Officials to mull Bridge Ave. width

Published 3:30 pm Saturday, December 13, 2008

Members of the Albert Lea City Council and Freeborn County Board of Commissioners will soon consider the future of the highly controversial Bridge Avenue corridor.

During a meeting Thursday with current and incoming members of the council and the county board, city and county staff expressed a need to know what the intentions of the two entities are as to whether to keep Bridge Avenue as a two-lane road, or to develop it into a three-lane or four-lane road.

Staff said they need to know because deadlines for some prime federal funding opportunities are approaching in Februrary. The opportunities relate to funding during the next five years.

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History of the issue

City Manager Victoria Simonsen explained that in August of 2004, the city and county started to get together and talk about what should happen with the Bridge Avenue corridor. The road, which is officially named Freeborn County Road 22, is a county highway that runs through the city limits. That means both the city and the county have a role in its renovations.

It is currently a two-lane roadway with turn lanes at some key intersections. Current traffic volumes on the street are approaching or at capacity levels for a two-lane roadway, and safety has become a major issue there.

In January of 2005, an open house was held to seek input about the issue concerning what sort of usage and outlook the public had for the corridor, Simonsen said. There were also advisory meetings with citizens, and then later that year the Bridge Avenue study that was conducted by SRF Consulting Group came to a conclusion.

An implementation plan was proposed, and in 2006, the city and county met to discuss the plan and how to pay for it, she said. In the spring of 2007, the county decided to initiate no parking along the road, and in June of 2007, the city and county rehired SRF Consulting to lay out more road options and costs associated with the project.

Through most of the winter of 2007 and the spring of 2008, SRF has been conducting additional studies and has come up with more results, Simonsen said. The city and county received those in the fall, but decided to wait until after the election to bring the new councilors and commissioners up to speed.

“We’ve been working on this for several years and have not gotten very far,” the city manager said. “It’s costly for both the city and the county, but it is a vital corridor.

All involved need to look at how to prevent future traffic problems along that corridor and how to plan for redevelopment, she said.

What are the options?

Brad Larson with SRF Consulting Group Inc. — who is also the former county engineer in Scott County, one of the fastest-growing counties in Minnesota — made a presentation to the elected leaders that gave a background about the problems with the corridor and what his recommendations were for the development on it.

He said the consultants looked at three different design types for the road: a modified two-lane road, a three-lane road and a four-lane divided road, in addition to a no build option.

They went through different evaluation criteria with each design type to see which would be best. The most critical criteria, he said, was to provide adequate capacity.

Larson said in 2005, there were traffic counts done on different segments of the road: from Marshall Street to Richway Drive, Richway Drive to Hammer Road, Hammer Road to Hershey Street, and Hershey Street to Interstate 90. From those traffic counts and from historic trends on the county highway system, the consultants were able to project what the traffic volumes would be on the road in the next 20 years.

The capacity for a two-lane road is 10,000 vehicles per day, and already the current average vehicles per day is right around 10,000, he said. The segment of Richway Drive to Hammer Road was just above 10,000.

The projected 2025 average daily traffic volumes for three of the segments were above 17,000, he pointed out, which is the capacity for the three-lane design. And these projections are low.

Because of the way the economy is, Larson said that whatever the group decides, it better be something it will want to keep. Though the current standard is to replace a road every 20 years, that might end up being more like 50 to 100 years.

The consultant said he was born in Albert Lea, and both of his grandparents were born and raised here. He’s seen how Albert Lea has developed in the last 50 years.

“You think the people back then envisioned this would happen — this kind of growth, this kind of development and what it has come to?” he asked.

He also shared some of his experiences as Scott County engineer.

Larson said if Bridge Avenue were to be reconstructed into a two-lane road, it wouldn’t be able to handle the demand in 20 years. The three-lane road even won’t be the ultimate answer, he said.

The design-type recommendation was the four-lane road, he said.

“From the results of the study it was very clear that the recommendation for the design type is that when Bridge Avenue is reconstructed it should be a four-lane divided urban design,” he said.

It’s the only design type that needs to be constructed just once and is able to handle traffic for the realistic life of the roadway (50-plus years). And it is the only design type that right-of-way acquisition is done only once, he said.

‘This is a time we haven’t seen in Minnesota before’

He talked of multiple federal funding opportunities that are coming up in the next few months related to authorizations in the coming years. Albert Lea is in a good position to get those funds with 1st District Congressman Tim Walz on the House Transportation Committee. There’s also a possible federal infrastructure economic stimulus bill that could be coming.

“This is a time we haven’t seen in Minnesota before and probably not a time you’re going to see again,” he said.

To move forward and apply for this funding, however, all the players involved — including the city, the county, the commerical district, the Chamber and the taxpayers — need to be at a consensus. A Congressman won’t fight for funds if he thinks he’s going to get caught in a fight, he said.

“What you have to do as a county and city is show them that you support this and you have a clear idea of what you want to get done,” Larson said.

Based on 2007 construction costs, he presented the councilors and commissioners with costs for the options.

A two-lane urban road is estimated to cost $7.4 million; a two-lane urban modified road would cost $9.6 million; a three-lane urban road would cost $12.1 million; and a four-lane urban divided road would cost $20.6 million.

Freeborn County Engineer Sue Miller said the project could be done in several phases, “a chunk here and a chunk there” even over 20 years.

“The big question for you guys is unless we have that vision and direction, it’s hard for us to go after that funding,” Miller said. “Every year we wait and let it collect dust. That’s another year. At some point we need to make a decision.”

She said if she needs to go after federal funding, there are several key studies that have to be done before the money is given.

What should people expect?

Second Ward Councilor Larry Baker asked if he was hearing right that the consultants would recommend a four-lane road.

“If you were sitting down and actually going before the community at a community meeting and someone asked which you’d recommend, you’d say the four lane?” Baker said.

Larson responded by saying, “To me it’s a no brainer. You wouldn’t do anything less than that … You need a road that’s going to meet the demands for the next 50 years.”

Fifth Ward Councilor John Severtson said after the last time the Bridge Avenue corridor situation was brought up he got comments from all sorts of people on that road asking if they should fix up their houses or if there’s a possibility they would get torn down.

“The people who own the houses are nervous,” he said.

That is exactly why the councilors and commissioners need to give city and county staff a direction about where they want to go, Simonsen said.

“As soon as we get some direction, we’ll let them know,” she said. “Until we know what to tell them we can’t give them answers.”

First Ward City Councilor Vern Rasmussen said in his opinion the four-lane road is obviously the choice that should be picked. But if it comes with such a high price tag, he thinks the city has other infrastructure needs that need more improvement.

“When you’re looking at no idea where the money falls, how do you make that decision to move ahead,” Rasmussen asked.

Simonsen said if the councilors and commissioners gave an indication that they wanted a four-lane road, staff would put together a plan for it. If funding is not obtained in the upcoming opportunities, the project would probably take longer to complete.

Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever said a public hearing will be scheduled in early January about the issue and there will probably be another educational meeting for newly-elected officials.

Then later in January, he said, he thinks both the council and county board will consider resolutions approving the go-ahead of a certain plan.