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Landowners plan fight against road realignment near Weaver

December 27, 2018

WEAVER — “If it ain’t broke,” Jim Johnson said, “don’t fix it.”

Johnson, who lives and farms near the unincorporated town of Weaver in Wabasha County, referred to the intersection of Wabasha County Road 26 and Minnesota Highway 74.

On Dec. 11, the Wabasha County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 – Commissioner Mike Wobbe, whose District 4 includes the town and the intersection, voted no – to realign the intersection. The decision was met with opposition by individuals who live near the junction of the roads or have used them for decades.

Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsch, who has spent his entire 31-year law enforcement career in Wabasha County and has served as sheriff since 2003, said the intersection is a model of safety as is. In fact, he said, there has never been a fatal or even serious crash at that intersection, echoing Johnson’s adage to leave it alone.

“It’s not an area we get called to for any concerns,” Bartsch said.

What’s the change

If you visit the west side of Weaver, you’ll find the intersection where Minnesota 74 and County 26 meet. Highway 74 rises slowly from the south before curving gradually to the east toward Weaver. Just outside of town, it is met by County Road 26 which, after heading down a steep hill for roughly three-quarters of a mile from the west, takes a sharp turn at the end where traffic is controlled by a stop sign.

The realignment approved by the county board would straighten County Road 26, remove the stop sign and reverse the gentle curve at the end of Highway 74. Traffic would then be controlled on Highway 74 with a stop sign as it intersects with a “T” into County Road 26.

According to traffic counts, County Road 26 sees about 300 vehicles per day, or slightly more than a car every five minutes. Highway 74 sees less traffic, with roughly 75 cars per day, or roughly one vehicle every 20 minutes.

“I think that intersection is fine if left alone,” said Wobbe, a county commissioner. “I like the idea of cars coming to the bottom of that hill there (County Road 26) and coming to a stop sign. Now you change that intersection and you won’t have a stop sign at all, it’ll be a modified race track, I’m afraid.”

Why make a change?

Wabasha County Engineer Dietrich Flesch and Minnesota Department of Transportation District 6 State Aid Engineer Fausto Cabral agree that the reason for the realignment is to improve safety at the intersection.

“The proposed new geometry will be a benefit to the state highway 74 because it is expected to make the intersection safer,” Cabral said.

The new alignment, he said, will generate a more “normal” and predictable intersection that gives drivers a clearer expectation of what to expect.

“Currently, (county road 26) comes down the hill and ties in with (highway) 74 on a skew,” he said. “There is potential for drivers on (county road 26) either not being able to stop in time, due to them being on a grade, or with those drivers seeing the paved Highway 74 nearly straight ahead and then not seeing the stop sign.”

Flesch said a speed limit sign would be added up the hill on county 26, and Cabral added that while the current stop sign at the bottom of county 26 can be missed, the speed limit will be followed if law enforcement plays a role in compliance.

While consideration of a change to the intersection goes back to his predecessor, Flesch said his own experience driving through the intersection led to his review of the site. Because a paving project was needed, he said, he looked into issues such as intersection alignment, culverts, width and side slopes of the road.

Also, there was a need to seek “participation from MnDOT,” Flesch said.

MnDOT will fund roughly 69 percent of the $453,000 project under the agency’s Local Partnership Program. However, MnDOT’s participation comes with restrictions, including that the the project must “provide a clear benefit to the trunk highway system as well as to the local community.”

The wrong change?

Wobbe said a big part of the reason for the realignment is the requirement by MnDOT to make a positive change to the state highway. As the county looked for funds to repave the intersection, it also went looking for grant funding that could make that happen and limit the budget impact to the county.

“MnDOT donates toward these road projects, but at the end of the day you’ve got a whole different road,” Wobbe said. “It starts with our highway engineer. Where it intersects with a state road, he looks to capture state funds because the funds are available.”

But while Flesch and Cabral – and four of five county commissioners – like the realignment, a host of others see it as a bad idea.

Bartsch, for example, said that if safety is the main reason behind the realignment, why didn’t MnDOT or the county highway department talk to anyone who literally picks up the pieces from poorly designed intersections every day.

He pointed to a November 2007 crash that took the life of James Welby of Wabasha. Earlier that year, the county board changed a four-way stop at the intersection of Wabasha County Roads 2 and 25 north of Elgin, making the intersection a two-way stop.

At the time, Elgin Fire Chief Don Benike predicted someone would die at the intersection after the change. He wasn’t alone. Bartsch said the change would lead to more and worse crashes.

Flesch’s response to criticism at the time was to cite the Minnesota Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as a reason for the change. “Stop signs should not be used for speed control,” he said then.

Bartsch said both then and now, the highway department did not consult the sheriff’s office or any other first responder groups to get their input on the road. “I’ve never gotten consulted about any road changes in our county,” he said.

“I get really frustrated about decisions that get made when we have to deal with the consequences,” Bartsch said. “I think they need to listen to the people that live in that area. They should the sheriff’s office so we can see if any deputies have any concerns.”

Undoing The Deal

Johnson and Paul Wotzka, whose property sits at the intersection, both own land that the county would need to acquire for right of way in order to realign the intersection, and both said they have no intention of selling to the county regardless of the price. Both said they are ready for an eminent domain fight.

In Johnson’s case, the land is part of the farmland he uses to make a living. “I’ve paid taxes on this for years,” he said. “No matter what they offer, I’m never going to get that money back.”

Plus, he said, realignment will make it more dangerous for school buses that use the intersection to turn around. “They’ll be backing onto (CR) 26 as cars are coming down that hill,” Johnson said.

Paul Drenckhahn, who lived uphill on CR 26 for many years, said the crooked end of CR 26 was put in place with the purpose of making vehicles slow down at the bottom of the hill as they approach the stop sign. Removing the sharp turn of the road and stop sign would allow vehicles – regardless of any posted speed limit – to cruise, unimpeded, into Weaver.

Wotzka added that drivers on CR 26 would be able to look across the valley to see if any vehicles were approaching on Hwy. 26, allowing them to speed toward the town if they don’t see any traffic.

In a letter to the county board, Wotzka repeated Johnson’s adage about fixing what isn’t broken.

“The Minnesota State Patrol has long warned that ‘Speed Kills,’” he wrote, adding that the realignment will increase the speed of vehicles passing driveways and cruising into Weaver. For nearly $500,000, the project, he said, is a waste of money that will lead to a waste of lives.

“We believe that there are far better uses for taxpayer funds than a roadway project on low-traveled roadways with an exemplary safety record,” he wrote.

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