CANNON FALLS — After receiving a long-awaited access study for U.S. Highway 52, the Cannon Falls City Council and business owners expressed their frustration with the Minnesota Department of Transportation during Tuesday's council meeting.
"It's going to be a ghost town," Save Cannon Falls Chairwoman Joyce Falink told the city council and three MnDOT representatives in the crowd. "If they can't survive now, how are they going to survive in two to four years?"
MnDOT opened a $14.3 million interchange this fall just south of Cannon Falls. The new interchange also allowed MnDOT to close two at-grade access points and remove the final two stoplights between Rochester and the Twin Cities. Critics say the loss of at-grade access to U.S. 52 has cut off about 20 businesses from their former customers.
The owner of Subway, located on the east side of the highway, said her sales are down more than $16,000 per month since the at-grade access was closed in October 2014. The owner of Cannon Power Sports, on the west side of the highway, said floor traffic is down 25 percent — in addition to being subjected to negligent plowing and reduced police patrols, which has led to two vehicles being stolen in the past 30 days.
Both expressed frustration with the situation. And there doesn't appear to be a solution in sight. Any potential fix is projected to be two to four years away.
Falink recently submitted a petition with nearly 2,000 signatures asking MnDOT to consider reopening at-grade access to the isolated businesses through a right-in, right-out intersection. Cannon Falls Mayor Robby Robinson told MnDOT the current arrangement has "cut off a whole portion of the city" and created "an island."
A report released Friday after nine months of review and analysis suggests the city's request is feasible, but expensive and unlikely. One of the biggest concerns is a right-in, right-out configuration would increase crashes by 25 percent, and they're "likely to be severe due to the speed." MnDOT also would have the authority to close the access if it was deemed a safety hazard.
MnDOT engineer Jeffrey Vlaminck was direct and succinct in his analysis of the report.
"It'd be very unusual for us to go forward to create an opening at an access we just closed," Vlaminck said. "The traffic study doesn't change our position. We still don't support opening an access at this position."
MnDOT officials further noted it had been planning this interchange for years, conducting more than 30 public meetings that sought feedback from citizens and public officials.
Cannon Falls officials countered by claiming the initial MnDOT proposal included an overpass across U.S. 52 where the old Cannonball truck stop was located before funding was "yanked away," according to a city council member. Multiple city officials said the money was instead used to help build the $34 million interchange in Pine island, which was described as "the bridge to nowhere."
"Our bridge will go somewhere," Robinson said. "It won't be a bridge to nowhere.
"We're kind of in the middle of the two places that get everything (the Twin Cities), and Rochester gets everything else. If this was Minneapolis or St. Paul or in Rochester, this would probably get done a little bit faster than if it was in Cannon Falls."
Multiple business owners asked the city to approach the Mayo Clinic, which just opened a new $28 million facility in Cannon Falls, for financial support. Others asked for a definitive timeline to continue the dialogue between city officials, citizens and business owners.
Robinson told them a timeline remains unclear, but a special city council meeting may be scheduled in the near future to discuss the city's options in great detail.
"I know you guys are struggling down there, but we're going to keep working hard," Robinson said. "The cart and the horse are meeting up at this point, and we have to get it moving."