By Jordan Gerard
Editor, The Caledonia Argus
Waiting is perhaps the most frustrating part of trying to wrangle answers out of a state thrown into chaos by a pandemic, but the City of Hokah is eager to act on improving the safety of pedestrians on State Highway 16.
With two fatalities in 2019, one personal injury accident, one car off the road and property damage accidents all within a 50-foot area, the city is asking to change the speed limit and enforcement on the highway coming into Hokah (from the intersection with State Highway 44/76 to the end of city limits near 10th Street).
The suggested speed limit in that area is 45 mph, however it’s not enforceable by police.
The city’s first resolution of 2020 was to ask the state to conduct studies to consider lowering the speed limit. The highway’s speed limit is also slated to increase to 60 mph.
Shortly after the resolution was passed and a similar one passed by the Houston County Board of Commissioners, Hokah officials including Police Chief Bob Schuldt, Maintenance Department Head Matt Vetsch, City Clerk Lindsey Martell, council members Cindy Pfiffner and Don Bissen met with Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) and Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) staff including Director of Public Engagement and Communications Mike Dougherty and Traffic Engineer Mike Schweyen on Jan. 17.
“The city attendees did not feel at this meeting that the state was interested in lowering the speed limit and in fact, they spoke of the area being slated for an increase to 60 mph,” Schuldt said.
City officials and Schuldt strongly discouraged increasing the speed limit to 60 mph, in which MnDOT agreed to hold until they were able to look at studies and data, Schuldt and Pfiffner told the Argus recently.
Minnesota has strongly promoted its “Toward Zero Deaths” program and state officials conveyed this during the meeting, however the city pointed out there have been three accidents in a 12-month period, two of which were fatal.
Recently, chevron signs were installed, but thecouncil agreed they’d like to see rumble strips installed to warn drivers to slow down. MnDOT felt those would be “too noisy because of homes in the area,” Schuldt added.
“The state was concerned about the noise and it being in a residential area, that also was addressed at the city council level and we the city are ok with that install for safety reason[s],” he said.
In between four months worth of regular council meetings, updates have been few and far between.
Emails between MnDOT, Miller’s office, council members and Schuldt show many requests for updates throughout February, March and April, but with little results.
MnDOT Director of Public Engagement and Communications Mike Dougherty said Traffic Engineer Mike Schweyen was “developing a plan and checking on resources and crew schedules to make a determination on what could be done and when.” That was said on April 9.
Dougherty said Hokah’s case for road improvements was under review. In addition to the chevrons that were installed, MnDOT is “arranging for a striping crew to freshen up the striping and possibly widen the stripes,” adding another visual cue for drivers.
As for the rumble strips, MnDOT is looking to add a centerline and shoulder rumble strip in 2021.
“Our traffic office has been reviewing what can be done and has several changes in the works that are focused on alerting drivers to the changes in the road to adjust their speeds and bring about behavior change,” Dougherty said in an email to the Argus.
Other construction projects around Minnesota have begun and lighter traffic volumes due to the stay-at-home order have helped construction move along faster.
Dougherty said work crews are maintaining physical distance when possible, and doing more frequent and thorough cleaning and disinfecting on high touch surfaces like equipment and tools.
What’s more, the department is evaluating the appropriateness of, and discussing with the state traffic engineer whether the posted speed limit can be reduced. The state traffic engineer approves speed authorizations.
“Our central Traffic Office has been considering and discussing our current methods for evaluating and determining posted speed limits,” Dougherty added. “Various different approaches and methodologies were discussed at a national transportation research conference in January.”
Since the last few emails in April, nothing else has been heard, Schuldt reported to the council on May 5. Council members expressed frustration that no concrete plans or details have been communicated to them yet.
“Someone has to do something,” council member Jerry Martell said.
The council also planned to consult with City Attorney Skip Weiser to see if they had precedence over the state because the portion of the highway was in city limits.
With warmer weather and a stay-at-home order, more and more people have been walking along the highway, which in fact was designed with a paved walking shoulder when it was recently redone.
“Residents should feel safe and have the right to walk through the city limits of Hokah,” Schuldt said.
If people do walk along that stretch of highway, he added reflective clothing is a good option no matter what time of day and also ensuring people wear enough reflective gear. They should also walk against traffic.
It’s also the most popular and natural route for pedestrians, no matter where they live in town, Schuldt said.
“Anyone can walk out of their home, begin their walk, and this naturally loops residents on the paved area of Highway 16 and through town and around,” he said.
Other options include walking on the Root River dike, through Como Falls, a path behind the ball field that leads to Twin Creeks and a path behind Seven Rivers Surplus where there is a utility trail and access.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from its previous print version.