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Fairmont Lake Avenue project: ‘Roundabout’ debated

FAIRMONT — Reconstruction of Lake Avenue has been on the drawing board for many months, and the Fairmont City Council revisited one particular portion of the project Monday.

Scheduled for this year, the $4.8 million project will revamp the stretch of Lake/Blue Earth Avenue from West Fourth Street to South Park Street, revising the thoroughfare from four lanes to two, plus a center turn lane. The area of concern for the council focused on the street’s intersection with Downtown Plaza.

An analysis done by the state determined that the level of traffic does not warrant replacing the traffic signals at the intersection. Different design options were proposed including a flashing light or a single stop sign for northbound traffic by the Fairmont Opera House. After an open house and online public survey to gather feedback from property owners and residents, the design engineers concluded that a mini roundabout was determined to be the safest choice.

After hearing from several residents about their misgivings with a roundabout, Councilman Randy Lubenow brought the topic to the council for discussion.

“I’ve heard a lot of concerns from constituents about the safety for people that are walking across the street,” he said. “I think it’s important to make as educated a decision as we can.”

Lubenow went to St. James to examine the two mini roundabouts in that community and noted that the intersections do not have buildings on all four corners like Blue Earth Avenue and Downtown Plaza. He also has been in contact with Wes Brown, an engineer with Bolton & Menk who is working on the Lake Avenue design, and Troy Nemmers, city engineer/public works director, and the three will be gathering additional safety data about the various options.

“We can’t put a value on somebody’s life. We can’t put a value on somebody’s safety,” Lubenow said. “If we’re not going to spend the money for stoplights, what’s another option?”

Nemmers noted that a corridor study looked at traffic patterns and density as well as pedestrian and bicycle traffic along the proposed construction route.

“That all became factors in evaluating an intersection and what’s the best function at each intersection,” he said. “This is a different animal. It’s certainly open to more discussion. We’ll gather more information on that and relay that to the council so everyone can make an informed decision on the best option.”

Nemmers clarified that although parts of the construction project are eligible for state aid, the money could not be used specifically to replace the existing traffic signals since the state deemed them unwarranted.

“But they’re not telling us what to do at that intersection,” he said.

New traffic signals would cost the city about $200,000 or more, depending on what design controls were incorporated into the lights.

Councilman Tom Hawkins said he too had heard negative comments about the roundabout from constituents but was “conflicted” on the issue because he personally favored roundabouts.

“I’ve been told that the safest thing for that intersection is a roundabout,” he said. “It’s safer than traffic lights. It’s safer than stop signs. That’s the data we need to get to the public if it’s true.”

He said the visual cues associated with a roundabout automatically cause traffic to slow down, much like local traffic slows down in specific areas of Fairmont where there is known to be heavy pedestrian traffic or emerging vehicles.

Nemmers said Bolton & Menk had just received additional safety data that will be compiled and presented to the council and to the public.

“We can never stop accidents, but we can do our best design and hope that doesn’t happen,” he said.

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