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Rochester speed limit proposal fuels divide

City Council scheduled to take up issue in December.

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A speed-limit sign alerts drivers on Tuesday, August 18, 2020, along 11th Avenue Northeast in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
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Emotions surrounding the potential for changing residential speed limits were on display during a brief exchange between two Rochester City Council members Monday.

Council President Randy Staver and council member Michael Wojcik raised questions over each other’s potential wrongdoing amid discussion of a possible compromise related to a proposed ordinance change and policy on the speed limit issue.

When Wojcik suggested the move could find approval from five or six council members, Staver questioned whether he’d been talking to them outside an official meeting.

“That, sir, is a leading question, and I’m not playing that game with you, so please proceed with the meeting,” Wojcik said.

“No. That’s a serious question, because if this has been discussed offline with a majority of the council members, then I have a real objection to that,” Staver responded, later suggesting he’d discuss the issue with City Attorney Jason Loos.

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“No, I haven’t, Randy, and get back to work,” Wojcik said, later alleging that Staver had advocated for his cousin’s business during a previous meeting.

The flare-up died down as quickly as it sparked, but it echoed the fact that an August proposal to lower the city’s residential speed limit to 20 miles per hour throughout the city has divided the council and community members.

The proposal by Public Works staff came a year after the Minnesota Legislature gave cities the ability to set their own speed limits within provided guidelines, rather than adopting the 30-mph state limit for residential streets.

The proposal would reduce speed limits on nearly 64% of the city’s streets — primarily residential streets — to 20 mph, while reducing others to 25 mph and keeping others at 30 mph.

“These are the quiet, low-traffic residential streets,” Sam Budzyna, Rochester’s traffic and parking manager, said Monday about the streets proposed for the lowest speed limits.

During his presentation, he pointed to a survey of 313 residents, which indicated that 63% of them were concerned about the potential lack of enforcement connected to the proposal.

At the same time, 62% of survey respondents said they liked the fact that the proposal would increase safety for pedestrians and bike users.

“I didn’t see that there was overwhelming support in the community to make a change,” Staver said of the overall survey results.

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Budzyna said adopting lower speed limits will allow the city to design streets for slower speeds, while helping discourage people from driving 35 mph or faster in residential neighborhoods.

Council members provided a variety of preferences but started to settle on a plan to set a default speed limit at 25 mph, with support for designing future residential streets with a 20-mph limit.

Public Works Director Wendy Turri said she and her staff will discuss the options to see if any concerns exist, especially connected to the suggestion that residents could petition to have the speed limits on their streets adjusted to 20 mph.

The council has already passed a proposed ordinance change to grant the city engineer oversight regarding speed limits, but the move requires a second vote, which is slated for Dec. 14.

During the same meeting, the council plans to hold a public hearing on the issue and consider potential changes, which could include establishing a policy that sets a default or minimum speed limit.

Assistant City Administrator Aaron Parrish said city staff will plan to present the council with alternatives to the original proposal.

“Our goal would be to bring you something at that meeting that’s comprehensive,” he said.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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