Bemidji City Council hears update on Highway 197 plans

Jan. 24—BEMIDJI — The

Bemidji City Council

heard an update on the Minnesota Department of Transportation's plans to reconstruct the Highway 197 corridor in Bemidji as a part of its work session on Monday.

The plans for the highway have been a point of contention in the past, with MnDOT's original proposal, which included six roundabouts, failing to gain council approval in 2019.

That initial vote failed 3-4

after several businesses along the corridor had raised concerns about the project's disruption.

Following the council's decision, MnDOT drafted alternatives to the original proposal, including the current plan which was

approved by the council in December 2021.

The design, which the council received an update on during its meeting, includes three roundabouts: at the Menard's entrance, at Middle School Drive and at Hannah Avenue. The timeline for its construction is set for 2026.

"The plan is going to take a couple of years to put together," said Matt Upgren, a project manager with MnDOT. "Substantial completion is the goal in 2026."

Upgren informed the council that the project was entering its design stage and that once a full plan was in place it would come before the city for final approval, likely in the fall of 2024.

In August 2022,

MnDOT was awarded an $18 million grant

for the highway's reconstruction. The total cost of the project is estimated between $18.5 and $20 million.

MnDOT's original plan faced pushback from several businesses along the corridor, so the organization has made a point since the failed vote in 2019 to include community input in its process.

"A lot of collaboration with the public and stakeholders has gone into this," Upgren shared. "This is going to be a full reconstruction, (so) that's going to be pretty invasive."

Because of the scale of the project, MnDOT has reached out to each of the businesses along the highway. It also set up a community panel as a way to increase public involvement.

These steps were appreciated by those on the council, in particular by Ward 4 Councilor Emelie Rivera, who emphasized the importance of community engagement

"(This project) is community input that's been received and turned into action," Rivera said, "that's really been important to me."

Other council members shared that they still had concerns about the project, both in its design and its process.

Ward 2 Councilor Josh Peterson, who voted against the current plan in 2021, explained that he was still worried about the suggested roundabout on Hannah Avenue which he considered too close to the Super 8 Hotel's building.

"In my theory of looking at it, if a roundabout doesn't fit, then you don't build it there," Peterson said. "I still have great concern."

Mayor Jorge Prince shared his concerns that as the process continues, the council will feel obligated to approve the plans.

"There are so many variables. It feels like every decision we make along the way leads us to no choice but to give municipal consent," Prince said.

He also worried that public engagement might take a while to increase and that opposition to the plan might only become apparent as the council's decision comes closer.

"Sometimes it's hard to get engagement until you come to a decision point," Prince left off. "And then everyone wants to participate."