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Major U.S. Highway 71 project begins in June

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The two-year, $13.5 million reconstruction of U.S. Highway 71 South should begin June 14, state Department of Transportation officials say.

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Utility work has already begun from Lueken's South to the U.S. Highway 2 bypass, and bids for the major road construction will be let May 7, Bill Pirkl, MnDOT district traffic engineer, said Tuesday.

In the end, Highway 71 will be reconstructed with multiple lanes from Lueken's South to Hubbard County 9, mandating a new bypass bridge and traffic routing at Horace May Elementary School.

"About 10 years ago, MnDOT started a process of turning Highway 197 and Highway 71 into an expansion project," Pirkl told members of the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club. "As the process has gone alone, there has been changes to it. We went from having a three-lane road in town to now having a five-lane road now in town. We went from having a two-lane road south of town with a bunch of left-turn lanes to now a four-lane divided road."

Originally, bids were to have been let in December, but that was delayed due to complications, he said. "At the same time, that's given us the opportunity to get the utilities moved up front."

Doing that allowed for a more aggressive construction schedule, he added. "Once we get in there and start tearing up the road, we hopefully can get out of there that much faster."

The project will be staged from north to south, with some work delayed to 2011, Pirkl said.

5-lane urban road

Highway 197 will become a five-lane road with curb and gutter - two lanes each way and a center turn lane - from County Road 50 to just north of the Highway 2 bypass bridge at Calvary Lutheran Church, where it will become a four-lane divided highway, he said.

"The urban portion of the project we're going to build under traffic," he said. Two-way traffic will run down the east side of the road while the west side is being reconstructed. When that's done, then the sides will switch.

"We going to use a construction bid process called A plus B," Pirkl said. "It gives the state the ability to expedite certain portions of the project."

The A portion of the bid is for raw materials - dirt, culverts, all that is needed for construction, he said. The B portion allows the contractor to bid how many days the project will take.

A study showed that construction will cost the traveling public and the business community $4,000 a day to have the road under construction, he said. If the contractor bids 100 days, then that's $400,000. A plus B are added together to determine the best bid, with a balance sought between A and B.

Another contractor could bid 75 days, but could have much higher materiel costs.

The winning bidder's days becomes the goal, Pirkl said, with a $4,000 a day bonus for every day sooner than the bid days the project is done, up to $100,000, and $4,000 a day penalty for every day over the goal.

"We've put together a rather aggressive schedule, and we anticipate the work in town to be completed by mid-September to early October," he said.

The five-lane road will fit under the state Department of Natural Resources trail bridge, he added. "It'll be tight -- don't open your door when you go through there."

The city of Bemidji is incorporating city sewer and water work along with MnDOT's road wsork, said Larry Randall, MnDOT project supervisor. "They will be replacing some water services, some hydrants, extending their water main and sanitary main down south past the trail bridge for future use."

No traffic lights are planned for that section, which will have a 35 mph speed limit when the project is done, moving a current 50 mph zone farther south.

A four-way stop will be used this summer at the intersection with Carr Lake Road, Pirkl said.

Roadwork under the trail bridge will be difficult, he said, and the contractor may want to close the road during the a night to work on it.

The project splits at Calvary Lutheran Church.

"We are going to be constructing a four-lane divided highway at that point," he said.

Businesses near the bridge, a campground and Bluewater Bait and Valu Smart, will have a road built to the back side which will be turned over to Bemidji Township when done.

On the other side, the current Fenske Welding property wil become a pond and support a different style of turn lane onto U.S. 2, Pirkl said. A high-speed right-turn lane will allow traffic to enter the on-ramp at 35 mph.

New U.S. 2 bridge, divided highway

A new Highway 2 bypass bridge will be built to the east of the existing bridge, he said. The new bridge will carry northbound lanes and the existing bridge southbound lanes.

At Calvary, new northbound lanes will be built while the existing roadway will carry southbound traffic. That plan will carry through Highway 71 South past County Road 2 and North Plantagenet.

"Ultimately, we would have liked to have done that all this summer, but we're still working out the details with the school (Horace May)," Pirkl said. "We've come to a consensus, so we will hopefully get that constructed next summer."

As of now, the only signal planned on the stretch is at the off-ramp from U.S. 2, Pirkl said. "That's the only one that's warranted."

If the Pinnacle Mall development ever materializes, County Road 402 or the Oak Hills Road could see a traffic signal, he said. "Signals are reactive and not proactive. They are a false sense of security for the traveling public; we have more accidents after a signal is put up than prior. A signal is a last resort."

County Road 402 would be the primary access should development occur, he said.

Construction through that area "should have minimal impact on the traveling public," Pirkl said.

County Line Road will see a better access into Highway 71, he said.

People wanting to cross the divided highway to homes will have to take a cross-over point; there will not be center turn lane. "You'll have to do a U-turn," he said.

Transition south

A transition will occur just south of the County Line Road, where the divided highway turns into a five-lane road with center-turn lane, Pirkl said. "That's because there is a lot of left-turn movements to the greenhouse and the residences.

"It will be just a short stretch of five-lane undivided and then we'll be back down to our two-lane road you see out there today," he said.

That segment south to Hubbard County Road 9 will be done under detour, he said. Traffic will be detoured to County Road 2 for 1 mile to the west to County Road 98, down 3 miles on County Road 98 to County Road 9, and then 1 mile back to Highway 71.

Hubbard County will be working on County Road 9 this summer, and that work needs to be completed prior to MnDOT sending detour traffic on it. "We will not be sending detour traffic until around July 12," he said. The portion of road should be completed by Sept. 2.

"We want the road detoured until they've got it completely done all the way up to striping everything, so that when they open it up, it's a turn key and we can just go," Pirkl said.

A center-turn lane will be built along the last mile of the project, where more businesses are located, he said. The existing roadway will be widened 6.5 feet on each side. "We had to move a lot of driveways down there because of that center-turn lane."

The project ends about 1,500 feet south of County Road 9, where a left-turn lane begins for northbound traffic.

"There were about five intersections that drove this project," Pirkl said, listing off County Roads 2 and 9, Oak Hills Road, Carr Lake Road, and the stretch along the Bemidji Industrial Park.

"Those are our biggest safety areas," he said. "We've had a number of accidents at these county roads, and one of our biggest accident clusters is in front of the Pioneer."

The bridge won't be complete this year, so Pirkl estimates the project should be completed by June 15, 2011. Left would be the roadwork around Horace May, with the full project completed by fall 2011.

The average daily traffic count is around 9,000 vehicles, Pirkl said, "which kind of set the threshold for the project, with more traffic south of the bypass than there is north of the bypass, by about 1,000 vehicles.

"This is a needed project, a four-lane rural divided highway is statistically the safest highway that's out there," he said.

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