Residents air concerns about plans for Bridge Avenue

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 4, 2006

By Kari Lucin, staff writer

Old gripes and new issues both found a hearing at Thursday&8217;s Bridge Avenue Corridor forum at Albert Lea&8217;s City Hall.

The forum allowed community members to air their concerns and ask questions about the tentative implementation plan.

The plan recommends the purchase of 32 properties on the west side of Bridge Avenue from the Freeborn County Fairgrounds to Sheridan Street, and the expansion of Bridge Avenue from a

two-lane street into a five-lane road.

&8220;That road is going to be constructed at some point,&8221; said Sue Miller, Freeborn County engineer. &8220;We&8217;re going to have to rebuild it at some point because it&8217;s not going to last forever.&8221;

Rebuilding the road to be exactly the same as it is now would cost about $15 million, Miller said, whereas expanding it out into a four-lane highway with a turning lane would cost about $25 million, with about $3 to $4 million going toward property acquisition.

The City Council would need to vote before any plan affecting the road could go into action. The tentative draft plan has construction beginning in 2007 and finishing in 2022, but the City Council could set construction to begin much later than that. Property acquisition could either be done in a year or, as some residents advocated, could simply wait until the property changed hands naturally.

The draft implementation plan, produced by Miller and Albert Lea City Engineer Steve Jahnke, states a variety of reasons for choosing the west side of the corridor to purchase and build on.

On the east side, residents have alley access to their homes that west side residents don&8217;t. The west side has deeper lots and construction there won&8217;t run into problems with existing retaining walls. The west side has more rental properties and a higher elevation that might provide extra dirt for construction needs.

Bridge Avenue has become a major safety problem, in the eyes of the two engineers. More crashes occur on Bridge than on any other road in the county, partly because of inattentive or inexperienced drivers and partly because of the 35 driveways leading onto the road.

Some residents are forced to back out onto Bridge Avenue if they want to leave their homes. On a road that sees 10,000 cars go by in a day, backing out can be dangerous. If engineers&8217; traffic projections of 20,000 cars a day by 2025 come true, it could be deadly.

A few of the same residents who back out onto Bridge Avenue on a daily basis did not see a problem with the situation as it is now, or felt that taking property away from residents was unacceptable.

&8220;There are busy times of the day. If you learn which ones they are, you avoid Bridge,&8221; said Adele Hellickson, whose mother lives on Bridge Avenue. &8220;My mother came to this country with nothing. She has a house, she has a dream, she has a home, someplace she has lived for 30 years. And to take that away from her is not fair.&8221;

One resident of Amelia Place simply objected to suddenly having a four-lane highway in her back yard.

&8220;What are you going to do for us, are you going to put up a barrier like they do in the Cities to keep out the riffraff?&8221; said Geri Berg. &8220;I beg to disagree with you on those 20,000 cars a day. I don&8217;t think it&8217;s going to happen.&8221;

The projected increase from 10,000 cars a day to 20,000 is mainly a function in changing driving habits rather than a function of population increase, Miller said. Whether the population changes or not, Miller pointed out that many families have three cars, whereas in the past they would have had one. She also noted the large number of people who commute into Albert Lea, sometimes driving into or out of town eight times in a day.

Miller repeatedly stressed the difficulty of acquiring property for highway projects.

Losing their property was certainly an emotional issue for many of the Bridge Avenue residents.

&8220;So I think you people should really talk to the people that live on Bridge, go down and knock on every door and talk to everyone there, and see how many of them want a four-lane highway in front of their house,&8221; said Paul Sulentic. &8220;They don&8217;t want that. They don&8217;t want you tearing up their front yards.&8221;

Sulentic also took the opportunity to voice his opposition to tax breaks given to Larson Manufacturing.

Though the majority of people who spoke at the forum were against the Bridge Avenue expansion, a few spoke up in favor of the measure.

&8220;We&8217;ve lived there since 1987, and I would hate to lose my home, but I do agree with the board committee that it is a problem,&8221; said Mike Frazier. &8220;We don&8217;t need to have any more accidents on it. We can make a safe bypass through town, and whatever decision is finally made on it, I think we need to accept it.&8221;

The four members of the Bridge Avenue planning committee heard plenty of opinions.

&8220;Whether we end up agreeing with you or disagreeing with you, I can&8217;t tell you that at this point, there are some issues that came up that we will certainly look at,&8221; said County Commissioner and committee member Dave Mullenbach.