MnDOT finds new ways to reach public during pandemic as Hwy. 23 J-turn project in New London remains on schedule

West Central Tribune / Shelby Linrud / Sept. 26, 2020 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is still attempting to educate the public about the state Highway 23 safety improvements planned in New London even though COVID-19 has put a stop to in-person meetings. A J-turn is set to be constructed in 2022. A virtual open house website has been set up with videos and information on the project, as well as the opportunity for the public to reach out to MnDOT with questions or concerns. The last in-person open house on the project was held in March, just a few days before the coronavirus shutdown took place.

A virtual open house for the Highway 23 South Gap project starts July 13. Construction to complete a four-lane section on Highway 23 from New London to Paynesville is expected to begin in 2023. At a March 12 open house in New London, interested residents view display boards on the state Highway 23 J-turn project planned at the intersection with state Highway 9 in New London. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has now posted a virtual open house on the project, to continue its public outreach during the coronavirus pandemic. 

NEW LONDON — Only a few days before COVID-19 began shutting down most of the state in March, the Minnesota Department of Transportation District 8, based in Willmar, held a public open house in New London. The topic was the safety improvements at state Highway 23 and state Highway 9, where MnDOT is planning on constructing a J-turn in 2022.

Six months later MnDOT is still reaching out to the public regarding this and other transportation projects, even though in-person open houses or meetings are discouraged due to the pandemic. 

"Obviously in the current state of COVID, we have to find a different way to reach out and engage with people," said Mandi Lighthizer-Schmidt, director of public engagement with District 8.

MnDOT's answer is to hold virtual open houses on its website, offering the public the chance to learn about projects, ask questions and share their concerns about those plans. Such an open house is now online for the state Highway 23 New London J-turn Project, available on the project website

"We are really dedicated to provide information to people," Lighthizer-Schmidt said.

In regards to the Highway 23 project, MnDOT wanted to provide answers and information to members of the public who had raised safety concerns about the J-turn project and whether it was the correct direction to go. 

Part of the virtual open house are several videos about the project, as well as testimonials from people who have experience with J-turns, including Art Benson from Willmar. Those videos will also be released on the District 8 social media channels over the next few weeks.

"I encourage people to watch the videos," Lighthizer-Schmidt said. "They do a really good job of summarizing the questions that we got back in March."

The Highway 23 project is the result of a 2017 safety assessment of the intersection of Highway 23 and Highway 9 to find a safer alternative for the divided highway intersection, which has been the site of nearly 2 dozen crashes, one of which resulted in a fatality.

The study found a J-turn would help decrease crashes and their severity, be faster to build than most other options and be far less expensive than an intersection with a traffic light or an interchange. According to MnDOT data, J-turns reduce fatal crashes by 70 percent and injury crashes by 42 percent.

"The J-turn does a tremendous job in reducing, greatly reducing severe injury and fatal crashes. We know that from the data, we know that from J-turns we have installed," said Mark Klema, MnDOT project manager, during the March 12 open house. "We have seen a dramatic drop-off in injury and fatal crashes.

These aren't garden variety intersections. Those 40 intersections are some of the worst intersections in the entire state."

For the vast majority of traffic traveling through the Highway 23/Highway 9 intersection, nothing will change with the J-turn. Only those who are turning left from Highway 9 will see a difference. They will first have to turn right, then move into the left turn lane to make a U-turn to go complete the movement through the intersection. The J-turn will reduce the amount of traffic to which drivers will need to pay attention while they make their turns.

 

In addition to the J-turn, MnDOT will also construct dedicated left turn lanes on Highway 9 for the Country Stop and Concrete Products of New London, bump-outs and a mid-block crossing median to help pedestrians between 75th Street Northeast and Third Avenue Southeast, repair the retaining wall along Mill Pond Bridge and replace the sidewalks between First Avenue Southwest and Second Avenue Southwest so they meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

Kandiyohi County is planning to realign County Road 40 to connect directly with state Highway 9 and construct a pedestrian underpass beneath state Highway 23.

The J-turn is estimated to cost around $2.1 million and the Highway 9 improvements another $200,000. MnDOT received special federal safety funds to complete the project. The realignment of County Road 40 and the pedestrian underpass will be paid for and constructed by Kandiyohi County.

MnDOT will continue to prepare the construction documents for the project into 2021. Construction on the project, both the state and county portions, is scheduled to begin in 2022.

Throughout the process MnDOT intends to keep the public up to date and involved. For the next few weeks, the public can post comments or questions about the project online in the virtual open house. MnDOT will respond to those queries. 

Since starting the online open houses in March, MnDOT has seen a surprising amount of participation, Lighthizer-Schmidt said. One for a project in Granite Falls had 1,000 views. Even when in-person meetings are allowed again, MnDOT will probably continue to provide online resources.

"We are realizing that face-to-face is important but these online, virtual events will become part of the mix," Lighthizer-Schmidt said. "It works for people's busy lives."

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