Hwy. 5 traffic signals at Lake Elmo Avenue move forward

Johanna Holub
Kaitlyn Roby

Review staff

Slowly, but surely, the intersections of Lake Elmo Avenue and Highway 5 are becoming more pedestrian-friendly.

Washington County, with help from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the city of Lake Elmo, is developing a project to add traffic signals and dedicated right-turn lanes to the two intersections of Lake Elmo Avenue (County Road 17) and Minnesota Trunk Highway 5.

A dedicated right-turn lane will also be installed at Laverne Avenue.

Stop signs are currently installed on Lake Elmo Avenue.

Traffic along Highway 5 does not stop, and the thoroughfare is a popular shortcut between Interstate 694 and state Highway 36.

Lake Elmo officials, residents and merchants have complained for years about drivers speeding through the area.

The proposed signals are intended to help slow traffic through the downtown area, particularly due to the intersections’ proximity to Lake Elmo Elementary School. Cars zipping by at high speeds create problems for students needing to cross Highway 5.

Two steps were taken last week to move the safety improvement project forward on its compressed schedule: the approval of a preliminary design contractor and an open house.

Board awards design contract

At its March 11 meeting, the Washington County Board of Commissioners approved a $119,950 contract with SRF Consulting Group, Inc. to draft a preliminary design plan for the project. SRF is designing the current Manning Avenue (County Road 15) realignment and improvement project as well, and part of the required regional traffic study for that area included the Lake Elmo Avenue and Highway 5 intersections.

Not wanting the information gained from that analysis and design work to go to waste, county board members opted to award the contract to SRF Consulting.

Engineering and construction manager Cory Slagle says the signals will be a “wood pole” system, which is a more temporary system than the installation of traditional steel pole signals.

“When we say it’s a ‘temporary signal,’ we don’t mean we’re going to pull it out,” he explained. “With projects coming up in downtown Lake Elmo and more possible work on Highway 5 ... we may install permanent [steel] poles in the future.”

The “temporary” signals will hang on wires strung between two wooden poles, he added. A similar system is used at the intersection of Lake Elmo Avenue and State Highway 36.

The estimated total cost of the project is $669,500, with the majority of the project being funded by a $462,000 grant from MnDOT’s Cooperative Agreement Program, with an additional $207,500 in County State Aid.

The Cooperative Agreement Program is designed to address local needs on trunk highways and requires the county to lead and deliver the project, including covering the costs of preliminary and final design work. MnDOT’s share of the project covers the cost of construction.

The project is on a compressed schedule, meaning signals could be installed as early as this fall.

“The signals are important and needed,” Slagle explained. “We want to get them installed in 2014.”

Final design plans are slated to be complete in May, with construction beginning in September. Construction is expected to wrap up in spring of 2015.

Open house held

Residents and area business owners offered input on drainage and traffic issues to city and county officials, as well as the contracted engineering company, at an open house at Christ Lutheran Church in Lake Elmo on Thursday.

County employees said residents told them about localized flooding and their support for the traffic signals at Lake Elmo Avenue and Highway 5.

Some homeowners were happy to see safety issues being addressed, while others said they felt their input wouldn’t carry much weight, saying the project details seem to be locked in.

Rick Kubitschek and Kit O’Grady said a lot of decisions seem to be final, and aren’t hopeful their opinion of the project will change anything.

The couple recently paid $13,000 for a new septic system. Once the city’s new sewer line goes in as part of the street reconstruction project, they say they’ll have to ditch the new system that’s supposed to last decades, and then hook up to the city’s system, which Kubitschek said he didn’t expect to be installed anytime soon.

“This is kind of like a bomb to me,” he said. “I love living here, but the city needs to improve some things.”

Some residents noted their yards or basements have been flooded in springtime.

Water gets trapped on parts of the street, too, according to Terry Laidig, who lives near downtown and walks around the neighborhood. She grew up in Lake Elmo, lived in Stillwater for some time, and recently moved back into her childhood home.

“It’s amazing to see the growth,” Laidig said.

She said she’s looking forward to the stoplights going in.

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to get onto Highway 5,” she said.

Additional sidewalks could be part of the project. Laidig noted she can already walk around downtown pretty well, because Lake Elmo Avenue has a wide shoulder.

The city is also considering burying overhead utility lines, which would improve the appearance of downtown, as well as offer more consistent service, according to city planner Nick Johnson.

Estimates weren’t yet available for the price of putting cable lines underground, but burying just the power lines is estimated to cost the city around $276,000.

Project ‘absolutely’ increasing students’ safety

During a resurfacing project on Highway 5 last fall, crews installed a crossing island “refuge” where pedestrians can stop to check traffic while attempting to cross to and from Lake Elmo Elementary School.

Lake Elmo Elementary principal Stephen Gorde says he’s already seen a reduction in traffic speeds. Motorists often used to zip by at speeds of more than 45 miles per hour, he explained.

“The island acts as a natural barrier to slow traffic down,” he said. “I’ve already noticed the traffic coming by the front of the school has slowed down.”

Also during the resurfacing project, the crosswalk leading to the school was shifted closer to the school, a move that Gorde thinks is not only better for students, but the community as a whole.

“We can cross children in a much safer way now. [Before] there was really no crosswalk that was identified as clearly as it is now,” he explained. “Now it’s an access point for the community to cross to use our playground equipment.”

The addition of traffic signals would “absolutely” improve safety at the intersection, Gorde added.

“We’ve got a highway and we’re trying to be a pedestrian-friendly community,” he said. “Those two kind of conflict. But I think it’s a net gain and a benefit for our kids [to add signals].”

Johanna Holub can be reached at jholub@lillienews.com or 651-748-7822. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews. Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7814 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.

 

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