimated $40 million interchange at the intersection.
A J-turn requires drivers who want to cross a four-lane highway take a right turn with traffic and then make a U-turn down the road and a right turn to effectively cross the intersection.
Two J-turns were installed in Wabasha last year as part of a U.S. Highway 61 repaving project. Each requires drivers wanting to cross the median to make a U-turn approximately two-tenths of a mile down the road.
Curley said that could be a bit short for Highway 14, especially for his vans that leave the business during peak periods.
“It would have to be a mile up at least,” he said, adding that he’s used the Wabasha turns and traffic is calmer in the area.
“That’s not even a drop in the bucket for the traffic that comes through 14,” he said.
Concerns were heard when the Highway 61 changes were planned, but Wabasha Mayor Emily Durand said few complaints have come her way since the J-turns were installed.
“They are hard to imagine, but once they were in place, they were easy to maneuver,” she said, acknowledging she was a bit nervous the first time she used it.
Now, she said she sees it as a way to reduce the potential for deadly collisions.
“You can still get sideswiped I suppose, but it would reduce the conflict that would be high-speed and T-bone you,” she said.
Regina Mustafa, Bier’s challenger in the Nov. 3 election for the 5th District seat, said using the J-turns could be a compromise until funding for a larger interchange project is available.
“Something needs to be done with that intersection as soon as possible,” said Mustafa, who is a citizen representative on the Rochester-Olmsted Council of Governments, which provides oversight for regional transportation planning.
She said past discussions have revolved around complete interchange construction or closing the intersection, which county officials have said is not an option.
“I would rather see it totally closed than how it is right now,” Mustafa said, adding that formal public input is needed to help make a decision.
An interchange, which would also close the Seventh Street crossing approximately four-tenths of a mile east of 60th Avenue, is estimated to cost $40 million, with the expectation that the state and county would each pay half.
Installing a J-turn would cost much less. In Wabasha, the entire repaving project cost $12.8 million and the intersection changes were part of that.
“They (J-turns) can range from $750,000 to $1.25 million, but the actual cost could get different depending on the design,” said Mike Dougherty, director of public engagement and communications for MnDOT’s District 6.
Kaye Bieniek, Olmsted County’s director of Public Works and county engineer, said the safety modifications could be beneficial, but she worries they could deter from the effort to create an interchange with more safety benefits.
“By eliminating two at-grade intersections, we eliminate 64 different conflict points,” she said.
FUNDING IN WORKS
Funding approval to design a new interchange could come as early as this month, according to state Sen. Dave Senjem.
The Rochester Republican said he’s confident state lawmakers can reach an agreement on providing up to $5 million for the project, if the state’s bonding bill can pass out of the House and Senate.
“It’s like 98 percent done,” he said.
In May, the Senate had approved $25.6 million for a new interchange, but the House didn’t include funds for the project, and the legislative session ended without a compromise.
In later months, House lawmakers agreed to add design funding, but the bill failed to pass due to objections related to emergency powers being used by Gov. Tim Walz in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last month, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she plans to push for passing a bonding bill, which authorizes state borrowing for a variety of projects.
Local residents aren’t as confident as the state lawmakers.
“It’s hard for me to believe they are going to have a bonding bill,” Bier said.
NEXT STEP UNCERTAIN
None of the work is in the state’s 10-year plan, but Schoenfelder said the state could tap federal funds for safety improvements, such as the addition of J-turns.
Additionally, the work could become part of a planned 2029 resurfacing project, but Schoenfelder said any decision will likely wait until after the county completes a study of the Highway 14 corridor stretching west of the 60th Avenue intersection.
Even then, Bieniek said a change likely won’t be seen until 2022 due to the need to secure funding and design any changes.
“It would certainly take a couple of years at a minimum,” she said.