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Proposed ’roundabout’ stirs concerns in Fairmont

FAIRMONT — Fairmont City Council heard from representatives Jennifer McCoy and Aaron Warford of Bolton & Menk on Monday, with discussion centering on the future of the Downtown Plaza/Blue Earth Avenue intersection.

With a focus on the utilization of a mini-roundabout and reducing traffic lanes, McCoy said switching from four lanes to three has been proven across the nation to improve the safety of traffic corridors.

“They improve safety by allowing those left-turners to get out of the way of through vehicles,” she said. “They also improve safety by narrowing the number of lanes a pedestrian has to cross, and they reduce speeding.”

Councilwoman Ruth Cyphers asked about issues faced by larger vehicles when it comes to mini-roundabouts. Warford said that in mini-roundabouts the center section is only slightly raised and trailers and other towed items can cross over the center without issue.

“What a truck will do is take over the whole intersection,” Warford said. “So the idea is, you don’t have the room to create the big footprint for the tractor-trailer to swing around so you don’t build the median up very high and the truck can just drive over the center.”

Warford reminded the council that roundabouts force traffic to slow down, which is their primary safety feature.

Councilman Randy Lubenow raised constituent concerns about pedestrian safety.

“I guess what I’m hearing from the public is a lot of frustration that we’re looking at putting a roundabout at that intersection, but where most people think we need a roundabout out by the high school on Johnson Street and [Highway] 15, we can’t get a roundabout there.”

Warford said he is not familiar with the history of Johnson Street and Highway 15, but pointed out that cost is a driving factor behind the roundabout improvement downtown. He said the state will not pay to replace existing traffic lights.

On the topic of pedestrian safety, Councilman Bruce Peters said that in talking with Fairmont public works director Troy Nemmers, one idea raised is that of installing pedestrian-activated signals. Known as a rapid flashing beacon, a button would be pushed and a light would flash to alert traffic to pedestrian traffic. Warford said such an upgrade would add a significant level of safety, and is certainly a possibility.

“It does sound like a roundabout is going to happen no matter what,” Lubenow said. “But I think the important thing that I want to emphasize is that pedestrian traffic is what we need to protect there.

“The north side of the Opera House is very dark at night. We need to do something to make that more safe. When I enter a roundabout, I’m not looking for pedestrians and I think a lot of people are that way.”

Turning to another matter, Mark Sievert, interim city administrator, addressed the council concerning an additional half-cent local option sales tax to fund street improvements. The council had previously voted to submit a resolution for the sales tax to state lawmakers, only to receive some pushback from Minnesota House staff.

“I think the biggest concern that I had as we have been progressing with this project was how vague our project was compared to others, that are coming before the Legislature,” Sievert said.

He said he received an email from interim city attorney Flaherty & Hood that stated the pushback is not surprising.

The email states that the House recently heard two similar proposals from Waite Park and Edina that were similar to Fairmont’s. The email also stated that Flaherty & Hood were asked to draft a bill to allow city streets to more generally be allowed for sales taxes, similar to what Fairmont and other cities are hoping to get.

“So discussion is going to continue, and they would certainly be willing to work with [state Rep. Bob] Gunther and [state Sen. Julie] Rosen to get something drafted,” Sievert said. “At this point, I think it makes sense to continue to move forward.”

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